When is a personality conflict, not a personality conflict?

Dear Joan:

Could you tell me exactly what a “personality conflict” is? How does one differentiate a personality conflict from let’s say emotional abuse or a personality disorder?



Here’s a little quiz for you: What is the most commonly misapplied diagnosis when it comes to workplace conflicts? You guessed it: a personality conflict. I suspect the reason we like to attribute so many circumstances to this generic term is because we haven’t dug deep enough to determine the cause of the problem and it’s an easy phrase to slap on just about anything.


For example, two women who share the same office are not speaking. The manager has tried to intervene to no avail. He thinks they have a personality conflict but if you dive deeper, you will find that one of them always takes a long lunch and comes in late. But because the boss doesn’t want to lose her, he refuses to say anything about it. Meanwhile the diligent employee has started to make not-so-subtle remarks about her coworker’s work habits. Personality conflict? I think not. Personality has nothing to do with it. If the manager had stepped in and done the right thing, this issue would never have occurred.


Then there is the case of the two professionals who worked for a small company run by an entrepreneur. The owner hated bureaucracy and avoided policies because he felt they would turn his company into the kind of big corporation he came from. The problem was that he made decisions about benefits and “policies” in casual conversations with individual employees. He never wrote anything down —no handbook, no memos, and no emails. When the two professionals discovered that each of them had different “agreements” with the owner, conflict erupted. He called it a petty personality conflict. It was far from it.


Now let’s take the case of the young, single woman who is always discussing her private affairs with the rest of the office. Every day is a soap opera. The rest of the female employees are married and start to feel angry and offended when the young woman begins to share the explicit details of her affair with a married man. Personality conflict? Perhaps. The parties involved have different values and have made drastically different life choices. Their conflict has nothing at all to do with work.


Now let’s tread into murkier waters of emotion abuse. Since I’m not a psychiatrist or a judge, I can only give you my opinion. To me, emotional abuse at work is any behavior that is demeaning, threatening, disrespectful, belittling and is intended to destroy self-esteem.  For example, much like an emotionally abusive spouse, an abusive boss can be a screamer, silent manipulator or verbal abuser.


A personality disorder can take many forms. For instance, en employee may have an obsessive-compulsive disorder, where he or she checks and rechecks every last detail of everything he or she does. Left untreated, these individuals usually spiral down and are unable to work, for fear of leaving the house with a toaster plugged in or the hose running. They have to keep checking, even though they just checked a minute ago.


Another example would be an excessively paranoid individual who believes that management is always out to get him, in spite of his manager’s repeated attempts to patiently work through the employee’s concerns. In both cases, these folks need professional help. No matter how sympathetic their managers are, they won’t be able to fix their employee’s problems.


There is no doubt that there are many different kinds of conflicts at work. And most workplaces reflect the whole spectrum of human behavior. The secret is in knowing what the core cause is and that makes all the difference in what you call it and how you fix it.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
About Joan Lloyd
Joan Lloyd & Associates provide
FREE subscription to receive Joan's article by email

Email Joan to submit your question for consideration for publication, request permission to reprint an article for distribution, or for information about carrying Joan Lloyd's weekly column in your publication, or on your Internet or Intranet site. Visit JoanLloyd.com to search an archive of more than 1700 of Joan's articles.
© Joan Lloyd & Associates, Inc.