We’re looking at HCPs in the workplace and how to use BIFF at work.
A narcissistic boss. Have you had one? It’s pretty common, so you’re lucky if you haven’t experienced the dread of waking every morning knowing you must face your boss for the next eight hours. Condescending comments and zingers. Out-of-control narcissistic rage from a narcissistic injury. Storming off to HR, their manager, the CEO — anywhere they go to let out their frustrations — which are many. It seems there’s always a dilemma, which obviously is a major time suck. What’s behind this? And what can be done to manage it? Is termination the only option for a high conflict employee? Or do you just remain in misery? Should you quit or should you stay?
Knowing how challenging it can be to handle a narcissistic supervisor, manager, or boss of any kind, Bill and Megan talk about the driving forces behind this high conflict personality type and discuss some specific tips for managing the HCP instead of letting them make you miserable. The good news: it is possible to turn things around using the right skills. Your life gets easier if you use these when dealing with a hostile boss, an undermining co-worker, a disruptive team member or any high conflict situation.
Bill and Megan also discuss their thoughts on media observations about whether Steve Jobs from Apple was a high conflict personality, as well as Elizabeth Holmes, who is currently standing trial in federal court for her alleged misdeeds as CEO of Theranos.
If you’re in a situation with a Narcissistic HCP at work, try one of these communication tools: an EAR Statement™ or BIFF Response®.
Empathy • Attention • Respect: an EAR Statement is all you need to remember when communicating verbally with a Narcissistic HCP.
Brief • Informative • Friendly • Firm: use a BIFF Response when communicating in writing. They’re easy to learn, but can be hard to do in the moment, so it will take some practice, especially if you’re emotionally hooked.
We’d love to hear your stories so we can talk through them on the show! Please visit our site and click the ‘Submit a Question’ button at the top of the page. You can also send us an email at [email protected] or send us a note on any of our socials.
Please rate, review and share this show!
Links & Other Notes
- Book: BIFF at Work
- Book: Calming Upset People with EAR
- Book: It’s All Your Fault: Managing Narcissists and Other High Conflict People
- Training: New Ways for Work (a coaching method for dealing with HCPs in the workplace)
- Article: Do Narcissists Make Good Leaders in Business?
- Article: Fire or Keep High Conflict Employees?
- All of our books can be found in our online store or anywhere books are sold, including as e-books and some in audio format.
- Submit a Question for Bill and Megan
You can also find these show notes at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast as well.
Megan Hunter: Welcome to It’s All Your Fault on TruStory FM, the one and only podcast dedicated to helping you identify and deal with the most damaging humans, people with high conflict personalities. I’m Megan Hunter, and I’m here with my co-host Bill Eddy.
Bill Eddy: Hi, everybody.
Megan Hunter: So we’re the co-founders of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. In today’s episode, we are going to talk about high conflict people at work, but first, we have a few quick reminders. Here’s the deal. We want to hear from you. Have you dealt with a high conflict situation? Have you been blamed? Experienced violence or abuse from an HCP? Or maybe you simply dread seeing that person again, but you probably have to tonight at home or tomorrow at work. Send us your questions and we just might discuss them on the show. You can submit them by clicking the submit a question button at our website, highconflictinstitute.com/podcast, emailing us at [email protected] or dropping us a note on any of our socials. You can find all the show notes and links at highconflictinstitute.com/podcast as well. Make sure you subscribe, rate, and review, and please tell all your friends about us. Telling just one person that you like the show and where they can find it is the best way you can help us out and help even more people learn how to address high conflict people. We appreciate you so very much, and now on with the show. We launched our company High Conflict Institute in 2007, with a primary focus on high conflict divorce and child custody disputes. We provided training on five personality disorders that seemed to drive high conflict divorce battles and provided a lot of articles on our website about these matters. However, it wasn’t long before we found that the number one online search for our site, our website was managing my narcissistic boss. So, we were a little bit surprised by that, but not really because what we know is that people with high conflict personalities don’t turn them on at home and off at work. These are people with impaired relationship ability. So consequently, we started giving trainings to companies from small business to corporations, human resources, to C-suite, and anywhere in between. People with high conflict personalities pop up everywhere, and most of us aren’t prepared to handle them. These are people who do things and act in ways that 90% of us don’t. Bill, let’s start with that most requested topic, managing my narcissistic boss. You gave an example in the last episode about praising them for relationship success. If you want to have a decent relationship with your boss who has some narcissistic traits, you really do need to give them some praise. And I can recall a boss I once had who destroyed the hard drive of her computer on the way out, and this was a computer that was government property. And you better believe we did a happy dance when she resigned and coincidentally our dread going to work, and also our stomach aches stopped at the same time. So let’s talk about how, if your boss is a narcissistic HCP or high conflict person and the misery they can cause.
