the 5 people you definitely don’t want on your team

Having a team with diverse personalities is a good thing; different types of people will bring different perspectives and viewpoints, and that will usually lead you to better outcomes.

But there are some personality types that you definitely don’t want on your team — like the contrarian, the brilliant jerk, or the person who doesn’t believe in growth. At Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I talk about five types that can implode even the best team dynamics. You can read it here.

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. Ad Astra

    I have to work really hard not to be a contrarian or a defender. As you might guess, I got in trouble a lot as a child for “talking back” to adults.

    1. Artemesia

      I made my bones in my career as the contrarian or at least as the person willing to speak truth to power. After a messy merger I ended up being hired back by the new director after I was the only person who pointed out the insanity of the information he had been given about the company. He relied on me after that for sense and resistance — he was otherwise surrounded by polite people i.e. yes men and women. He had been given a rosy and inaccurate reading of the financial stability and stability of the market by those who hired him. We needed to innovate and do it quickly. I early on was able to prevent a couple of small disasters because I was willing to speak up; it cemented my job — from part time assistant to to associate director and led to a couple of years of 15% raises to bring my salary in line with the new organization.

      A good team needs many kinds. And while contrarian for the sake of being negative can be wearing, it is important to have a climate in which people can say what they think to prevent the team from going down an unproductive rathole.

      1. Kyrielle

        I don’t think you were being a contrarian as Alison defines it. By the definition in this article, the contrarian argues everything, to argue.

        You were stating your convictions; had he had good information and been making appropriate choices, you wouldn’t have been speaking up just to argue, right?

        Avoiding either yes-man or contrarian means that you agree (silently or aloud) when you believe the course is right, speak up when it’s wrong, and hopefully share what you know (if anything) when you’re not sure.

        The person who does that can look like a contrarian if the person they’re dealing with is way off-course, and doubly so if it’s because of smoke-blowing and yes-men, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually being a contrarian.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Agreeing with Kyrielle here. I made my career by doing something very similar to what you describe, so I’m a big fan of it! The kind of contrarian I’m talking about in the article is that one who argues everything for the hell of it — the person who gets satisfaction out of always being devil’s advocate or talking about why something won’t work.

        1. PEBCAK

          And I think there is a place for us to fill all of these roles under certain circumstances. It’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to be the occasional _________, it’s a problem to be the constant ___________.

        2. Artemesia

          Good point. A variation is the guy who won’t let it drop when he has lost his point. We had one of those who was eventually fired I think because he was just such a PITA. He wasn’t always wrong, but when he didn’t carry the day he never shut up about it.

          1. Lynn Whitehat

            We have a guy who won’t let it drop even when he’s won. He is a well-known contrarian, and sometimes people say “I don’t care enough to argue about it for an hour; we’ll do it your way”. But that’s not good enough! He wants them to acknowledge that he’s *right*.

  2. Jill of All Trades

    I work with someone who, depending on who they are talking to, exhibits all of these traits. Unfortunately, she not only outranks me, she’s often in my way.

    1. goshawk

      i am in the same boat. she keeps getting new opportunities because no one wants to deal with her. my hunch is that she’s a sociopath. i just try to remind myself that “more will be revealed.”

  3. KathyGeiss

    This is a great list, I’d add a sixth: the Knowledge is Power person. This person likes to feel powerful by holding back pieces of information. It makes them feel important and they enjoy watching other’s flounder as they try to work with only a portion of the information.

    I am a naturally collaborative person and I despise this attitude. We’re all on the same team, let’s quit pissing around your territory and make things happen already.

    1. LQ

      I think of this person as the Hoarder. They think that if they hide information like nuts they’ll be the squirrel who survives the winter. Except information isn’t nuts. Information is more like hostas, you can give as much as you can away and you’ll ALWAYS have more, and then the other person will have more. And then there will be nothing but hostas.

