High-Conflict Personality Bullying

High-Conflict Personality Bullying

 

Several years ago I received a call from a business owner who had a person who was vital to the bottom line of the organization but who was causing enormous upheavals in staffing, productivity and continuity. This person was a genuine rainmaker for the company and was hired because of her connections, but she was toxic. I was brought on to serve as a buffer between the toxic person and the employees until they could find a clinician to help her. I worked for the company for a number of months and can definitely attest to the toxicity of the situation and the consequences for the team. Read on to understand more about High Conflict Personalities and how to manage these people.

People with High Conflict Personality have genuine psychological issues. A recent article in Harvard Business Review (April 2014) entitled “Coaching the Toxic Leader” highlights for types of the more common high-conflict personalities: The Narcissist, The Manic-Depressive, The Passive-Aggressive, and The Emotionally Disconnected. In this article it is noted that some of these high conflict folks are charismatic while others lack feeling. In both cases there is a drain on the organization and the individuals.

“Sound stable bosses generally build companies where the rules make sense to employees, freeing them to focus on performing their jobs well. But, if the boss’s psychological makeup is warped, business plans, ideas, interactions, and even the systems and structure of the organization itself will reflect his or her pathologies.” (HBR, April, 2014, pg 102)

 

DEFINITION of High Conflict Personality

High Conflict Personality – “A person with a High Conflict Personality (HCP) usually has an underlying personality disorder, generally viewed as one linked to the “dramatic, emotional or erratic” cluster…that includes antisocial, borderline, narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders.” -Psychological Care and Healing Treatment Center

COMMON SITUATIONS FOR THIS BEHAVIOR:

Whether in corporations, non-profits or academia, employees with High Conflict Personalities will be found at ANY organization. They will be working at any level, from c-suite to entry level.

BEHAVIORS:

  • Behavior usually stems from a diagnosed disorder
  • Chronically adversarial
  • Inflexible
  • Hypercritical or impossible to please
  • Unable to take responsibility for conflicts or the consequences of his or own behavior
  • Prone to violent outbursts
  • Uses vulgar words
  • Make inappropriate threats
  • Make unreasonable demands
  • Ignore or transform company rules and structure to suit their own needs

In other words, high-conflict persons destabilize the workplace. They’re unpredictable expect that we can predict they will be unpredictable. Today’s rules become tomorrow’s sins. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s anti-Christ.

CONSEQUENCES:

A High Conflict Personality within your workplace can have serious consequences for the organization.

  • Creates generalized fear and anxiety
  • Poisons the morale
  • Seriously reduces productivity
  • Produces widespread chaos with unpredictable and negative behavior
  • Causes key employees to leave.
  • Negatively impacts your bottom line

SOLUTIONS:

  • Executive coaching with a trained psychologist & conflict consultant
  • Create structure that can be enforced
  • Avoid confrontations
  • Employ medication
  • Help them express experiences in a direct and healthy way
  • Expect small changes
  • Consider changing work structure-remove line management roles
  • Hire people who are able to handle the difficult person without being harmed
  • Rotate employees so that no single person has to suffer
  • Coach the employees on how to handle the high-conflict person

HIGH CONFLICT PERSONALITY

The classical definition of bullying does not cover conflict that sources from people with a High Conflict Personality. When I refer to High Conflict Personalities (HCPs), I mean diagnosed disorders*, such as narcissism, bipolar disorder, or paranoia, to name a few. There are certain signs to watch for to assess whether the employee may have a High Conflict Personality. The person could be chronically adversarial, inflexible, unreasonable, manipulative, hyper-critical, impossible to please and be unable to take responsibility for conflicts or the consequences of his or own behavior. The behavior might be so unpredictable throughout the day that the only thing you can predict is there will be an explosion, or not, as some point during the day. You and your co-workers might experience such behavior as harsh or vulgar words, inappropriate threats, and unreasonable demands.

From the outside, these employees may seem “out of control” or “irrational”, and such behaviors can easily be labeled bullying. But, is it really bullying because it feels that way? In the case of High Conflict Personalities, there is something deeper going on, someone with a genuine disorder that has difficulty interacting with the world.