Bill Eddy: Well, there’s really two parts to this. So first, let me just say the high conflict person part is that they have targets of blame, and high conflict people target other people, take no responsibility for their problems, a lot of all or nothing thinking, often unmanaged emotions like yelling in a staff meeting or throwing papers in the hallway, and they’ll do extreme behaviors that 90% of people wouldn’t do. Now, there’s five types of these high conflict people, and one type is the narcissist. And so the narcissist, most people think of a narcissist as a self-centered person. He doesn’t pay attention to me, he’s absorbed in himself. Well, when it really gets more severe, and if they’re an HCP (high conflict person) as well, what you start seeing isn’t just being self-absorbed. It’s attacking other people, putting other people down, insulting them, belittling them, making them feel terrible. And I think the reason that that’s the article that got the most attention on our website was because bosses tend to often be the bully at work. And it often is the narcissistic boss and they have targets of blame. So there’s our high conflict people. So what we’re seeing is they seem to enjoy the power they have over people, but here’s one of the tricky things to know about them is they’re really good at kissing up to the people above them who have no clue how they’re kicking the people below them. So, I think of it as kicking down and kissing up, and that really isn’t good to be around as an employee, and often they drive people away from them. People quit, people get sick, so this is one of your most common workplace bullies is the narcissistic HCP.
Megan Hunter: So would you say that the management positions in the C-suite are kind of a likely place for narcissists to end up and why, if so?
Bill Eddy: Well, they’re good at climbing, and they don’t mind stepping on other people to get there. One of the characteristics is a lack of empathy and exploiting relationships. So they’ll kiss up to somebody, become their buddy, and then when it’s convenient, they’ll kick on them to move further up the organization. So we often see that narcissists succeed. You would think they would fail, but they often succeed, not because of their performance, but because of their persuasion. And that’s what leads them higher and higher. So yes, we see them there, but I want to also caution that not every manager is a narcissist, so I don’t want people to think we’re saying anyone in authority must have climbed there as a narcissist, but when things really go badly in organizations, we often find that there’s a narcissistic HCP kind of gumming up the works in the middle or farther up the ladder.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. So that’s really interesting, Bill, and I think a lot of our listeners can relate to having a boss that kind of drove them crazy. And they kind of recognize these narcissistic traits, and one question that we’ve received many times over is, is there such a thing as healthy narcissism?
Bill Eddy: Partly, it depends on how you define it, but I like to think of it that narcissism is itself a problem. And therefore I draw the line at someone has narcissistic traits, maybe they’re not too extreme. Maybe they help them move up, but it all also creates problems for them and the people around them. So I would say even narcissistic traits are dysfunctional, but some people think of this as healthy. And I think what they’re seeing is self-confidence, and self-confidence can be a healthy thing. Individualism. Individualism can be a healthy thing, but once it crosses the line into narcissism, it’s starting to be dysfunctional. So that’s how I define it.
Megan Hunter: I’ve seen in many cases where a high-performing narcissistic HCP can sustain for quite a while in a company because they are a top performer, they bring in business, they really help the bottom line of the company, but ultimately narcissistic HCPs… They just can’t sustain in the company that long because they are going to mow down so many people along the way that eventually, it really becomes too disruptive and it will impact the bottom line. I think some do stay in the workplace for a period of time, or they may just go from company to company and are really good at getting the job and keeping it for a while and performing at high levels. But eventually, that high conflict personality is going to kind of kick into gear and do them some damage in their relationships.
