11 impossible people you meet at work (and how to deal with them)

The workplace can be an incredibly challenging place for Christians. Even Christian workplaces are places where we see sin clearly. Just think about the synonyms for work: labour, toil, hard yakka, slog, drudgery, grind, travail and exertion.

It is not just the work itself but the people we encounter. Work can bring out the best and the worst in people. Work relationships can cause enormous stress. There is also the phenomenon of toxic workplaces where a downward spiral of corrupted systems and negative culture can affect multiple employees.

However, workplaces also represent enormous opportunities for Christians. It is where our character can be formed, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit as we counter sinful attitudes with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also where we can give people a taste of the kingdom: demonstrating what shalom looks like as places of wholeness and peace.

In doing this, and displaying excellent work, we may win the opportunity to explain why we think, speak and act differently (Matthew 5:14–16, 1 Peter 2:12, 3:15).

Although it is difficult to stereotype people, it is possible to categorise some different personalities we may encounter in the workplace. While it may be helpful to identify these people, it is better to suggest an alternative behaviour which exemplifies the gospel.

1. The Narcissist

The Narcissist is focused on their own work, their own career, and portraying themselves in the best possible light. They interpret the work of others according to how it impacts on their work, or how it makes them look.

A Narcissist interprets any attention you give them as a positive.

A Narcissist interprets any attention you give them as a positive, so the best thing is to put your head down and do your work effectively.

Another powerful response is to demonstrate the opposite behaviour. I have coined the term Agapeist: someone who illustrates agape love, self-sacrificial love. Imagine how counter-cultural it would be to act as Paul suggested in Philippians 2:1-4: “…being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

2. The Sociopath

While the Narcissist is merely self-obsessed, the Sociopath goes one step further, seeking to destroy others to achieve their own ambitions. Fiona Tapp has described them in this way: “True sociopath bosses are more than just bad bosses: They exhibit a set of characteristics that make them dangerous to work for, whether it’s creating tension in the office with inappropriate comments and behaviour or exhibiting bizarre and over-the-top work habits. These bosses can literally make you ill, causing absenteeism as well as mental and physical health issues.”

She suggests for employees with a Sociopathic boss: don’t be a target, record everything, start looking for a new job, manage your exit, never bad-mouth your boss and try stress reduction.

Also try demonstrating what it is like to be a team player: focusing on ensuring team results and promoting others. Illustrate an attitude of care for others, and build a sense of community. It is the spirit of Romans 12:9–13, love in action: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.”

3. The Incompetent

While some of these stereotypes are deliberately difficult, there are some people we work with who are simply incompetent. Whether they have been promoted beyond their ability, or poor performance has been tolerated out of a mistaken sense of compassion, someone who is incompetent can be very frustrating to work with. It may be tempting to join in the gossip about such a person, or even to work harder to mask their incompetence, or to give in to expression of frustration; but the more loving behaviour is to address areas of incompetence through training, coaching and encouragement.

In contrast, a workplace Christian is called to work hard and well, as someone who is Competetent. It is not possible to draw a parallel between instructions to slaves and instructions to employees, but passages in Ephesians 6:5–8 and Colossians 3:22–24 establish the principle of us surpassing the expectations of others with our hard labour, working as if we were working for Jesus. Thus our work becomes a form of worship.

4. The Control Freak

One of the hardest people to work for is the Control Freak, or micromanager. They seek to check, control and/or criticise every aspect of your working. While this approach may be necessary when there are critical deadlines, high quality required or there is lots of risk; generally micromanaging is very ineffective, wasting time and frustrating independence and innovation. Sometimes you can control a Control Freak by taking the initiative to show them your work and check what you are going to do.

It is also good to demonstrate a much more effective approach by showing how effective it is to be an Empowerer. Empowering others enables them to shine, to grow in their skills, and to improve their decision-making and problem-solving skills. It is treating others like Jesus did: lifting up the vulnerable (children, the disabled), encouraging women (Mary receiving his teaching) and restoring those who have failed (Peter following his thrice denial of Jesus).

5. The Bully

Bullying behaviour includes abuse, repeated sarcasm, unjustified criticism, exclusion, setting unreasonable targets and interference.

There has been increasing focus on bullies at every level of society, particularly on the impact of bullying on victims. Bullying behaviour includes abuse, repeated sarcasm, unjustified criticism, exclusion, setting unreasonable targets and interference. Most workplaces have anti-bullying policies, but sometimes victims lack confidence to go public with their fear and concerns.

Workplace Christians can play an important role in keeping an eye open for the vulnerable, and those who might be victims. We can encourage them to access resources available. We can also show bullies an alternative set of behaviours in encouraging people. To encourage someone is to literally give the other person courage to do the work they are given to do. The greatest example in the Bible is Barnabas, who sought out the new convert Paul, brought him to Jerusalem and gave him the prayer, support and opportunity he needed to fulfil his God-given purpose.