BEHAVIORS EXPLAINED:

Behavior usually stems from a diagnosed disorder
It is important to note that those with High Conflict Personalities usually suffer from a diagnosed disorder. Only a licensed psychiatric professional can diagnose disorders associated with a High Conflict Personality.

Chronically adversarial
You can expect constant bickering, arguments, and contrary behavior from an HCP. Even areas where you might expect to agree might take a sharp, unexpected turn into a verbal fight. You can presume constant problems in this area.

Inflexible
Stubborn, entrenched behavior is par for the course for an HCP. It will be very difficult to get them to try a new way of thinking, a different strategy, or even consider your point of view.

Unreasonable
An HCP often responds to simple, logical, even routine interaction with unreasonable behavior. Don’t expect to modify the behavior by a simple meeting with HR. An HCP will not necessarily listen to reason.

Manipulative
To the best of their ability, an HCP will sometimes manipulate a work situation to their perceived advantage. It is hard to predict why they are manipulating the situation. Sometimes it is because they perceive a threat, or are fearful of some consequence or situation. Regardless of the reason, they won’t think twice about “running over” their fellow workers to protect themselves.

Hypercritical or impossible to please
HCP’s are in constant conflict, and it is difficult or impossible to please them. This is particularly vexing if you have an HCP as a supervisor, as nothing you do will be good enough. HCPs will find a way to pick apart both your personality characteristics and your work.

Unable to take responsibility for conflicts or the consequences of his or own behavior
Even when confronted with obvious evidence of their responsibility, many HCPs are unable to accept the consequences of their actions. They will shift blame, counter-attack, or defend themselves rigorously – even if it seems the facts are inescapable.

Prone to violent outburst
If you are looking for a reason that an HCP just had an outburst—sometimes there just isn’t a logical one. HCPs boil over often and unexpectedly, which makes for an unsettling work environment.

Uses vulgar words
Curses, epithets, insensitive remarks, and inappropriate language are common among HCPs. These offensive remarks may seem to come from nowhere, without provocation.

Make Inappropriate threats
Of course, any threat in a work environment is inappropriate. But an HCPs threats are often grossly disproportionate to whatever provoked the threat, if there was an provocation at all. These threats might be extreme – such as threats of violence, sabotage of your work, or destruction of your career. Even if the threats are smaller, they are very alarming.

Make unreasonable demands
An HCP lives in a world with unpredictable moods and perceptions, which make them prone to issue unreasonable demands. The demands might have impossible deadlines, or the fulfillment of such demand would be otherwise impossible or inappropriate to the situation. The demand will not seem unreasonable to an HCP – rather, they will be further angered that the demand cannot be met.

Ignore or transform company rules and structure to suit their own needs
There’s a reason why HCPs often ignore rules, protocols, and structures your company has worked hard to establish: because they feel their problems or solutions are better—rules are for other people. Whether rule-breaking is conscious or unconscious, the chaos throw up enough interference that it prevents people from easily pointing fingers or finding someone to blame.

CONSEQUENCES EXPLAINED

Creates generalized fear and anxiety
The everyday behavior of and HCP creates an atmosphere of generalized fear and anxiety for everyone that must interact with them. This feeling is often palpable, and can impact even those that don’t ordinarily deal with the HCP.

Poisons the morale
It is difficult to feel bonded an in synch with a team when one of your team members may explode at any moment. The anxiety of not knowing when an HCP will “go off” poisons the morale and makes it difficult to rise above negative feelings.

Seriously reduces productivity
With all this fear, anxiety, and bad morale, team productivity will inevitably suffer. Like other abrasive and conflict behaviors, most workers will withdraw from the aggressor and avoid any collaboration. Others who by necessity must work with an HCP will feel their work slowed by dealing with the behavior, and their energy drained.