    2. A Non

      Where’s the line between hoarding knowledge and encouraging junior teammates to come up with their own solutions? I’m the senior person on a tech team and am dealing with this a lot right now. I have a bunch of junior teammates who seem to expect me to solve problems for them, and while I’m here to help I’m definitely not here to do their troubleshooting or thinking for them. So I’m ending up in situations where I know exactly what the problem is (or suspect I do) and could fix it for them in five seconds, but instead I’m trying to prompt them towards the troubleshooting steps that will reveal the problem. I’ve stopped proactively solving problems in their areas and am waiting for them to identify the problem, attempt to solve it, and ask for my help if they can’t. They think I’m being unhelpful and we’re all ending up pissed off.

      1. KathyGeiss

        I see this as entirely different. You’re helping them by encouraging them to troubleshoot on their own. Have you told them explicitly that you’d like them to make an effort to figure things out before bringing it to you. I know Alison has covered this before too.

        1. A Non

          Yes, but possibly not explicitly enough. The one that’s really irritating me right now is vague messages saying “I have a computer that is doing X.” Okay, did you want me to do something about it? Did you make any attempt to fix it yourself? My current strategy is to ignore it unless/until they ask something more directly, but that doesn’t seem to be working.

            1. A Non

              … I might actually do that. I just got one of these comments two minutes ago, and happen to know that’s the solution. I asked my coworker what kind of response she was looking for from me, and she said she wants to know what we’re going to do because clearly our brand new antivirus isn’t going to work on these computers.

              People. You know better than this. A little troubleshooting before spreading panic. Please.

              1. KathyGeiss

                Sounds like it’s time to address it as a reoccurring problem. sometimes you can coach on these things in the moment but if it’s this persistent, I’d have a specific meeting about it:

                “Matilda, you often come to me with basic problems without having tried to find any solutions first. I am always available as a resource but it’s important your first course of action is to troubleshoot on your own. Where might you go to find solutions on your own before asking me?” Then discuss resources available.

              2. Shell

                Why not just respond to those inquiries with “what have you tried troubleshooting wise?” It’s a subtle nudge towards doing some work before you ask, but if they refuse to get the hint, you could flat out say “Every time you ask me a question, I need to know what you’ve tried so I can pinpoint the cause more easily. And this way, you know how to start solving these problems going forward, or at least where to start.”

          1. alter_ego

            as the junior member of the team who struggles with figuring these things out, one thing I like that my senior person does is ask me what I would do if he wasn’t there. Sometimes my solution is right, but not what he’d do, and he tells me that, sometimes its wrong, and he tells me that to. More frequently, I do know what to do, I’m just not confident enough in the industry to do it without double-checking. But for some reason, when he frames it that way, it really helps me.

            1. Ad Astra

              That’s a great idea. I can appreciate that managers and senior team members want youngins like me to learn how to solve these problems on our own. Sometimes, though, I need a bigger push down that path before I can find my way to the solution.

              1. Jessa

                Yes and particularly to know whether or not you have the authority to take that decision on your own. Moving from a micromanager to a decent manager can be frightening, if you’ve always been told you can’t do beans without permission, it’s hard.

                Some new people are trying to carefully feel out the boundaries, can I do this? What if I do it and it’s more wrong? Will I be penalised or just shown better ways?

          2. fposte

            It also sounds like you might want them to try various solutions *before* asking you in future–if so, it might be worth making that explicit and giving them guidelines about what needs to be checked before you get looped in.

    3. Cajun2core

      Sometimes, people are seen as this when in fact they are not. I recently got dinged on my Performance evaluation for being “too helpful”, for offering “unsolicited advice.” When you get dinged on your review for something like this, you tend to turn into “knowledge is power person” and offer advice only when asked.

  4. The Other Dawn

    I once worked with a defender. It was awful. Any time I had to tell her that she made a mistake or someone from the office she was in made a mistake, I’d get 20 reasons as to why it wasn’t her fault. Most of the time it was something very minor, just a matter or dotting an I or crossing a T, but to her it was as if I told her that everything she ever did was wrong. It was exhausting.

    1. College Career Counselor

      If you’re this self-aware about it, you’re probably not the brilliant jerk. Or, you may have some of those tendencies, but perhaps you’re working to curb them?

    2. L

      I think I might be the defender. Though I’ve had a few colleagues who are definitely defenders (with a side of brilliant jerk) and it’s teaching me the error of my ways.

