Know your psychopaths: how to cope with troublesome personalities

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - 17:12

By AIM Senior Research Fellow, Dr Samantha Johnson

“It is better to be feared than loved.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Ever worked for a psychopath?  Do you know if you have? We’ve all had experiences that leave us crippled with disbelief or broken by unimaginable cruelty.  Are these people really psychopaths or are they just troublesome?

There are lots of people in the workplace who have troublesome personalities.  Some of these are quirky and endearing.  Others are not.  But they’re not all psychopaths.

Here are a few of the most troublesome personalities we come across in the workplace.

Antisocial Personality

These people tend to be addicted to excitement.  They hate being bored and seek constant stimulation. They like immediate gratification, which may or may not be financial.

They have a bullet-proof approach to life, they’re comfortable with risks and will do just about anything to entertain themselves, including fight with people.

They have a low tolerance of frustration and can snap easily if they don’t get what they desire. 

They are usually highly impulsive and do little planning, they get what they need at any expense.  They’ll use emotion to manipulate others and to help them get what they want.

These people can be charming and can be fun to be around.   They can be reassuring and can engage you in the exciting aspects of their life. They can present very well to senior managers, but usually terrorise junior staff. 

If you work with someone like this…

Avoid responding to them in an emotional way. Think – don’t react. Limit the damage they do to you by recognising the signs, engaging with them in a rational manner and keeping your distance as much as you can.

Histrionic – Dramatic Personalities

These people enjoy attention and seek approval.  They can be positive, communicative and entertaining.  But they can also be victims and ‘drama queens’.

They can excel at the passive-aggressive game.  They may create conflict with amongst other people and they themselves can swing between being very nice and very cruel.

They’ll reject negative feedback or criticism and ignore messages that they don’t want to hear. 

They love to chat, to gossip and to tell stories and may quickly befriend strangers.  They love interpersonal interactions, so much so that they avoid actually doing any real work. 

They are unlikely to accept that they might be wrong and see their perspective as the only right perspective there is.

They can be contradictory and confusing.  They might seem angry but will tell you they’re not.  They might claim to be upset but won’t explain why. They can be unpredictable and may claim to suffer from various illnesses.  They can be very, very flirty. They’re egotistical and love being the centre of attention.

If you work with someone like this…

Don’t attempt to counsel them or ‘fix them’, it won’t work.  Stroke their ego but don’t get sucked into their games.  Let them be the centre of attention, it will be easier for you and for them.


There’s a rumour going around that narcissism is increasing in society and in senior management.  So if this is true, you should know what it means.

Narcissistic people think that they are the smartest, most talented people in the world and that they should be the wealthiest.  They lack concern for the needs, thoughts and feelings of other people and are completely absorbed by themselves.

The seek wealth, power and status and they seek it desperately.  They tend to be braggers and exaggerate their achievements and their possessions.

They are competitive and are bad losers. They expect to be treated as if they are famous or exceptional.

They can be ‘name-droppers’ and like to be in the right place with the right people. They may ignore rules, but may want new rules imposed for their benefit. 

They can become very irritated when others do not do as they ask, regardless of the reason. 

They may reject you if you don’t worship them and may fail to look after family and friends because they are so busy looking after themselves.  They hate being told that they are average or normal or have made a mistake and can argue profusely to the contrary.

They reflect their strong sense of entitlement, their grandiosity and their need for recognition in everything they do, including how they dress, the cars they drive and where they live.

They may complain of being misunderstood and may keep people off balance, or explode in a rage, to get what they want.

If you work with someone like this…

Don’t be frightened of them, but don’t open up to them either.  Be private and discrete and appeal to their sense of humour. Get them to listen by telling them what is in it for them.

Never tell a narcissist that they are wrong.  Tell them that their brilliant idea may not work.  Tell them that they are amazing and present information to them as if it came from them in the first place. Tell them that people matter because you need people to achieve results.

These are three top challenging personalities. 

People who are antisocial, overly dramatic or narcissistic. 

We use these terms – and the psychopathy label – too often, suggesting that anyone who displays very difficult behaviour is one of these people.  It’s often not the case.  There are tricky people and there are troublesome people and if you’re recruiting, you should know the difference.

It’s not better to be feared than loved.  Empathy is the most important prosocial trait and a core element of effective management and leadership. It is often missing in people with highly troublesome personalities.  It’s far better to be loved than feared.

We need to know what these people look like.  The fact that we usually don’t is one of their greatest advantages over us.  They know us far better than we know them.  We need to be wise and learn the behaviours and effective strategies to manage them. 

References:  Bernstein, A.J. Emotional Vampires at Work: Dealing with bosses and co-workers who drain you dry. 2013.

Prof. Samuel Barondes, Psychiatrist & Neurscientist: ‘Making Sense of People.’, 2012 (citing Aaron Beck)

AIM’s Dealing with Difficult Behaviours short course supports your development as a proficient communicator, adept in dealing with challenging personalities and situations. Through this course you will gain the confidence and professionalism to maintain composure in the face of difficulty. This popular one day program is available at each of our campuses right around Australia so get in touch with us today to book a place for yourself or your team.