Produces widespread chaos with unpredictable and negative behavior
It’s not just negative feelings that HCPs engender; it’s real chaos. Unpredictable outbursts disrupt the productivity and workflow, and employees who normally aren’t a problem may react to unpredictable behavior with even more unpredictable behavior. There may even be litigious complaints. The resulting storm that blows through your organization may be more destructive (and expensive) than you can imagine.

Causes key employees to leave
No one wants this kind of negative drama in their life, and your most powerful key employees who would rather spend their lives being productive will leave rather than put up the behavior.

Negatively impacts your bottom line
With work productivity severely diminished, important work being disrupted, and key employees fleeing the company—it won’t be long before you see a real impact on your bottom line. Putting up with this behavior is enormously expensive.

SOLUTIONS EXPLAINED

Executive coaching with a trained psychologist & conflict consultant
People with character disorders are high conflict. Trained psychologists can help them because they understand the intricacies of their behaviors. This intervention takes time. Most psychologists are not able to work on the company issues, however, so hiring a conflict consultant is equally needed.

Create structure that can be enforced
Rules, rules and more rules are what’s needed for high-conflict situations. Actually rules and structure help everyone in all situations. Structure keeps folks calm and clarifies responsibilities and expectations. Where there are high-conflict folks I can guarantee you there are muddied job descriptions, assignments, and deadlines.

Avoid confrontations
Most high conflict persons don’t handle direct confrontation, so don’t try telling them how they’re behaving, the consequences and what you expect. Well, you will do that anyway but don’t expect it to help. Rather, focus on structure and making expectations and deadlines clear.

Employ prescription medication
Medication helps so help your employee seek out professionals who understand medication and HCP.

Help them express experiences in a direct and healthy way
Some HCPs respond to coaching and learning how to express themselves without using judgment and contempt and other triggers that make things worse. (see section on Triggers)

Expect small changes
Be patient. If you want to keep this HCP, then work on the person and the environment including the following 3 suggestions.

Consider changing work structure—remove the HCP from line management roles
HCPs act out against those around them, so remove those people from the abuse.

Hire people who are able to handle the difficult person without being harmed
If you have to have subordinates, then hire those who can deal with the aggression and sometimes irrational behaviors. Be sure these folks are supported with coaching and communications training.

Rotate employees so that no single person has to suffer
Even with very strong persons the long-term effect of an HCP is daunting. Rotate staff so that no one is stuck with this person. You’ll be tempted to keep the person who seems to handle the HCP, but it’s not in your interest to have only one person who can handle things.

Coach the employees on how to handle the high-conflict person
Everyone is vulnerable to the HCP—the tech department, marketing, sales, HR. You can bet your HCP is calling everyone and blasting them with their rage and frustration. Anyone who has to deal with this person deserves your support. There are ways to make things worse and ways to make things easier. Your employees should know the difference.

On that note, when talking with an HCP…

  • Avoid direct confrontation.
  • Don’t defend yourself. You can’t win.
  • Focus on the issue—not the accusations. Deal with the issue and forget the rest.
  • Read about HCPs and develop empathy for their suffering
  • Don’t expect reasoned requests for cooperation to help. Focus on problem-solving instead of negotiation.

CASE STUDY ACTIONS AND OUTCOME:

In the case outlines above, my role was to help manage the toxic person while other interventions were put in place. And, this strategy worked for a few months. In the end we were unable to get her the help she needed. The CEO who hired me was reluctant to have me coach the team who suffered her slings and arrows. He wanted to contain the problem and hoped that any coaching would make her more reasonable. A better solution would have been for me to help those around her to understand the issues and work on ways to handle her attacks. Central to the proper solution would have been for the team to learn that her assaults were not personal, they just felt that way. Her attacks where based on her fears and emotional challenges. Anyone would have been the target on any given day. Being able to handle the attacks in a more “neutral” manner would have empowered the team to work with one another instead of always feeling isolated and victimized. The unconscious strategy of the HCP is to attack and isolate. Our ability to handle her was based on feeling powerful and connected in spite of the attack.

In the short term the power/connection strategy would make the toxic person feel more frustrated but as the usual aggressive behavior became less effective, I would have been able to work with her on other ways to get her needs met.


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