    3. _ism_

      Me too. I was a little disappointed that the article brushes every “employee who does great work but who is abrasive, unpleasant, and alienates people” as a jerk. Some of us know we come across a certain way and are struggling to find ways to fix it. In my case I have Asperger’s syndrome and I have been reading up a lot lately about Asperger adults in the workplace and their unique struggles.

      1. fposte

        But “jerk” is about behavior, not intention. If an employee is abrasive, unpleasant, and alienates people, it’s going to have jerk impact regardless of the cause. Struggling to find ways to fix it is great, but if it’s still happening, it’s still a problem.

          1. fposte

            I think I get what you’re going for, in that there’s a character difference between somebody who is brusque with the support staff because she’s doing the best version of friendly she’s got but it’s not very good, and somebody who’s brusque with the support staff because she believes she’ll get away with it and wants to act like she’s better than they are. I agree with that.

            But on the receiving end, you don’t know the rich inner life behind the jerky behavior; all you know is that I cut you off every time you try to talk and I shoot down everybody’s ideas, and that as a result you and your colleagues find me really hard to work with. Whether I’m trying my absolute best or hate everybody completely doesn’t make much difference to the impact on the team. So the more somebody with a tendency like this can consciously demonstrate their respect and appreciation for the team as well as dialing down the alienating behavior, the more context there is for the character behind the behavior.

      2. catsAreCool

        I know a number of people (myself included) who think of themselves as not being very good at social stuff but who are nice people who almost never ever yell or snark or snap at people, and on the rare occasions they do, it’s either a very gentle snark, or it’s well deserved.

        You don’t have to be good at being social to get along well with others and be pleasant. Be helpful, don’t be obnoxious, smile sometimes.

    4. DatSci

      I think the link to the article about “Brilliant Jerks” is correct in that in many types of workplaces, you have to behave a certain way to get things done. I fully understand that this is not the case in every workplace, or even most workplaces, but it is the case in every one where I have worked. I do not intend to be a “jerk” the intention is to get stuff done the right way.

      However, deep down, I think a big part of it is that I just don’t like most people in general.

      1. catsAreCool

        People who are abrasive and/or unpleasant to get things done might sometimes win in the short run, but in the long run, who’s going to want to help this type of person? A lot of people will go out of their way to help someone who’s nice. You can be nice and still be strong and not let people get away with nonsense.

        Think about it this way – if you need info from someone who’s overworked, and that person has 10 other requests, all that take time to answer, who do you think is going to get answered first? Maybe the person will answer the abrasive person, to avoid getting yelled at. Maybe the person feels that the abrasive person is best avoided as long as possible and will put off answering.

  5. 7473 dual J-K flip-flop with clear

    I was once “pushed” into the role of Yes-Man. I worked for a very well respected senior person, and we got along well and could have open and honest discussions about technical topics. But then he helped to get me promoted – a non-trivial, time-consuming process for both him and me – and afterwards I was left feeling like I owed him, and he apparently felt like I owed him, too. I’m unsure as to whether this was his fault, my fault, or on both of us – but it happened. And as a result, it became more and more difficult to disagree with him on anything – he didn’t want to hear it. And also: he became a “No-Man”: he tended to dismiss any idea or suggestion I had, with no further discussion allowed.

    It was an unhappy, dysfunctional state of affairs that lasted until I found another job and moved to a new boss.

    But there’s a happy ending – not long ago he and I attended a class together, and against my expectations, I found myself rather happy to see him, and it wasn’t long before we were getting along as well as (if not better) than before my promotion.

    All that said, I’ve worked with all 5 of these people, and I think my least favorite is the Defender. Although I tend to think of this person as Mr (or Ms) Got-To-Be-Right. There are few things that will suck the energy out of me like hearing someone go on at length explaining how even though they broke the rules and broke the build by checking their untested code into the source repository, it was really a *good* thing because [insert alien logic here].

    One thing: I’m sure that we all take on one of these roles occasionally.

    1. Jillociraptor

      I love this question! Think about posting it in the open thread tomorrow too!

      The most important quality in someone as a teammate for me is feeling on the hook for the whole team’s work. When you see something that maybe doesn’t hit your personal areas of responsibility but might impact the overall work of the team, you let the relevant people know, or just take care of it.

