A Taxonomy of Troublemakers for Those Navigating Difficult Colleagues

A Taxonomy of Troublemakers for Those Navigating Difficult Colleagues

Disruptive technology is one thing. Disruptive co-workers are another. Here, Dr. Jody Foster classifies the types of colleagues whom others find difficult — and advises how to navigate working with them.

University of Pennsylvania Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Jody Foster has seen her career in behavioral health and her Wharton MBA converge in unexpected ways. Once she consulted with a company whose office was in a very old building, the kind with only one bathroom stall per floor. Somebody at the company would routinely clog the one toilet — and, in a peculiar twist, would proceed to mummify the bowl by wrapping it entirely with toilet paper, rendering it unusable for others. The company sought a respectful, but assertive way to address the mysterious behavior, but very quickly this act consumed employees more than anything else — including the discussions and decisions that advanced the real work of the company.

Ultimately the issue was resolved with a carefully-worded cease-and-desist note on the bathroom door, but Foster has seen how a range of disruptive interpersonal behaviors can take a toll on companies. “Decades ago, I considered leaving medicine and went to business school. Almost immediately, I realized that the best thing that I could do to contribute to the business world was to continue to practice psychiatry,” says Foster. “Everyone wants to understand why people behave the way they do, whether that’s decoding our co-workers or predicting the behavior of new hires. Research shows that the cost of single bad hire can be 15-20 times the individual’s base salary — and if that person hires a team, the cost is exponentially greater.”

Drawing from her talk at First Round’s New York CEO Summit and her book, The Schmuck in My Office, Foster categorizes the types of people whom others find difficult at work — and shares how to identify and interact with them. She outlines the telltale signs of two of the most common profiles and suggests language to avoid and embrace to make headway with them. Whether you’re 5 or 5,000 people strong at your company, use this guide to troubleshoot these archetypes in the wild.

The heaviest hitters and rainmakers are often the very people stirring up the most trouble. Wouldn't it be great to be able to salvage the good parts and minimize the bad?


Think about a bad interaction at work — and how you felt about your next exchange with those involved. Were you preoccupied or distracted? Were they? “It’s true that one disruptive individual can infect a team — or even an entire company. But the good news is that most people aren't behaving badly out of malice. They’re just bringing their personalities to work,” says Foster. “Most often, people are shockingly unaware that their behavior is causing trouble. Their personality works in other settings, so by default they bring it to the workplace too.”

Dig in a bit deeper into personality-driven behaviors and it’s more complex: a behavior often isn’t good or bad in and of itself — it’s the application of that behavior to a given context that’s good or bad. “Every personality has positive sides. It's good to have confidence or be attentive to details. But for every positive in a personality, there’s a negative underbelly,” says Foster. “The goal for committed managers or colleagues is to help others flip to the positive application of their personality — mainly through direct, candid feedback. Research shows that, in about 70% of cases, difficult people will be shocked about how their behavior is being received and will simply self-correct. They didn’t know, and just stop. Unvarnished, direct feedback is key.”


Issuing candid feedback is a skill and habit in its own right, but one’s ability to navigate difficult personalities can improve with more insight into each archetype. “So, I've been doing this for quite a while and I've come to find is that, barring major physical, mental or structural problems, the people who get into interpersonal trouble with others at work tend to fall into a few major buckets,” says Foster. “Of course, humans are complex, so many span a few categories, but if you can get your arms around these archetypes, you’ll be better equipped to interact with them.”

Foster insists on one clarification before outlining the profiles of difficult personalities. “Most of your co-workers with whom you interact are not in any way disordered. There’s a difference between personality traits — which we all have — and personality disorders, which are clinical in nature and may require professional help,” says Foster. “But, for a healthy work environment, the traits that are causing trouble need to be addressed. All too often, I’ve seen managers witness bad behavior, freeze and not address the disruption. Time passes and the manager’s will to step in lessens, colleagues become disheartened and the offender continues on none the wiser.”

Here’s a list of eight difficult personality types — and how their behavior can manifest positively or negatively in the workplace.

Narcissus - thinks highly of oneself, ballooning self-esteem

  • As a positive trait: willingness to try new things with any possibility of success
  • As a negative trait: entitled, condescending, self-centered, attention-seeking

Venus Flytrap - very appealing initially, eventually brings chaos

  • As a positive trait: incredibly persuasive and relatable to many people
  • As a negative trait: shifts expectations/emotions, creating unstable relationships

Swindler - systematic and charming, but dangerous and self-propagating

  • As a positive trait: magnetic, influential, savvy and resourceful
  • As a negative trait: no regard for rules, laws, or for other people

Bean Counter - controls quality, but becomes a bottleneck

  • As a positive trait: focused, persistent and involved
  • As a negative trait: obsessive, paralyzed, blocks progress

Distracted - a nutty professor, can’t time-manage, organize or finish tasks

  • As a positive trait: brilliant, curious and informed
  • As a negative trait: procrastinating, preoccupied and noncommittal

