Personality Matters- Paranoia in the Workplace


Personality Matters- Paranoia in the Workplace
By Leslie Sachs

One of the most difficult personality types to deal with is the person who always seems distrustful of others. Sometimes, this lack of trust is well-justified and sometimes it is really a manifestation of some dysfunctional personality issue. Fortunately, you probably won’t find too many severe cases in your workplace where the person is actually so paranoid that they are dissociated from reality. Psychologists sometimes diagnose this mental illness as paranoid schizophrenia, which may require medications and intensive therapy to manage. What is far more common is the borderline personality who manages to operate within a normal workplace environment, but always seems to be a little “off”. Eccentric behavior is not in-and-of-itself a reason to suspect that someone suffers from mental illness, but sometimes the behavior and personality of a co-worker may be so extreme that it impacts other people’s ability to work. This article will help you better understand this situation and suggest a few ways in which you can deal with difficult personality types such as the paranoid.

Harry Stack Sullivan was an American psychiatrist who noted that paranoia may be associated with suspicion, a tendency to blame others and also a heightened sense that one is being persecuted. [1] If you have a co-worker who exhibits some or all of these dysfunctional behaviors then you are not alone. Some folks just have a disposition where they are always expecting the worst from others and, quite often, this tendency may actually result in a self-fulfilling prophecy such that their overly defensive behavior elicits responses from others that actually reinforce their view that someone is always out to “get” them. As Dr. Sullivan noted, it is common for the person to then resort to blaming others in an attempt to protect themselves in what may seem like a silly turf war. Unfortunately, many of these folks take these incidents very seriously and may truly feel that they are being persecuted. These defense mechanisms may be quite destructive to not only the person themselves, but to everyone around them, too.
People who have trust issues often find it difficult to collaborate and cooperate with others. This can make it very tough in a technology organization where everyone has to rely upon each other for specialized expertise. Sometimes, people with difficult personalities actually focus on being experts in a specific technology area that enables them to feel safe because they have complete control and power due to their specialized knowledge and often extensive knowledge of institutional history. However, try not to pre-judge specific situations and consider for a moment that sometimes a little suspiciousness can actually be justifiable and perhaps partially a consequence of a given circumstance.

For instance, there are some organizations that just do not foster trust and collaboration. Employees who work in dysfunctional organizations may understandably exhibit dysfunctional behavior. If you are the new guy on the block, you may not know all of the organizational history and consequently may not fully understand why some employees seem unusually distrustful or have developed other defense mechanisms to defend their turf. One typical example is the organization that attempts to “motivate” their employees through a constant threat of layoffs or other termination. Creating a state of fear does not often result in productive, effective and loyal employees. Some managers use their positional power to try to control and motivate others through fear and intimidation. While respect for authority is important, there are much more effective ways to motivate employees than just fear, including fear of losing one’s job and livelihood.

The middle ground often involves understanding the person within the context or situation that they must function. If you are working in an army during a time of war then you will likely react very differently than if you are working in an internet startup company. So, here are some thoughts on how to navigate these difficult situations. First and foremost, effective communication is essential. If you find yourself dealing with a person who seems unreasonably distrustful, listening carefully to their view is a good starting point. After you have demonstrated an interest in their input, you can share your perspective and try to be clear about what you need. Conflicts in the workplace are often the result of a misunderstanding or even some institutional history that occurred long before you even joined the organization. You should consider who else can help you navigate these waters.

Your own manager may be able to fill you in on what factors have led to this state of affairs. Sometimes dysfunctional behaviors are a consequence of corporate politics, but also consider that there may be some other much more benign factors in place. We all go through life stresses. You may be catching someone as they are trying to handle their “day” job while also dealing with a demanding family situation that would make anyone short-fused. Another possibility is that the person is taking medication for some medical condition that results in behavioral side effects. Employees obviously have a right to privacy, but sometimes managers are made aware of these issues by HR so that the company may be as supportive as possible.

The best organizations consider the needs of their employees and try to provide a workplace that is conducive to success and productivity. Even in such well-run organizations, though, you may encounter difficult personalities. Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with too many people who are truly paranoid, but you will probably encounter at least a few colleagues during your career who seem remarkably distrustful, blame others and seem to believe that they are truly being persecuted. These situations are never easy and your best approach is to try to communicate effectively, if possible. The goal is to demonstrate understanding of their position while explaining your needs, as well. When possible, reach out to your own available resources – from your manager, and, in extreme cases, to HR. I know of one case where an employee who was on medication was actually physically threatening other employees. The workplace must be free of hostile and disruptive behavior from both a legal and business perspective. Feel free to drop me a line if you come across challenging situations that you would like us to address in future articles. The best work environments are both productive and respectful of their employees and, with good communication, you should be able to navigate successfully even when confronted with some difficult personalities!
[1] Harry Stack Sullivan, Personal Psychotherapy Early Formations, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972
[2] Meyer Friedman, Type A Behavior: Its Diagnosis and Treatment (Prevention in Practice Library). Springer 1996
[3] Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, Why Teams Don’t Work – What Went Wrong and How to Make it Right, Peterson’s Pacesetter Books, 1995
[4] Aiello, Bob and Leslie Sachs. 2010. Configuration Management Best Practices: Practical Methods that Work in the Real World. Addison-Wesley Professional.
[4] Byrne, Donn. 1974. An Introduction to Personality: Research, Theory, and Applications. Prentice-Hall Psychology Series.
[5] Appelo, Jurgen. 2011. Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. Addison-Wesley Signature Series.