© 2015 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. & L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW
Are high-conflict people increasing in your workplace? They can be customers who yell at employees and store owners. Employees who intentionally undercut their colleagues. Supervisors who are so disdainful that employees become depressed, physically sick or quit. They cost businesses millions of dollars each year in lost work, health care costs, low company morale – and the diversion of management time and energy into dealing with them.
High-conflict people (HCPs) aren’t just difficult people – they’re the most difficult people, because they tend to focus on a “target of blame.” They have a lot of “all-or-nothing” thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior. For them, the issue is not the issue, their personalities are the issue. They act in ways that most people would never act, but they tend to excuse this behavior because of what others did, or because they were tired or had a bad day. You can’t easily give them feedback, as the intensity of their defensiveness will take over.
They share many personality traits with those who have personality disorders. Research cited in the 2013 DSM-5 (the manual of mental health professionals), suggests that “approximately 15% of U.S. adults have at least one personality disorder.” This is much higher than the reports of the prior DSM-IV, published in 1994.
The traits HCPs share with personality disorders are a lack of self-awareness, a lack of behavior change and seeing their problems as caused by someone or something else. This makes them difficult employees and managers, but not impossible. In many cases, understanding their common patterns can help others avoid taking their behavior personally and finding effective ways of communicating with them in many cases.
Common Personality Patterns
Five of the ten personality disorders seem especially likely to show up at work with high-conflict behavior. Not everyone with a personality disorder will become engaged in high-conflict behavior and not everyone with high-conflict behavior has a personality disorder. But there is a lot of overlap. And it’s very important not to tell someone that you believe they have this problem, or they will generally act much worse toward you. In many cases, this problem is not obvious at first, or at all, until situations blow up:
Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by an arrogant sense of superiority, a demeaning attitude, a lack of empathy and sense of entitlement. They often “kick down and kiss up,” meaning that they may be bullies and slackers with those below them, but seem charming and hard-working to their higher ups.
Borderline personality disorder catches others by surprise, with their sudden and intense anger – totally out of proportion to the situation – combined with a charming disposition the rest of the time.
Antisocial personality disorder (also known as sociopath) may steal, lie, manipulate and dominate until they have gotten what they want and moved on. However, they can succeed and seduce those around them for months or years at a time. Many have criminal records – that is, the ones who get caught. A good example of this personality is in the current movie “Big Eyes.”
Paranoid personality disorder suspects conspiracies against them and may carry grudges for months or years. Histrionic personality disorder increases drama in the workplace, with great stories but little positive benefit.
The result is that they have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it. This pattern usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people. The issue that seems in conflict at the time is not what is increasing the conflict. The “issue” is not the issue! With HCPs, the high-conflict pattern of behavior is the issue. Bottom line: “It’s all YOUR fault!” they say.
How to Spot High-Conflict Behaviors
All-or-nothing thinking: HCPs tend to see conflicts in terms of one simple solution rather than taking time to analyze the situation, hear different points of view and consider several possible solutions. Compromise and flexibility seem impossible to them, as though they could not survive if things did not turn out absolutely their way. They often predict extreme outcomes if others do not handle things the way that they want. And if friends disagree on a minor issue, they may end their friendships on the spot – an all-or-nothing solution.
Unmanaged emotions: HCPs tend to become very emotional about their points of view and often catch everyone else by surprise with their intense fear, anger, yelling or disrespect for those nearby or receiving their comments over the Internet – or anywhere. Their emotions are often way out of proportion to the issue being discussed. This often shocks everyone else. They often seem unable to control their own emotions and may regret them afterwards – or defend them as totally appropriate, and insist that you should too.
On the other hand, there are some HCPs who don’t lose control of their emotions, but use emotional manipulation to hurt others. They trigger upset feelings in ways that are not obvious (sometimes while they seem very calm). But these emotional manipulations push people away and don’t get them what they want in the long run. They often seem clueless about their devastating and exhausting emotional impact on others.
Extreme behaviors: HCPs frequently engage in extreme behavior, whether it’s in writing or in person. This may include shoving or hitting, spreading rumors or outright lies, trying to have obsessive contact and keep track of your every move – or refusing to have any contact at all, even though you may be depending on them to respond. Many of their extreme behaviors are related to losing control over their emotions, such as suddenly throwing things or making very mean statements to those they care about the most. Other behaviors are related to an intense drive to control or dominate those closest to them, such as hiding your personal items, keeping you from leaving a conversation, threatening extreme action if you don’t agree, or physically abusing you.
Blaming others: HCPs stand out, because of the intensity of their blame for others – especially for those closest to them or in authority positions over them. For them, it is highly personal and feels like they might not survive if things don’t go their way. So they focus on attacking and blaming someone else and find fault with everything that person does, even though it may be quite minor or non-existent compared to the high-conflict behavior of the HCP. In contrast to their blame of others, they can see no fault in themselves and see themselves as free of all responsibility for the problem.
Most employees and managers know someone with this pattern, who insists that someone else is entirely to blame for a large or small (or non-existent) problem. If so, he or she may be an HCP. However, avoid rushing to tell that person that he or she is an HCP. It will make your life much more difficult if you do.
Instead, have a “Private Working Theory” that someone may be an HCP. Don’t tell the person and don’t assume you are right. Simply focus on key methods to help in managing the working relationship, such as paying more attention to the following:
What Can Be Done?
1) Connect with the person with empathy, attention and/or respect (unless it’s not safe and you just need to stay away from the person). Say something friendly from time to time, even though you would prefer not to.
2) Analyze your realistic options in dealing with the person (write a list of options, then decide which one makes the most realistic sense in dealing with him or her; sometimes it’s best to slowly phase the person out of your life or keep a healthy distance).
3) Respond to hostility or misinformation using responses that are Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm (B.I.F.F.). Avoid advice, admonishments and apologies – they will use these against you later.
4) Set Limits on dangerous or bothersome behavior, by deciding when, where and how you meet to discuss issues. Get assistance from Human Resources, Employee Assistance Professionals and others. Avoid harsh statements as an attempt to set limits, as they just increase the HCP’s bad behavior. Instead, focus on the desired behavior for the future, rather than over-emphasizing what was done wrong. Terminate such employees carefully.
It’s better to learn about the predictable behavior patterns of HCPs and ways to respond constructively. If you think someone is an HCP, use this information to focus on ways of changing your own behavior, not theirs. Manage your relationship primarily by managing your own anxiety and your own responses.
[Originally published by Capital Business, a subsidiary of the Washington Post, in March 2015]
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.
L. Georgi DiStefano is a best-selling author, international speaker, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and the recipient the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Social Workers San Diego chapter. She has extensive experience in the management of substance abuse programs and employee assistance programs, as well as workplace conflict resolution.