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Difficult Relationships at Work – Don’t Get Caught in the Personality Trap

  • “He is so difficult – impossible to work with.”
  • “She is so perfectionistic – there is no pleasing her.”
  • “I have two SVPs who simply can’t get along.”
  • “He has such a bad attitude – negative about everything.”
  • “Those folks in IT/Procurement/Contracting [name the department] are just difficult/lazy [name the character defect].”
  • “She undermines every change we try to make.”

How many times have you had similar complaints about your peers, boss or other stakeholders? It is frustrating and demoralizing to feel thwarted by colleagues who “get in the way” much less, collaborate. As leaders, too much time is often diverted trying to facilitate relationships between team members who seem to be constantly in conflict.

In these situations, it is easy to default to the “personality trap.”  Organizations spend millions of dollars on workshops and tools designed to help us diagnose our workplace personalities.  We take “tests” to determine our type, color, number, etc. The thinking is that once we know our “categories”, it will explain our difficulties and prescribe methods for dealing with difficult relationships.

Admittedly this approach has a certain appeal.  Many people love these exercises – including me. They are fun to do and are good conversation starters. As a psychologist, my training included use of personality assessment tools and I hold certifications to use several of the more popular ones. And the ones that are scientifically validated have value in certain circumstances.

But focusing on personality workshops as a method of solving relationship problems can have significant limitations. 

  • After we leave the workshop it is difficult to put the information to use. We leave energized but usually return to our habitual patterns of interacting. An IT executive I interviewed recently was quite disappointed that the day after a leadership team workshop “someone approached me exactly how I said I shouldn’t be approached!” (which left me wondering what changes he had made in how he approaches colleagues.)
  • Personality workshops do not take into account how organizational structure and processes can set up conflict. The problem may not be the personalities. Lack of clarity about roles, responsibilities, accountability, and procedures are often at the root. 

Three situations I encountered recently – none of which would be resolved through personality workshops:

  • A VP of Sales whose mandate is to get products out the door feeling stymied by the VP of Service who cannot provide the necessary support. 
  • Two VPs who are responsible for communication – one who manages the President’s messaging, the other manages corporate political communications and lobbying – feeling undermined by each other.
  • A seriously under resourced IT department seen by everyone in the organization as impossible to deal with.

Finally, when personalities are seen as the problem, well-intentioned others (including busy executives) attempt to act as go-betweens, translating communications from one to the other. This perpetuates the situation, drains resources, and does not hold people accountable for their behavior. 

So when you are part of what feels like a personality clash or are drawn into trying to referee one, be curious about the actors’ situation – 

  • What position do they have in the organization? 
  • What are they responsible for accomplishing?
  • Who are their stakeholders and to whom are they accountable?
  • What resources do they have and what limitations are placed on them?
  • How does what you do in your role impact their ability to accomplish their goals? 

When each person understands the answer to these questions, it often becomes clear that the conflict isn’t between difficult personalities at all and energy is better spent on improving communication, identifying common interests and realigning processes and roles to meet mutual goals.


If you are interested in how you might apply these concepts and other psychologically informed principles to solving the seemingly intractable problems in your organization, please contact me at joanne.irving@i2aa.com or (301) 943-3074.

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