Bill Eddy: Let me jump in here, actually, and add something about research on CEOs. And there’s some research that’s been done that really shows that narcissistic CEOs may make a big splash when they start, but they make it about themselves, not about the company. And they generally get fired by their board sooner than CEOs that really make the company their top priority. Another thing in terms of CEOs is a lot of people think, "Well, narcissistic CEOs will be better because they’re extroverts, and if you have an introvert CEO, that’s not going to be as dramatic." Well, there are introverted CEOs. A good example is Warren Buffett. Most people have heard of him. He’s been one of the most wealthy people in the world, and frankly, he’d rather spend time alone in his office looking at spreadsheets and stock analysis than being a Dr. Flashy CEO. So, we see this all the time. The flashy people tend to not last quite as long.
Megan Hunter: So let’s switch it over to kind of a different type of HCP situation in the workplace. Some just can’t seem to control their emotions. So these are the folks that you see storming off to the human resources office, to their manager, to someone else’s manager, to any manager, or to the CEO. Anytime they have a little dilemma, it seems very big to them and they need to tell someone about it and they need somewhere to let out their frustrations. This is a huge problem in companies everywhere. Really, the biggest issue with it is that it takes so much time from everyone in the workplace, right? When we’re dealing with all of these dilemmas, it is time and time is money. So, what’s behind this emotional type of HCP and what can anything be done to manage it? Is termination the only option, or just remain in misery and let them continue in their dilemmas?
Bill Eddy: It’s basically what you’re seeing is they have targets of blame because they’re high conflict people or HCPs. The emotional element often just goes way back to childhood that for some reason or other, their wide mood swings and rage, et cetera, have been either tolerated or so reacted to, that it reinforced them being that way. So there’s kind of two extremes. One is maybe even abused as a child, but the other is being tolerated with temper tantrums. And in many ways, you’re seeing three year old behavior, but the trouble is in organizations and companies, et cetera, is they often can be nice and charming people part of the time, just as the narcissistic HCP can be. And so people like them and they… Oh, well, she just had an episode or he just had a moment and we’ll just let it slide by. Unfortunately, a lot of companies have let someone like this slide by for quite a while, and one thing we’re learning is that with HCPs, if they need to be terminated, that companies often wait 2, 3, 4 years longer than they should. And I think of an example at a university where there was someone with a very emotional range and they tolerated her for about two years when they should have… She was so extreme, they really should have terminated her earlier, but then she sued the university about wrongful termination or something and they spent four years dealing with the legal case. And so, the sooner the better, but I don’t want to say that termination’s the only answer. I really think in the first place with most people with this issue that if they get some coaching, if they get some counseling to take the edge off of these extremes, to see when it’s building up, to redirect their energy, because explosive outrages don’t usually just happen. There’s usually a buildup to them for people like this. They absorb stress and then they let it out negatively against the people closest to them. So, sometimes coaching and counseling is a much better answer, and I think in most cases, should be tried first, especially if the employee is someone with a unique skill and we’ve done some consulting and training with high tech companies, and they have people with unique skills. Also in healthcare, some surgeons or administrators, and so coaching has really helped in some of those cases. So it isn’t always firing the person, but it shouldn’t be tolerated.
Megan Hunter: Do you think that they know they’re causing this much disruption?
Bill Eddy: At the beginning… And I first learned about personality disorders in 1980 and started studying high conflict personalities around 2000, and I used to think, "Well, of course they know they’re acting badly," and I’ve really become convinced that that’s one of the big problems is they don’t. They know that they’re difficult and they have a reputation for being difficult, but they insist I had to do this, or it’s normal to do this, or look at what she did. Well, after what she did, I had to do this. So, they really justify it in their own mind, and they really don’t self-reflect. If they’re HCPs, they’re a hundred percent blaming others and zero looking at themselves.
Megan Hunter: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I think most of us expect people to have that insight into their own behavior or to stop themselves before they go running to the HR office again. But with HCPs, it’s very, very difficult for them to stop before they do that. And they have to… It’s almost like completely reprogramming that part of their brain and that part of their behaviors to stop themselves when they have that feeling. I know when I’ve worked with some clients in coaching situations, that’s one of the biggest areas we have to work on is just take it and pause. Take that moment first. It’s not normal for them to do that. It’s normal for them to feel and go and shout, right? Or go and blame, go and complain, go and be very upset. So for them to learn to pause is sort of everything. It’s a really good first step, and then to analyze their options is the second step, right? So that they can get to thinking instead of just feeling.
