No challenge in HR management is more daunting than the “High Conflict Personality” (HCP) or difficult team members. Often, they are the top performers; their aggression, exaggerations, narcissism, or lack of empathy may have helped them overcome challenges in the workplace, or driven them to succeed no matter what.
On the other hand, this makes them a problem for the rest of the team. HCP team members can be productivity-killers and morale-busters. They can also be legally risky; the team members who are difficult in the workplace are the most likely to sue for removal or disciplinary action.
The usual signs of a problem are team-members who exhibit chronic:
- Dishonesty and exaggeration
- Attention-seeking behaviour
- Aggression with other team members
- Diversion of blame when issues arise
- Lack of empathy for other team members or clients
- Abusive and habitually sarcastic behaviour
- Unreasonable deadlines, goals or demands
- Unable to handle feedback
- Arrogance or entitlement.
Aside from “difficult dismissals” — in extreme cases — how can HR managers and managers develop workplace tactics to handle the valued “high conflict” personalities?
Putting aside psychological treatment — for the more severe cases, such as “narcissism” or “sociopathy” — there are several strategies proven to work with these problematic team members. While it is not the place of an HR Manager to engage in psychotherapy, some methods can help moderate the effect of various personality conditions in the workplace. 
Ideally, you can prevent issues with a non-discriminatory — but complete — recruitment screening process. Then, setting boundaries with rules and enforcement. One of the arguments for outsourced screening and recruiting is to help screen out difficult team prospects — without discrimination or liability.
A third-party expert, usually a full-service recruitment team and HR Management team, will have not only a process in place to screen for compatible personalities, but will also know how to avoid the pitfalls of discriminatory hiring practices.
Do you have an HCP team member? Are you recruiting and want to ensure you don’t hire the more difficult-to-handle HCPs? Consult the experts at Pivotal HR Solutions>>
But, what do you do if:
- The high-performance prospect also shows signs of one of the High Conflict Personality disorders?
- You have team members now who are disruptive due to one of the four types of HCP? (See below for descriptions of the four types.)
Four types of High-Conflict Personality “disorders.”
Although there will be varying degrees of severity, from mildly annoying to full-blown “needs counselling,” there are four conditions or “personality disorders” that are likely to result in the “high conflict” team member. Sometimes they are temporary issues, brought on by sudden stress or home issues — for example, unusual anger or mood swings — and other times they are more sustained conditions. The four to watch for — using the language of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistica Manual, are:
- Borderline personality disorders: severe mood swings, anger difficult to control, difficulty maintaining relationships.
- Histrionic behaviour disorders: attention-seekers prone to drama, typically chronic exaggerators.
- Narcissism: always focuses on the self, can be disrespectful of others and their ideas, acts superior, must be the focus of attention.
- Antisocial and manipulative behaviours: not full-blown sociopathy, but can be manipulative, irritating, dominating, deceptive and unfriendly.
Fear, frustration and rage
High Conflict Personalities are often a result of hidden or subconscious fears, inferiority complexes or, long-term relationship issues. This also means, at least in the case of long-term HCP issues, that it will be difficult to change these habitual behaviours. The adverse impact on your team can be quite debilitating:
- Exhaustion of managers and teams
- Unpredictability: sometimes star performance, other times sabotaging behaviours
- Frustration and stress for managers and team members.
Recruitment: Personality Tests and Social Media?
One option for recruitment — where allowed — can be Myers-Briggs and other personality tests. Allowability and liability under the law can be an issue.
In the U.S. “courts have routinely held that someone’s personality is a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason to not hire an applicant or take adverse employment action against an employee… Testing clearly presents risks – of claims of discrimination, in addition to actual proof of such behaviour. ” 
The other issue is one of “Privacy,” which has different protections under the law. This particular issue also comes into play if you decide to include Social Media screening — looking for aggressiveness, behavioural issues, bias, etc.
This is where it is useful to engage outsourced third-parties — and consult with them on the pros and cons of recruitment tools such as Myers-Briggs. For example, there’s a fine line here. It may be permissible to use Personality Tests for initial screening — not specific necessarily to the review of the candidate for a particular post — such as might be performed at a Recruitment Agency. However, asking a candidate in the final review process could be more problematic.
Six techniques for managing existing HCP team members
Typical discipline actions with the HCP employees can create worse issues. Although it’s essential to manage and enforce the “rules” consistently, these High Conflict team members are unlikely to accept feedback — and likely to strike back in the case of discipline. As with any team member, it’s best to coach and influence initially, unless the problem is unresolvable through reasonable efforts.
In other words, a good HR manager in this situation functions similarly to a United Nation’s diplomat. Listen, listen, listen, quietly respond, listen some more, clarify misinformation, listen some more — you get the idea. Avoid brinksmanship. It doesn’t work with HCP team-members who are the ones usually taking you to the brink. This assumes you want to help the HCP team-member become a true part of the team.
Here are some important steps, starting with “de-escalation.”
1. De-escalate conflicts where possible, avoid them if you can’t.
The key is to listen. Even though some HCP team members may lack empathy (only some!), it is important for the manager to demonstrate empathy regardless. If you remember that psychologists indicate the suppressed fear is the leading cause of these issues, adding to the fear is the last thing a manager should do — if it’s at all possible.
The operative words is “listen.” Rather than promising action in support of the complaints, listen, understand and take the time to formulate a good response. You’ll also need the feedback of other team members.
Remember, in the “blame game,” the HCP team members will be the first to blame. Remove the causes of conflict and blame. When there is blame, acknowledge it, and move on.
2. Remain in control of when to respond. Be pro-active.
Without using forceful rhetoric, try to give some time for the fuse to burn out. HCP team members often have quick reactions and tempers, but can cool off if not confronted. After listening, tell all people concerned you will consider all the factors, then give yourself lots of time. In the meanwhile, before your self-set deadline, it’s ideal to push forward with new projects, deadlines and work.
If you recognize you have an HCP team member, be pro-active. Assign them where they can benefit you the most while minimizing conflict in the workplace.
3. Avoid hard confrontation; don’t ignore, but don’t aggravate.
HCP team members typically can be stubborn if confronted. Acknowledging and listening and gently disagreeing is fine, making it clear they stepped over the line, but not in a confrontational manner. Challenging them with another challenging project can re-direct attention. It’s not so much the tactic used with children — i.e. distraction — so much as re-directing their creative energies into productive tasks. Given time, they may regret their actions.
4. Explain the limitations
Agree, then disagree. Explain that you understand why it happened that way, but — because you manage a team — it makes it difficult for the project and the team.
5. Solo Assignments
Assuming you have a top performer, who prefer solo performances, try fostering this by removing them from the team, but giving them their solo projects. Don’t make work for them, of course, but if they can achieve goals in a solo situation, this is, perhaps, the best of both worlds.
6. Correct incorrect information without reprimand
Whenever the conflict involves false information, rumours or assumptions, gently (yet firmly) correct all parties (not only the HCP team member). Do it factually — if you are a Star Trek fan, think Vulcan-like behaviour. Sometimes, incorrect information leads to conflicts which trigger high conflict personalities.
Do you need help with a High Conflict Employee situation? Do you need help setting up proceedures to manage HCP in the workplace, or for recruitment processes to ensure minimal conflict with your teams? Contact the HR Management and Recruiting experts at Pivotal Solutions:
 Worklogic https://www.worklogic.com.au/workplace-hr-consulting/4-strategies-manage-high-conflict-personalities-work/
 “Employee Personality Testing” Troutman Sanders https://www.hrlawmatters.com/2018/04/legal-implications-employee-personality-testing/