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Managing extreme personalities: Part one

Managing extreme personalities: Part one

We all have our personality quirks that either endear us to others, or drive them to distraction, often simultaneously. But when does a quirk become a liability in the workplace? And how can you minimise the fallout?

Anybody who has spent time in an office environment has stories about the extreme characters they work with, from the loud-mouth who can’t keep a secret if it will get him or her a laugh to the manager who takes credit for his or her employees’ work or who is quite happy to humiliate junior staff in public.

Then there are the liars who will say anything to turn the spotlight away from their misdeeds, those who are convinced that every thought they have is pure genius, the workaholics, the passive aggressives, the habitual substance abusers, the socially awkwards who only open their mouths to change feet, the chronically insecure, the weird and the flat-out creepy.

I’ve worked with all of these types and more in a relatively small, surprisingly productive company. And somehow, despite everyone’s obvious quirks, we all managed to perform, and even become friends. Well, most of us, anyway. So while these quirks can make a person challenging to work with, just because a personality is extreme, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Managing them is a matter of matching the right character with the role, and containing the fallout from any behavioural excesses.

“Most managers would have dealt with the issue of managing extreme personality types over the years,” says Peter Acheson, CEO of Peoplebank, Australia’s largest IT&T recruitment company.

“High performers tend to fall into two categories,” he says. One type is extremely demanding, wanting everything their way and constantly pushing for better outcomes, deals and remuneration than their peers. The other type goes about doing their job well, turning in an outstanding performance that is above and beyond expectations. They are never demanding, and appear quite happy, but these are often more difficult to gauge in terms of their willingness to stay — their resignation will often seem to come out of the blue.

“The nub of the issue is how to deal with these extreme personalities and understand where they fit in the performance management framework,” he says.

There are lots of different theories about personality, but the one that has probably gained the most traction, at least in the business world, involves four types:

  • Type A — spontaneous, achievement driven, confident and self-assured
  • Type B — task oriented, driven and efficient
  • Type C — trustworthy, helpful, enthusiastic, warm and outgoing
  • Type D — solitary, detail oriented, rule driven, risk averse and meticulous.

Some types get on better with others, and in all cases, aspects of their behaviour may be taken to extremes, although this is not necessarily the same as having a clinically diagnosable personality disorder. Extreme personalities are easy to deal with if they are also poor performers, Acheson says, but if they are a top revenue producer in the sales department, for example, a different approach may be required.

“The manager needs a clear perspective on where people fit. All employees are not equal; everyone has different needs, and managers need to understand individual differences and manage the work environment to respond to those differences.”

Acheson believes it may be quite reasonable to let some of the extreme aspects of a staff member’s performance go, as long as they are not interfering with the rest of the team’s performance, not creating dysfunction and their behaviour does not contradict the values of the company.

“You still have to allow for quirkiness, but weigh up the issues. If one person is absolutely having a negative impact on the team and creating a dysfunctional work environment, then it clearly has to be dealt with,” he says.

Any manager, no matter how big, needs to be hands-on, have an open door and to listen to people if they feel they need to come and talk about another team member, he says. “A desire for a quiet one-on-one chat is often an indicator that there is a problem. Once you’ve had a couple of these conversations, then it’s time to ask the other team members about their experiences.”

Peoplebank uses a number of ways to monitor the health of the organisation and weed out problem behaviours. “We conduct detailed exit interviews. Often people reveal things in exit interviews that they wouldn’t otherwise mention, and these provide a real insight into how the business unit is functioning,” Acheson says.

“We also conduct entry interviews two months after someone begins working for us. They may say, ‘I’m really enjoying the job’, but when you get down to questions about the amount of support they’re getting from the team, if there are difficulties they quickly become clear.”

Acheson says Peoplebank also conducts annual employment engagement surveys and have regular visits to all business units from senior management. “By combining the knowledge we receive from all of these activities we start to get an insight into problem people.”

Mental health not on the corporate radar

Despite growing awareness that mental illness is widespread throughout the entire community, Australia’s top companies are failing to recognise and manage mental health risk in the workplace, according to a recent poll by Chartered Secretaries Australia (CSA).

The survey of 300 top ASX listed companies revealed that more than 40 per cent did not perceive mental illness as a potential risk to their organisation, and of those that did, close to half said their organisation did not have policies in place to manage this risk.

In addition, nearly 70 per cent did not have a dedicated and properly trained resource to identify and manage an employee suffering from mental illness.

With as many as many as one in five Australians suffering from mental illness, it is a reality in the workplace, according to CSA’s chief executive, Tim Sheehy. “Improperly managed, it poses real risks in terms of reduced productivity, workplace conflict and loss of morale, not to mention the spectre of corporate and executive liability if these issues continue to be neglected by senior decision-makers.”

Australian businesses lose more than $6.5 billion each year by failing to provide early intervention and treatment for employees with mental health conditions. Work pressure accounts for about half of all psychological injury claims, compared with harassment and bullying which account for about a quarter of claims.

Read Managing extreme personalities: Part two.

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