Bill Eddy: It’s that first step is a big thing to get them to pause, et cetera. Now, you’ve worked with a lot of organizations, Megan? Are there any that stand out to you?
Megan Hunter: Oh yeah. There are a few, but interestingly there’s one in… There’s a case in the news right now here in 2021, that’s traversing the legal system. It’s the United States versus Elizabeth Holmes, who was the founder of Theranos, which was slated to be a revolutionary, innovative blood testing lab. It’s all over the news and I’m sure our listeners have seen it or heard about it. A really great book was written about it called Bad Blood, and I think there’s also a documentary. And I won’t go into depth here, but in that case, we see so many actions and activities that seem to tick all the boxes of high conflict behavior. We have our four key characteristics of high conflict behavior, and then there’s all the other bad behaviors kind of fit into those. And in this case, we saw a lot of lying and conning and intimidation. I read the book and if you’re interested in looking for a masterclass in looking for high conflict behaviors and patterns of behaviors, you may want to pick up that book and read it or watch the documentary. Or in any case, watch the outcome of the legal case. But back to your question, Bill. One of the companies that comes to mind that I worked with is a very large company in a very small community. Their impact on the economy, which extended across several counties in two to three state states, was just huge. It was a family-owned company and the family members worked for the company and were on the board of directors as well. One of them got pretty mad about an incident and went full blown high conflict, firing the other family members from the company and also from the board. So, after a really expensive court battle, the jobs were restored by the court and their board positions were as well. However, by that point, they’d almost bankrupted the company, which would’ve had such a massive impact on their hundreds of employees, their employees’ families, and the communities as a whole. What I observed is it could have been handled so differently if the family members had really understood high conflict behaviors and knew the skills to use to calm the person and to diffuse the situation. And really, that’s what we do all the time at HCI is help people learn those new skills. So, I don’t know how it’s turned out over time and I hope they’re still using those newfound skills that we taught them. And hopefully for all their employees and the community, they’ve learned to calm and work together. So that’s kind of the top of mind one. It was, I guess, an example of just how drastically this impacts others, not just the people surrounding in the immediate family or immediate board of directors. So Bill, you’ve written about Steve Jobs. Was he, in your opinion, a high conflict person?
Bill Eddy: This is an easy one. Yes, because people in Silicon Valley that knew him, he had quite a reputation for blaming others, extreme behavior, unmanaged emotions. He would fire people in the middle of a meeting, and he would burst into tears at times, and then extreme behaviors. So, remember. He got fired once from Apple, but he did come back and did a little bit better it seems. Just about everybody has one of his toys. So he’s an interesting case, because I really do believe he was a high conflict person. But the question is, was he one where that interfered with his life or was there some way that it worked for him? And I think the way it worked for him is because the people around him managed him really well, and let me give you an example. So from his biography by Walter Isaacson, there’s a place where says Ann Bowers was one of the top management and she was an expert at dealing with his perfectionism, petulance, and prickliness. She served as a calming mother figure who would step in after one of Jobs’ tantrums. She would go to his office, shut the door, and gently lecture him. "I know. I know," he would say. "Well, then please stop doing it," she would insist. So Bowers recalled he would be good for a while, and then a week or so later, I would get a call again. So I think what we’re seeing is someone who didn’t really change. He had a little bit of self-awareness, but not enough to stop himself. And that’s what we see with high conflict people. They can’t stop themselves, and so in business, if the people around them are able to stop them, they may be successful, like he was fantastically successful. But if people don’t stop the high conflict behavior, it can ruin a company and it may be that they have to go.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. So let’s switch gears here and talk about what can be done, Bill. You’ve developed two specific techniques for handling HCPs and have written two books about them specifically. One on using EAR statements to calm upset people and BIFF responses for handling hostile written communications. So, let’s talk first about using here’s EAR statements. What does that mean and how do you use it?
