4 Ways to Handle Combative Co-Workers

Last Updated Aug 16, 2011 9:01 AM EDT

Your fit-pitching boss or aggressive co-worker may have more than just a bad personality. An estimated 5 to 6 percent of Americans adults have borderline personality disorder (BPD), a diagnosable condition characterized by rage and mood swings. Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall just revealed that he has been diagnosed with BPD, which he says partially explained his abusive behavior towards his wife.

BPD is more common in women and slightly more common in lower income groups, but when people who are very successful have it, they often stand out and get more attention because of their leadership role, says Bill Eddy, an expert on high conflict personalities and co-author of Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Some people have traits of BPD, but not the full-blown disorder. It is thought to be caused by trauma, abuse or neglect in childhood, and people with the disorder are often insecure and hypersensitive to rejection and criticism.

People with BPD tend to have the following traits:

  • dramatic mood swings
  • sudden and intense anger that seems disproportionate to the situation
  • clinging, needy behavior. They can be very charming and can be highly manipulative to get or hold onto a relationship
  • Very vindictive and vengeful and tend to see people as "all-good" or "all-bad."
In the office

"At work, someone with these traits may try to get too close, too quickly to a co-worker and then get angry and seek revenge if the co-worker tries to back off," says Eddy. A subordinate with BPD may focus his anger about a company policy on a supervisor. A supervisor with BPD may target his wrath on a particular employee.

How to work with a PBD co-worker or boss

  • People tend to either get angry back or avoid people with BPD completely. "Both of these responses (certainly understandable, but unwise) escalate the borderline's sense of insecurity and they respond with more anger or clinging," says Eddy. "Instead, people need to maintain a stable, moderate relationship â€" not reacting and getting upset, but instead staying calm and soothing, and focusing the person on a task," he says.
  • Don't become too close or too rejecting. Try to resist someone's efforts to quickly develop a close relationship outside of the office. It will likely blow up sooner or later. Set limits on what you will discuss and when and where.
  • Try to have a civil, respectful relationship and focus on tasks rather than your relationship.
  • If your boss is acting aggressive, learn to "manage" him or her. Calmly answer questions and challenges to your work. Respond to misinformation with clarifying information. If your boss has too many unrealistic demands, ask him what are the priorities so that he decides if you should switch projects. Take the time to reassure this boss of your interest in helping him and the division be successful. Avoid arguing. You're not going to change him.
Related: Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of Flickr user crosathorian
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.