How to Be Successful Managing High-Conflict Personalities (Part 1)

Sean was interviewing Sarah for the software developer position. He had asked her why she was applying for the job, to which she answered that, in her current company, her boss was being unfair to the team, as they were not given opportunities to grow in the company. “It’s becoming such a big problem that four of my teammates are also leaving the company this very same week,” Sarah said angrily. Sean was sorry to hear that, as he himself had worked for somebody matching that description and it certainly wasn’t fun.

The results of her tests were great. Sarah was cheerful, charismatic and willing to join the team… “the perfect choice,” thought Sean. So she joined the company.

Sean and Sarah spent months working together side by side. However, the quality of her work wasn’t as good as her tests had proved. The code wasn’t bad at all, but it was just okay.

A few months later, Jules, the CTO, called Sean for a meeting. He told Sean he was really satisfied with the work his team was delivering. “It’s in part because of the dedication and expertise that you’ve put into this,” Jules said firmly. So he offered Sean the chance of being a team lead.

Sean’s heart rate increased and he started to sweat. He didn’t know what made him so special that, out of the nine people in the team, he was the chosen one to lead them. He knew of at least two other people that were as good as he was and could be team leads as well. Sarah was not one of them, though. Unable to sleep well for a few days, Sean finally pulled his socks up and accepted the position. He felt so grateful for the recognition he had been given.

Soon after Sean’s promotion, Sarah wanted to have a one-on-one with him. He figured she was going to congratulate him and wish him good luck. Little did he know that something quite different was about to happen…

When they met the following day, Sarah asked for a raise. “We’re friends, and this is what friends do, they help each other out,” said Sarah with her charming voice. Sean wasn’t feeling good about it and politely rejected the proposal. Instead, he gave her a reasonable list of goals for her to achieve. By doing so, she’d get the raise she wanted. Sarah immediately stood up and left the meeting room without a word.

Two days later Sarah presented her resignation letter to Sean. “I don’t feel comfortable working with you any longer,” she said. Sean didn’t know what to say but felt relieved to see her go after what happened a few days back. He wished Sarah good luck and accepted her resignation.

The day after Sarah’s departure, Sean received two new resignation letters from his teammates. One of them, Jimmy, also wanted to talk to him. They met in the coffee shop down the street. “I don’t want to work with you anymore. We’ve been working together for years now and I would’ve never thought you could do something like this,” said Jimmy very sternly. Sean was overwhelmed by the intensity of the conversation. “Something like what specifically?” he asked. “Oh come on,” answered Jimmy. “Don’t play dumb with me, Sarah told us”. He was getting angrier by the minute. “Jimmy, like you said, we’ve known each other for years. Is this because I didn’t give Sarah a raise?” Sean asked skeptically. “It’s not about the raise. It is because you didn’t give it to her because she’s a woman,” replied Jimmy.

Sean felt dizzy, but everything started to make sense in his head now. Luckily for him, Sean had been friends with Jimmy for a long time, and when he explained the situation from his point of view, Jimmy believed him and apologized, feeling somehow embarrassed.

Yes, this is based on a true story.

The DSM-5 study suggests that 15% of people have personality disorders so raise your head and take a look around you. If you see seven or more people, chances are that some of them are potentially difficult to manage, although you might not be able to recognize them yet. As it happened to Sean, as soon as you become the manager you’ll automatically become a target for some of these personalities. Thus, if you want to succeed, you need to be ready to face this kind of situations.

How to identify them

Each personality has specific yet recognizable traits. There are, however, three behaviors in common, so once you identify them, you will be able to narrow it down to  the specific profile. I use a mnemonic strategy to remember the behaviors: BEM (Blaming, Extreme, Moody).

WARNING: Keep in mind that what you have to look for is the pattern of these behaviors, that is, you have to find the repetition of these behaviors, not just one in isolation. Remember we can all have bad days.


Most of the subjects constantly try to find people around them to blame for things they should be held responsible.