Bill Eddy: I really want our listeners to learn this skill, because it’s so simple and so effective. So EAR statements show something about empathy for the other person or paying attention, that’s the A or give them some respect, that’s the R. And as we’ve said throughout here to deal and manage a high conflict person, you want to calm them down. So on the spot, and I’m not saying we’re changing their personality, but on the spot, you can calm them and manage your relationship with them by giving them some empathy. Like, "Yeah, I can see how frustrated you are," or "Yeah, sometimes I feel that way, too." So something that’s empathy and it isn’t just reflective listening, which says, "Well, I hear what you said is you’re angry with me," is it gives them something. So, "I can see that this is a hard time for you." That’s giving someone your empathy and attention. I’ll pay attention. Tell me more. I want to understand, and sometimes listening with full attention for even just a minute can calm things down significantly. And a little bit of respect. I respect the work you’ve done on this project so far. Appreciate that. And let’s keep building on that. Or that was a great meeting you gave us last week, or nice job on your promotion. Something you can respect. It just tends to diffuse the conflict, and it’s really easy to learn. You have to practice it a little bit. It may sound easier than it actually is, but once you practice it, it gets pretty easy. And you just have something ready to say, "Wow, I can see how upset you are. Tell me more. I want to understand." And just like that, people go from a hundred anger to down maybe a five or 10. And 90% of the time, I’ve seen this work. And I know you’ve done it including in other countries and other continents, we find this really helps people on the spot.
Megan Hunter: Yeah. It turns out that the brain is the same no matter which continent you’re on, right?
Bill Eddy: Yes.
Megan Hunter: And so it is really interesting and amazing to see how quickly this can work. And it can work in just four words, three words. "Tell me more." That’s just three words, and it calms that person’s right brain where they feel very upset in the moment. So let’s try a quick one here, Bill. Bill, that just isn’t fair. I did not get copied on that meeting notice and you just left me out intentionally.
Bill Eddy: Well, actually, I don’t know if you realize, but we were so busy that day that I wasn’t even aware that you needed that. And so I can understand that’d be pretty frustrating.
Megan Hunter: But why… Yeah. Okay. I understand that. So, okay. Bill, would you say, I’m sorry in that EAR statement?
Bill Eddy: No. And I would give an explanation, but I wouldn’t say I’m sorry, and here’s a good thing to know with high conflict people. When you apologize to them, remember that all or nothing thinking. What they hear is you agree it’s all their fault, and they’ll keep bringing that up. And they’ll say, "Remember, you said it was your fault yesterday," and they’ve somehow translated into it’s all your fault. So what I find is it’s better to give an explanation of what happened rather than to say, "Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t get it," is to say, "Oh, we didn’t realize that you needed that. There was something else distracting us at the time." The other thing you can say… Sometimes people say "I’m sorry to see you in this situation. You seem so frustrated." And rather than saying, "I’m sorry" now, I’ll often say, "I’m saddened to see you in this situation," because I usually am. And so saying I’m saddened shows some empathy rather than apologizing and setting myself up. So that’s a good lesson for our listeners, I think.
Megan Hunter: Yeah ’cause it can be very tempting to offer a quick apology, especially if you’re the fixer type personality or you’re a conflict avoider, and you just want everyone to feel okay. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. And like you said-
Bill Eddy: Yeah.
Megan Hunter: They take it as if it really is all your fault. Emphasis on all.
Bill Eddy: Let me add something in here. We do, both of us, a lot of training in Australia and Canada. And what’s interesting is "Sorry" is part of their daily conversations. Like, "Sorry. Sorry." And so, I wondered when we started teaching this if they would say, "Well, sorry, Bill. We’re just going to keep doing that." And instead they say, "I think you’re right." And so they’re working on when to say that. And with 80% of people you can say, "I’m sorry," you can say sorry a lot, but the 10% of people, 20%, we see in conflicts that are high conflict people, you really got to be careful or it will come back to haunt you.
Megan Hunter: Okay. So that’s a quick little instructional on using EAR statements. So now let’s switch over to using BIFF responses for written communication. So, if you’ve received one of those really nasty, hostile emails, or text messages, or any kind of written communication, when it contains blame or it’s really easy to identify them when they have a personal attack about you in them, you know then that it’s high conflict and you need to respond in a different way. So Bill, you invented the BIFF response. So tell us about it.