Robotic - process-oriented, but struggles to connect with people

  • As a positive trait: structured, focused, rule-bound
  • As a negative trait: rigid, aloof, disconnected, mechanical

Eccentric - unique individual, but with peculiar ideas

  • As a positive trait: original, strong beliefs, big thinker
  • As a negative trait: difficult to understand, detached, irrational

Suspicious - Self-protective, but paranoid, often with a conspiratorial world view

  • As a positive trait: vigilant, prizes loyalty/trust, confidential
  • As a negative trait: insecure, fearful, always at war
Dr. Jody Foster


In her book, Foster outlines in great detail how to deal with each one of the disruptive profiles in the workplace. However, when she spoke to our community of startup founders, she stressed two archetypes in particular for early-stage companies to monitor for and manage: Narcissus and Bean Counter.

The Narcissus

This profile can be both the engine and the noose for many startups. “Many of us who help build companies fit this profile — myself included — and you’ll definitely work with one. After all, it isn’t wrong to have some narcissism. I mean if we didn't have a bit of extra self-belief, it’s hard to rise to the challenge to get to where we want to go,” says Foster. “But when an inflated ego, self-praise and condescension take over, it can become a problem quickly. The Narcissus is initially very charismatic, inspiring people to follow him. There’s a lot of belief in the Narcissus and his ability to come through with everything they promise, but there’s often disappointment.”

Here are other signs or attributes of a Narcissus:

  • Is “the best” or knows “the most”
  • Fishes for compliments
  • Talks to hear himself talk
  • Name drops
  • Takes credit for others’ work
  • “My way or the highway” attitude
  • Is sensitive to rejection

The Narcissus leans toward monologues (over dialogues), often finds worth in pedigree (over purpose) and demands mind-reading (rather than communicating so he’s understood). “I once knew a manager in a mechanical engineering firm. He was working on a model with his team and he asked one of his associates for a knife to make an adjustment,” says Foster. “She handed him the wrong knife because she couldn't read his mind as to the exact knife that he wanted. As a result, he went ballistic, screaming expletives and kicking things. While it was he who should have felt humiliated, she felt embarrassed in front of her peers.”

So what’s going on with the Narcissus — and why does he do these things? “Narcissism is a personality of dichotomies. What we see may be an aggressive, self-propagating person. But what we're not seeing is that this presentation is hiding deeply low self-esteem,” says Foster. “Think of the actual size of Narcissus' ego as a peanut. It’s fragile and easy to crush. To protect it, Narcissus takes that little peanut, drops it in a balloon and blows that balloon up as big possible to create a ‘decoy ego.’ He fills the room with himself and keeps everybody away from that peanut at all costs. What I love about this analogy is that balloons are inherently fragile. One pop and it's immediately right sized. And that's what’s happening with Narcissus.”

For those who work with a Narcissus, keep in mind this balloon imagery. “Always keep in your mind that Narcissus is keeping that balloon full. It's a very hard way to live, getting that balloon puffed up and guarding it all the time,” says Foster. “We can try to have a little empathy for what she has to go through. Find opportunities to be kind and to give her some positive feedback in the context of the collective, such as a team or company. You may then start to see that Narcissus is going to be able to relax a little and realize, ‘Oh, this person isn't out to get me or pop my balloon.’”

Here are tactical ways that you rephrase some comments to the Narcissus to get a better response and develop a healthier working relationship:

  • Don’t say: “You look really stressed right now. Are you worried you aren’t going to do a good job or something?”
  • Do say: “We’re all stressed about this upcoming deadline. I know I’m a bit on edge about how I’ll do.”
  • Don’t say: “Don’t cut me down in public just to make yourself look better.”
  • Do say: “I understand that you disagreed with my approach today, and I respect your perspective, but correcting me publicly in front of all my coworkers made me feel very embarrassed.”
  • Don’t say: “It was rude of you to insult Alex at the staff meeting.”
  • Do say: “Imagine how Alex felt when you call him stupid. Imagine if someone called you stupid.”
  • Don’t say: “Can you get me that draft of the proposal by Friday?”
  • Do say: “I can’t wait to see your draft of the proposal on Friday.”
  • Don’t say: “I don’t care how good you are at your job; your behavior is unacceptable and obviously something is wrong with you. You need therapy.”
  • Do say: “I really think you could be a CEO one day, but I worry that this one thing you do makes people feel bad and gets in your way. Maybe a coach could help you achieve your full potential.”
Most people see Narcissus as one big ego. Think of him as a personality of dichotomies to better work together.

Bean Counter

At the root of the Bean Counter’s personality is obsession, a thought or impulse that dominates one’s mind. For this profile, it manifests as holding on to every detail and a tendency to be organized in a particular way — even if not helpful to others. Often their extraordinary effort to hang on, gather and sort interferes with their productivity — and that of the teams around them.