In our example, Sarah blames Sean for not getting a raise and her former boss for hindering her career.

Another situation you might have experienced, but might have not recognized as a sign of alert is discussing a mistake someone made in a meeting where someone is trying to find a person to blame. I once had the following conversation:

“We deployed the latest release introducing a bug and people couldn’t log in to the site for 15 minutes”
“Who wrote that code?”
“It doesn’t matter. The error slipped through all of us, we made a mistake as a team”
“Yeah, I get it… but who wrote it?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Just curious”
“I don’t know who did it”
“Then go figure it out”
“Because I say so!”

Take a moment to analyze the conversation and think about what was going on there. My former boss was trying to find someone to blame instead of figuring out what happened to prevent it from occurring again. When he realized that I wasn’t going to reveal the information he was asking for, he redirected his anger towards me. Had he been just curious, he wouldn’t have been so pushy to know the facts. In the previous conversation you can also notice the next pattern.


Most of people with an extreme attitude will say or do things that are over the top. For instance, they can utter the following sentences: “It’s either my way or the highway”, “If we go with that decision I’m leaving the company” or “Because I say so”; like in the conversation with my former boss. This one also reflects a difference of status among the two of us, which indicates he’s likely to be a narcissist, a profile we’ll mention later on.


Temperament changes over short periods of time is also a pattern to look for. These people might be really mad at someone and the next day they can become their best friend.

You can notice this in our example. Sarah asked Sean for a raise speaking with a soft, charming voice. However, the day after she decided to resign without even having a follow-up conversation about it. Borderlines and Histrionic profiles are especially good at this. They might abuse you emotionally, so if you feel you’ve been taken advantage of or if you expect someone to apologize but you end up doing so, you might be dealing with a toxic person.

Trust your emotions

Sometimes you’ll see some of these behaviors but you won’t be sure whether you’re dealing with a difficult person or not. If that is the case, my advice for you is to trust your gut.

Ever since we are kids we’re told to suppress our emotions and not let them cloud our judgment. Has someone ever told you “Don’t get angry” or “Don’t be scared”?

Be that as it may, we need to take into account that emotions warn us about what goes on around us. In our society, it is better not to let them take over you, but that does not mean you have to suppress them, as they give you valuable information. If you feel scared, maybe there is something you don’t understand or there is something the rest are not capable of seeing.

Use your emotions instead, understand them, ask yourself questions: “What am I afraid of?”; “Why does this make me feel uncomfortable?”; “Why am I feeling down after this meeting?”. Then, use the answers to these questions to your own advantage. Do you remember when Sarah asked Sean for a raise because they were friends, but Sean wasn’t feeling good about it? Well, that was a perfect example about your gut telling you something is off. In a nutshell, whenever you are unsure if someone is a high-conflict person or not, remember to pay attention to your emotions and listen to them.

Specific disorders

Okay, now that you have detected some of these characteristics, you may want to narrow down which specific profile you’re dealing with. There are five types: Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic, Narcissist, and Paranoid. Let’s analyze them one by one.


Antisocial profiles are the most dangerous ones since they lack empathy for others. They can also be known as sociopaths. Antisocial people can be really hurtful if they target you: they will try to exercise control over you and, if you let them, they’ll easily succeed at it. Furthermore, it is believed that most company leaders have an antisocial disorder. I would agree to some extent. Companies are very competitive and having no scruples when competing against others gives you an edge.

A good example of this profile is the character The Joker from the movie The Dark Knight. He does not give a damn about the consequences of his actions: he is capable of lying, stealing and murdering, not necessarily for pleasure, but simply to prove his point.

Questions to help you identify them

  • “Do I feel manipulated by this person?”
  • “Do I feel like I’m being hunted down?”
  • “Do I feel scared or ashamed when talking to this person?”
  • “Does this person show a lack of empathy for me or the team?”