Bill Eddy: The dea with BIFF is it’s brief and brief is usually a paragraph, maybe three to five sentences, even if you’re responding to a couple pages of a diatribe against you. It’s informative. It’s just straight information, kind of like the logistics, the who, what, where and when kind of information related to the issue. And then it’s friendly. Now, this is probably the opposite of how you feel, but you want to turn it around. And you can do that. Think of something friendly you could say. Sometimes, it’s "Thanks for letting me know your concerns on this issue," or "Thanks to replying to my request." So just a brief little friendly statement like that can really help, and then it’s firm. And firm doesn’t mean harsh. It means that you end the hostile conversation. So, usually a good BIFF response won’t even get any further correspondence, at least on that issue. But sometimes you need to ask a question. So try to turn it into a yes or no question and give a time when you’d like a response. So please let me know by Friday at five if we can do this plan. And that way it’s simple. It’s yes or no. So that’s BIFF, that’s the basics of it. I can give you a quick example if you want.
Megan Hunter: Yeah, let’s do that.
Bill Eddy: Okay. Nina’s just been hired from outside as a new manager for a department. Zachary has worked in the department for over five years and also applied for the job, but didn’t get it. So Nina hears Zach is telling the other employees she’s not qualified and he should have gotten the job. So Nina writes this. "Dear Zachary, I hear rumors that you’re trying to undermine me and my new position as department manager. This will not be tolerated. You must cease in the assist immediately. Otherwise, I will consider disciplinary action or removal from the department. Am I understood? Nina." Now at first that might sound, "Oh, well she’s firm, she’s setting limits." That’s understandable, but the thing is this isn’t really informative. It’s hostile, it’s got emotion, it’s defensive. And often if you’re defensive, it feeds high conflict people rather than calming them. It’s certainly not friendly, and it may look firm, but it may just inflame him to respond further. And it’s an admonishment. We discourage advice, admonishments, and apologies like we explained before. So how about this one? "Dear Zachary, as the new manager, I’m going to be meeting one to one with key team members in the coming weeks. Given how long you’ve been on the team, I’d like to meet with you in the next week. I’m interested in your ideas for how we can improve the department and any concerns you may have. I will discuss some of my ideas, too. I’d like to meet next Thursday at 8:30 or Friday at 10:00 AM. Let me know your preference by Monday morning. I look forward to a productive year." So was that BIFF? Is fairly brief. Was it informative? Yeah. This is her plan, and this is how she’s including him. Was it friendly? Certainly. And she’s giving him a little bit of R you might have noticed, respect, because of his time with the company. And it’s firm, in that here’s my question. This time or that time. And it gives him something to do instead of just reacting. That’s an example of how a BIFF response can calm a situation instead of inflaming a situation.
Megan Hunter: We’ve written a book just published this year in 2021 called BIFF at Work. It gives examples for all different kinds of workplaces, sizes of companies, and different types of relationships, like a difficult boss or employee to employee or a challenging team member, or even within a small business. There are simple techniques, but they can be really tricky if you are emotionally hooked. So you need to make sure that you use discipline and get unhooked first before respond. And just like Bill said, you have to practice a lot, but the good news is your life gets easier if you use these techniques when dealing with a hostile boss, an undermining coworker, a disruptive team member, or really any high conflict situation. So try it and let us know if your life improves. We’ll put the book links for EAR and BIFF in the show notes, and in the next episode, we’ll be talking about the five types of people who can ruin your life. Bill has a book titled just that. Until then, best wishes in all your relationships.
Bill Eddy: Bye, bye.
Megan Hunter: It’s All Your Fault is a production of TruStory FM. Engineering by Andy Nelson, music by Wolf Samuels, John Coggins, and Ziv Moran. Find the show, show notes, and transcripts at trustory.fm or highconflictinstitute.com/podcast. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, please consider doing that for our show.
Each week, Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter will be exploring the five types of people who can ruin your life — people with high conflict personalities — and how they weave themselves into our lives in romance, at work, next door, at school, places of worship, and just about everywhere, causing chaos, exhaustion, and dread for everyone else.