We've all worked with someone who seems hell-bent on destroying his career or someone else's. Perhaps it's the boss who is so narcissistic that she is unable to tolerate any hint of constructive criticism or negative feedback (and will hold a grudge if you're brave enough to give it). It could be the employee who cannot see that his pervasive suspiciousness and distrust of others actually causes the hostile reactions he already expects from others. Or, it might be the subordinate who is unable to make even the simplest decision without the constant reassurance and input from others.
A personality disorder lies at the extreme end of the behavior continuum. No matter how maladaptive the thought, feelings and behaviors, the sufferer clings to them. This is true no how much external pressure there is to change, no matter how many problems the behavior creates. It's as if the person is stuck in a rigid, ineffective way of relating to others and, instead of realizing the costs associated with it, blames others for the outcome.
Personality Problems and How They Grow
We don't really know what causes personality disorders. We know they start to develop early (and are usually in place by late adolescence or early adulthood) and are probably a combination of some in-born behavioral dispositions in combination with stressful environmental circumstances. What we do know is that they develop independent of a person's intellectual level (a highly intelligent person can have a severe personality problem) and are accompanied by a lack of insight.
Recognizing a Personality Disorder
I'm not a particular fan of psychiatric diagnoses unless there are very specific reasons (treatment recommendations, insurance reimbursement) for giving one. Certainly there's never a need for us to diagnose a work colleague.
However, because of the interpersonal problems that can arise with these disorders, it can be useful to be aware of why a seemingly intelligent coworker or boss continues to act in a seemingly maladaptive fashion over and over again. And, of course, we must know how we can minimize the impact of our own career, especially if the problematic work colleague is our boss.
We'll be taking a look at specific personality disorders and how to deal with them, but for now, here's the take away:
A person with a personality disorder cannot, or will not, modify his or her behavior based on your feedback. As such, let go of any thoughts you may have of changing this particular person. You must focus on what you need to do to take care of yourself.
A person with a personality disorder is not a happy person. This is also not a person who is trying to torture you deliberately; s/he is trying to survive in the best way s/he has learned to do so.
Do not expect this person to operate by the same rules you do. This means that you must be prepared to set boundaries, back up communication with documentation, and, if necessary, find ways to remove yourself from the situation.
Employees with personality disorders always have positive personality traits and characteristics - otherwise, they would not have been hired in the first place - but the maladaptive and inflexible patterns can emerge under stress. As such, this is a time to especially be on guard.
The Bottom Line
We all know that doing the same thing over and over will get the same result. For some people, though, that "same thing" is all they know how to do. And, if you're not careful, they'll blame you for the result.