If the answer to these questions is yes, you might be dealing with an antisocial profile. Thus, you should proceed with extreme carefulness. If you’re completely sure you’re dealing with one, ask for help immediately.


Borderline profiles are moved by the fear of abandonment or instability in their lives. They can be terribly intense: one day they love you and the next day they hate you. They are usually very charming in the beginning of a relationship, but eventually they’ll start showing intense patterns of behavior.

Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader) is a good example of this profile, in the movies Star Wars II and Star Wars III, to be exact. The fear of being abandoned worries him and makes him impulsive and lost, he displays anger and his feelings about people frequently shift.   

Questions to help you identify them

  • “Do I feel completely depleted of energy after talking to this person?”
  • “Do I feel an emotional rollercoaster when being with this person?”
  • “Do I feel this person has an unstable image or sense of self?”

Just like in the previous profile, if your answer to these questions is affirmative, you might be dealing with a borderline person.


Histrionic profiles are moved by the fear of being ignored. They can also be known as artists. They feel uncomfortable if they’re not the center of attention, and they can use inappropriate behavior – being provocative or sexually seductive, for instance – or use their appearance to draw attention. However, histrionic people can go unnoticed for years, often being mistaken for a cheerful, outgoing person.

A good example of this profile is Derek Zoolander, who is extremely dramatic. He is always the center of attention when he walks into a room, so he automatically assumes others are sexually interested in him – although they often are not– and shifts rapidly the expression of his emotions.

Questions to help you identify them

  • “Do I find myself dodging this person so that I don’t have to talk to them without a real reason?”
  • “Do I feel trapped when talking to this person?”
  • “Do I find myself thinking more about this person’s problems than my own?”

Histrionic people can be very exhausting to deal with. Do not take what they do personally, because they won’t.


Narcissistic people are moved by the fear of not being respected. They have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, they feel entitled and they require constant admiration. Narcissistic profiles believe they are superior even without a reason. They can also become impatient if they don’t receive special treatment. Furthermore, they tend to have difficulty regulating their emotions and behavior, and they would feel attacked when realizing someone knows they have secret feelings of insecurity, shame and vulnerability.

Walter White, from Breaking Bad, is the perfect example of this profile. He had a grandiose sense of self-importance, and he only wanted to continue getting bigger and bigger. White believed he was above the law and didn’t hesitate to use Jessie and his wife Skyler for his own gain. In fact, he only considered mob boss Gus Fring to be his equal.

Questions to help you identify them

  • “Do I feel small or stupid around this person?”
  • “Do I feel I’m forced to admire this person?”
  • “Do I feel completely ignored by this person in the meeting?”

Narcissists can be dangerous for you if you don’t manage them carefully. In my next post I’ll talk about how to deal with them.


Paranoid people are moved by the fear of betrayal coming from people close to them. They tend to be unforgiving and are reluctant to confide in others or reveal any personal information, which makes them very cold people. Paranoid profiles can also be hostile, stubborn and argumentative.

Howard Hughes, from the movie The Aviator, is a good example of this profile. Because of his paranoia and his fear of germs, he leads a reclusive life in his own version of Neverland.

Questions to help you identify them

  • “Do I have to constantly prove I’m true to this person?”
  • “Do I have to tell this person where I’ve been all the time?”
  • “Do I want to talk about this person but have to whisper to others instead?”

Paranoid personalities are the hardest to deal with because as soon as you try to help they’ll think you’re against them. You’ll see a good example of a paranoid profile in my next post.

Final Notes

Keep in mind that some people are really good at hiding these traits, so spotting them is not as simple as you may think. The good news for you, however, is that if you spend enough time trying to identify the patterns, you’ll eventually spot them. No matter how good they are at hiding themselves, they cannot avoid being who they are all the time.

If you need help identifying these profiles give me a call. Remember that the first consultation is free.

In our next post you’ll learn how to deal with these profiles you’ve seen today. Stay tuned!

Thanks to my collaborator Noemí Peiró

Edition by Sergi Estorch

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