Here are other signs or attributes of the Bean Counter:

  • Is inflexible and closed-minded
  • Has difficulty making decisions and being efficient
  • Gets “stuck in the weeds” and “can’t see the forest through the trees”
  • Micromanages others
  • Hangs onto details and wants them organized in a very particular way
  • Preoccupied with orderliness and control

“I knew a Chief Operating Officer who treated every penny in the company coffers as if it were her own money. She’d hire accountants to look into an $8 discrepancy in a multi-million dollar budget,” says Foster. “She was very rigid with her process and only she could execute it. When she delegated, she was really just controlling the work from a distance. If a team presented a proposal that showed a strong return on investment, she’d shoot it down outright if it required even a dollar of company funds.”

Eventually, the COO’s inflexible behavior eroded profits and a newly appointed CEO fired her. “The COO had shown intense commitment, arriving early and leaving late — but spent her day doing tasks like color-coding binders of company documents and materials. What was amazing was what they discovered in her absence,” says Foster. “After her departure, her tasks were assigned to other administrators. What took the former COO hours now took a matter of minutes. But all the work had zero yield. She was so stuck in the weeds by what she thought was critical that responsibilities of the rest of the company fell by the wayside. Managers of those goals were frustrated because they were doing her work and not able to do their projects.”

If you work with a Bean Counter, what can help you better connect and cooperate with her? “Just as the Narcissus is trying to mask his insecurity, the Bean Counter is trying to hide her fear of losing control of herself or her environment. The Bean Counter wants to overlay laws and rules on the vicissitudes of life, but she knows she really can't do that. So she digs in her heels on what she thinks she can control,” says Foster. “If you’re the boss of a Bean Counter, when he makes mistakes, normalize them. Tell him it's not Armageddon. Direct him toward detail-oriented activities with deadlines and directions. If you working for or with a Bean Counter, don’t challenge his controlling nature. Tell him you admire his dedication — and let him know that you're dedicated too. Don't promise more than you can deliver. When you make a mistake, own it. Don't rationalize or be defensive.”

Try some of these rephrased responses to better resonate with a Bean Counter:

  • Don’t say: “You’re so controlling, just let go of it!”
  • Do say: “I’m so impressed with your dedication. I feel the same way about my work, so you can rely on me.”
  • Don’t say: “Yeah, there are a few mistakes but what’s the big deal? This isn’t really important stuff.”
  • Do say: “You’re right, I did overlook several items and I made some mistakes. I’ll correct this now and I’ll definitely pay more attention next time.”
  • Don’t say: “No, I disagree with you, I think it’s fine as is.”
  • Do say: “Here is my corrected work. I’ve noted where you made suggestions and highlighted my associated changes.”
  • Don’t say: “What do you mean I’m not getting my reimbursement?”
  • Do say: “I understand that we need to tighten our belts but I was unfortunately counting on this particular reimbursement. Do you think we could discuss a compromise?”
There’s a fine line between being detail-oriented and detail-saturated. It’s the difference between details giving direction and details impeding decisions.


It’s easy to classify difficult people and write them off as challenges. Regardless of which disruptive colleagues you may encounter, she recommends taking agency with the following five steps:

  • Check yourself. “When someone is causing you trouble or you're having difficulty with someone at work, check yourself. Have you ever just disliked somebody because they reminded you of somebody else you disliked? It happens. Take a beat and make sure that your reaction is calibrated.”
  • Name the beast. “It's very easy to call someone a jerk or a schmuck. But people aren't necessarily schmucks at all — there’s a mismatch between their personality-driven behavior and the situation. Define exactly what it is that’s causing trouble because once you can define the behavior, it can really help you with your intervention.”
  • Empathize with their anxiety. “Take what you know about people. People love to tell you about themselves. Listen. If they're having interpersonal trouble, figure out which bucket they might fall into and try to empathize with the anxiety that’s causing them to act that way.”
  • Call out the behavior. “Decide whether you're going to call out the behavior or not. Some behavior's so egregious that you absolutely have to call it out in the moment. Other times when you notice the behavior recurring, schedule a private meeting to talk about that pattern.”
  • Keep it short. Be direct. “If you do call out the behavior, keep it short, be concise, and be direct. And try to do this feedback or intervention as close to a recent event as possible to give the other person the best chance of hearing the message.”

If all that fails, Foster has one final tip. “If in workplace after workplace you are the only one who's right and everyone else is a jerk, schmuck or idiot, take note: there’s a common denominator and it’s you,” says Foster. “If and when you figure this out about yourself — or if you're lucky enough to have somebody point it out to you — consider yourself fortunate. You have been given a roadmap for self-betterment. Eat humble pie and take it under advisement. Do what you need to do to make changes. It’ll improve your life — in and outside of work.”

Hero image by Jamie Grill/Getty Images. Photograph  courtesty of Dr. Jody Foster.