Posted on: 20 November 2019

The desk-bound dilemma

Think office politics are causing a destructive work environment? It might be because your office is brimming with an array of personality types.

From the ringleader to the wallflower, there are contrasting ‘office personas’ everywhere. So, what’s the trick to making sure they all get along next time they’re bound to brainstorm together?

To find out what modern-day harmony looks like, we asked Oliver James, psychologist, broadcaster and author of Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, for his expert advice on dealing with challenging office archetypes.

Here’s what Oliver told us.

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1. Self Seeker

Traits of a Self-Seeker

Think of somebody who makes everything about them. You know the type; they’re always the first to regale you with tales of their weekend exploits but yawn when you start your story. Every other sentence begins with ‘I’ and finishes with a self-affirming chortle. They’re engaging, but also a little overbearing. These are ‘self-seeker’ types.

While their inflated sense of self-importance might make it difficult for you to get a word in, self-seekers are also highly motivated, hard workers and are often greatly respected amongst their peers. As a result, you’ll find self-seekers most commonly living it up in leadership roles.

How to deal with Self-seekers

“Self-seekers sometimes feel invisible, which they compensate for by being braggadocious. This is why flattery always goes down well with them.

You also want to praise self-seekers with a purpose; this will help them feel better about themselves. They, in turn, will think of you as someone who is just like them – special, insightful, superior. If they are junior to you, they can also be flattered, but it has to be mixed with subtle forms of encouragement.”

2. Prickly Personalities

Traits of a prickly personality

A good way to identify a prickly personality is to look at what they’re doing, rather than saying (generally, prickly personalities ‘hint’ at their displeasure through actions, not words, to get their point across).

For instance, prickly personalities will turn up on time, but never a minute too early. Why? To covertly assert their independence to their peers. They will leave emails waiting on ‘Unread’ for weeks, just to make respondents wait for their invaluable input. They will get on with their work, but won’t be the ones organising the office Secret Santa, either.

How to deal with prickly personalities

“The first step when dealing with a prickly personality is to be honest about how they make you feel.

If your boss is the prickly personality in question, you may have to perform infuriation to get their attention (again, actions speak louder than words with this personality type).

If they are your peer, you have to help them join the dots between how they behave and how it makes others feel. You may want to impose unusually strict rules with carefully designed penalties – but make sure the penalties are automatic and that they do not impinge on you.”

3. Busybodies

Traits of a busybody

To a busybody, an open plan workplace is a Hollywood film and they are the director. Rather than withdrawing into themselves, they are outwardly social, which makes them particularly proficient at people-focussed tasks.  

As a result, they are often popular and other workers enjoy being around them. They are valued for their keen listening ear – although this can sometimes land them in hot water when that after-hours confessional cross-pollinates across the office floor.

How to deal with busybodies

“If your boss loves drama, you can’t afford to take the moral high ground and adopt a judgemental stance. You have to seem to be excited and involved in their gossiping, even if you don’t contribute your own.

If it is your peer or junior who is the busybody, it’s easy to show your discomfort or lack of interest, but the more you can help them to see how damaging it can be, the better.”

4. Rebels

Traits of a rebel

You want people to be passionate about their work, but when this gets too intense it can be a bit, well, volcanic.

Unlike prickly personalities, rebels are easy to spot: they get mad about the smallest inconveniences and storm out when things don’t go their way. They’re usually fine to deal with when they control themselves, but past experiences might make their peers reluctant to ask for help - for fear that they will fly off the handle at any moment.

How to deal with rebels

“If the rebel is a subordinate, have a quiet chat with them to see if they are aware that they have a problem. If they refuse to take responsibility for their behaviour then you have limited options. You can’t help someone who doesn’t believe they have a problem.

Otherwise, if the rebel is your boss, speak to those who have been in a similar situation with them to see how they have dealt with them in the past. Above all else, don’t take their bad temper to heart; you aren’t the problem, so try not to dwell on it.”

5. Guilt Trippers

Traits of a guilt tripper

While prickly personalities hide their negative emotions, guilt trippers want you to know how inconvenient your requests are.

Guilt trippers can appear breezy in their admissions, but they will ultimately be thinking about how constantly sacrificing their time is affecting them on a deeper level. Rather than ask for praise, guilt trippers really  want acknowledgement that their feelings are a priority, and that they matter to you.

How to deal with guilt trippers

“Guilt tripping from your boss may be defused with humour if it isn’t done purely for malicious purposes. If it is intentionally designed to upset or hurt you, the technique of picturing the accusation as rubbish and putting it in the bin will help.

If a peer or junior is trying to guilt trip you, draw attention to their negative behaviour. For instance, if your junior waxes lyrical about how long their commute is, and how much longer it is than everyone else’s, sit them down and discuss ways to make the commute more manageable for them.”

Personalities in the workplace

Have you identified any of the above personalities in your office? No matter where you work, it is inevitable that your office will be filled with clashing personalities – and this isn’t always a bad thing.

Handled right, the office place becomes a better place when there is diversity at its heart, often turning a workplace from uninspired, tired and unforgiving to spirited and full of potential.

While it might take a fair bit of work (and a few well-meaning warnings), the end result of workplace harmony is always worth the effort.

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