6. The ‘Ideas Person’

The classic Australian movie The Castle featured Steve, who was described as an ‘Ideas Man’: “Steve is also an ideas man. That’s why Dad calls him the Ideas Man. He has lots of ideas.” To your average viewer, Steve seems unable to distinguish between good ideas and bad ideas. These people can be annoying to work with: they can be passionate and enthusiastic, but they lack good judgement, and may be constantly changing the work plan, or adding unnecessary complexity.

What most workplaces lack are good Completers, or finishers.

Enforcing sound project management tools, or developing a decision-making matrix may assist.

In my experience, what most workplaces lack are good Completers, or finishers. People who can follow through on the details and ensure projects are completed on time and to specification. There is a theme in the Bible of our word being our bond, and completing tasks assigned to us. I do not want to over-spiritualise our work, but we see in Jesus and Paul people who finished work they were given (John 4:34, 17:4; Acts 20:24).

7. The Sycophant

Sometimes we work with people who seem to spend much of their time ingratiating themselves to their superiors, sometimes at the expense of their own team. The Sycophant knows that their behaviour is repugnant to those around them, but they are adept at playing the game of office politics, and charming their way to the top. One can hope that justice will triumph, and their superiors will see through their flattery to their lack of hard effort or results.

A much more powerful way of acting is to be an advocate for others. Instead of promoting yourself, seek ways of promoting others and rejoicing in their success. We see this in Barnabas who not only encouraged Paul (see No.5), but willingly pushed him into the position of leadership. We see this in the descriptions in Acts where the narrative subtly changes from “Barnabas and Paul” to “Paul and Barnabas” in Acts 13 (cf. Acts 12:25).

8. The Legalist

The Legalist, also known as the bureaucrat, insists in following the rules, and is critical of anyone who does things differently. Sometimes rigorous following procedures is vital for health and safety, or to meet quality standards. However, increasingly, flexibility and innovation are critical to ensure effective working. It is easy for legalism to become a snare for others, as Jesus warned the Pharisees (Luke 11:37–54).

We are seeing the rise of the Creative, and the encouragement of the expression of creativity in the workplace. Creativity is core to who we are, because we are made in the image of a Creator God. Creativity does have boundaries though (so we do not become the Ideas Person — No.6 — lacking judgement).

9. The Absentee

There are some colleagues who simply don’t carry their weight.

Sometimes we have a problem with work colleagues not because of what they do, but because of what they fail to do. There are some colleagues who simply don’t carry their weight, sometimes through extended absenteeism that has been tolerated by others. It may simply be that they are not around when work gets tough. The Bible is pretty strong on those who do not work hard, especially the idle (2 Thessalonians 3:6–15).

In contrast, we see the Bible commend those who work diligently, who fulfill the trust that is put in them (Proverbs 13:4, Ephesians 4:28). Working hard is often mentioned as a way of encouraging those around to glorify God, simply through our example (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12, 1 Peter 2:12, Matthew 5:16).

10. The Gossip

It is right that the Bible describes the tongue as a potent weapon: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6) Gossip can turn a workplace culture toxic, destroying unity. Sometimes it is one person poisoning the ears of others, and sometimes it is a whole culture of negativity.

While negative talk can cause great harm, positive talk can do great good. Instead of painting a negative picture with our words, we can create a positive picture that strengthens and enables others. We can speak words of hope and describe the good that is possible. We can be agents of transformation in the workplace. Christians have a great history of storytelling, inspired by the narratives in the Bible, and exemplified by the master storyteller, Jesus. We can be storytellers in our workplaces, speaking into being kingdom-inspired narratives that bring out the best in others, solving complex problems and making wonderful products.

11. The Food Thief 

There is probably one type of work colleagues who is more annoying than all the others: The Food Thief! In fact, there is research indicating that one in three workers have stolen a colleague’s lunch. I love the ad that showed this and the thief explaining that he appreciated the labels indicating what he was eating, “Today, I’m eating Kevin!” We can waste time laying traps, casting suspicion, making accusations or getting frustrated.

Alternatively, we can flip the behaviour by being generous with food, by showing hospitality and acting like hosts. Sharing food is a great way of blessing people, and of demonstrating God’s character of graciousness and generosity; for God loves to lavish us with good things. God sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5), and Jesus was described as a glutton because he spent so much time feasting and partying (Matthew 11:9). When Jesus fed people, there were baskets of leftovers (Matthew 14:20).

The best way to make sure we are proactive as Christians at work is to be conscious of God as the one we truly work for, and to ensure our work is brought under his sovereignty. We need to seek to serve him and others in and through our working. While we work, every activity, every encounter, every word spoken or written is offered to God in gratitude for the privilege of working for him and others.

Kara Martin is Head of Storytelling for The Different Co., an Adjunct Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and lectures at Mary Andrews College, author of the Workship books and Keeping Faith, and co-host of the Worship on the Way to Work podcast.