What Is a Dysfunctional Employee?

by Mary Bauer, Demand Media Google
    Co-workers often engage in mental tugs-of-war.

    Co-workers often engage in mental tugs-of-war.

    Every employee can be dysfunctional from time to time, particularly during a personal crisis, under job pressure or when personalities clash. And, some people just enjoy being annoying. A surprising number of people in the workplace, however, suffer from at least one clinical personality disorder, or PD. A 2011 study led by Susan L. Ettner and published by the National Institutes of Health found that about 16 percent of women and 18 percent of men in the workplace suffered from at least one PD.

    Clinical Dysfunctional Behavior

    From a clinical perspective, a dysfunctional employee is a worker who has a diagnosable personality disorder. The most common PD in the 2011 NIH study was obsessive-compulsive disorder. Others included paranoid, schizoid, antisocial, avoidance, histrionic and dependent disorders. People with these PDs were more likely to have difficulties with a co-worker or a boss than people without such disorders, and paranoia caused more trouble at work than any of the other PDs.

    Common Dysfunctional Behaviors

    An employee doesn’t have to have a PD to exhibit dysfunctional behavior. Some people simply never learned to get along well with others, or they misbehave as a form of rebellion. You’ve seen these people: the guy who agrees to go along with the program and then quietly works to undermine it, or the woman who has an aversion to conflict so she goes around in blatant, hostile silence, but refuses to identify the problem even when asked. And then there is the person who just likes high drama and overreacts to events or causes problems so that he can be the hero when he solves it. All of these are dysfunctional coping mechanisms that undermine workplace communication and productivity.

    Disengaged Employees

    The most challenging type of dysfunctional worker is the disengaged employee -- a toxic personality who operates from the premise that he is doing a splendid job, but everyone else is messed up. This type tends to form a little clique that feeds off shared negativity. The clique foments an “us” versus “them” atmosphere and refuses to be part of the solution. If you think this is a rare occurrence, think again. Roughly 16 percent of the workforce across the United States is actively disengaged, according to the Gallup organization’s 2012 employee surveys.

    Dealing with Negativism in the Workplace

    You can’t make a colleague behave, but you can lessen the effect of bad behavior on yourself and others in the workplace. One option is to ignore the negativism and shift the discussion to the task at hand. Others who hate the negativism probably will jump on your bandwagon. Another approach is to acknowledge the gripe and turn it into a quest for improvement – “How can we fix this concern that Bob has raised?”

    Supervising Dysfunctional Employees

    If you are a supervisor or manager, make clear to your subordinates that you expect conflict resolution. When you perceive tension, don’t ignore it. Talk privately to the individuals involved to find out what the root cause is, then enlist their help in finding a solution. Encourage employees to speak up when they disagree, but make clear that once a final decision has been reached, it is their responsibility to carry out your direction, whether or not they agree with it.

    About the Author

    A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.

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