      Personally, the person I most need in my corner is the “North Star” — the person who’s always challenging me/the group to get outside of how and ask why. Does this really get us where we want to go? Is this the best solution, most aligned with what we’re on the hook for?

      1. Cajun2core

        Concerning your first comment, that is someone I would love on my team. During interviews here one of the questions I ask is “How do you define teamwork.” I am looking for an answer such as “Never saying, ‘That’s not my job’ or ‘Doing what is best for the team even though it may not be best for you.”

    2. So Very Anonymous

      The Collaborator: the colleague who’s open to new ideas and works with you to create something jointly “owned,” problem-solves with you when things go awry, and celebrates when things go well. I work with someone like this, from another department, and building on the success of our joint projects is so rewarding.

    3. Henrietta Gondorf

      The Font of Institutional Knowledge: they’re like locals in a bar. They’ve seen everything and may have just been an onlooker but remember the things your organization has tried before.

      Not to be confused with the Ive Been Here Forever Knowitall.

      1. So Very Anonymous

        I have gotten a number of much-appreciated reality checks from a Font of Institutional Knowledge.

      2. Nutcase

        Oh man. We only have one font of institutional knowledge left in my company and when he leaves we’re going to have SUCH a hard time. His coworker friends (the other two fonts) retired last year and he has made it very clear that the next time management do something silly that he has enough money to just quit on the spot and retire too. Nobody sticks around here long enough any more to absorb that kind of knowledge.

      3. Jaydee

        I do think the Font of Institutional Knowledge has to be careful not to become the It Didn’t Work In ’97 Under Entirely Different Circumstances So There’s No Way It Can Work Now Guy or the Change Resistor who, for good or bad, can’t move on from how things have “always been done”

        1. CrazyCatLady

          Agreed, so much. I think a lot of Fonts of Institutional Knowledge do end up being the It Didn’t Work In ’97s…

    4. Mean Something

      The Depersonalizer! The one who is able to not take personally all the stuff that people are often tempted to take personally. Especially if she is able to help other people take that perspective too.

  6. AMG

    The Bumbling Credit-Stealer: has a couple of decent tricks up his sleeve, but spends most of his time watching you do your job so that he can take credit for your ideas and work because he can’t come up with anything on his own. If he spent half as much time trying to his job…well, he’d still suck. Not that I have one on my team or anything.

  7. TheExchequer

    The lazy bum: The one who never seems to do their fair share of the work and, yet, is mysteriously not fired.

    1. Nutcase

      Closely related to the nepote. The lazy bum who never seems to do their fair share of work, loudly complains daily that he is better than the entry level job that he’s been given, but is not fired because he is related to the department head.

  8. Ann Furthermore

    I’m working with someone right now who is a combination of 2 and 5 — the contrarian and the defender. And it is sucking the life out of me.

  9. Mean Something

    Re “The fixed mindset”: I agree you want to work with people who believe that people can learn and grow, and that “I can’t do ____ yet” is a better attitude than “I can’t do ____” or “I’m just not good at _____.” However, a fixed mindset is arguably a better adaptation in some situations if people aren’t actually being supported in their growth (which often means tolerating mistakes!). Carol Dweck recently spoke about the phenomenon of the “false growth mindset”–people or organizations claiming they believe in growth mindset, but secretly clinging to the belief that ability level is fixed. There are definitely contexts in which you aren’t really supported in having a growth mindset (the Learning Spy blog wrote about this recently, Google if you’re interested). People need to be supported in trying and failing, otherwise they’ll be reinforced in their belief that it’s not worth trying to grow. A person with a true growth mindset could be very frustrated in an organization that doesn’t genuinely foster growth.

    1. So Very Anonymous

      Really important point about the “false growth mindset.” Also can make it difficult when interviewing if an organization claims to want growth because it’s trendy etc. to say that, but in reality is in much more of a fixed mindset.

    2. So Very Anonymous

      Also meant to add, a false growth mindset can also be extremely frustrating for a person with an actual growth mindset — you’re doing what they say they want, but since they actually don’t want that, you’re on the wrong track. But they keep saying they want that. Hard to know how to proceed other than to adopt (or pretend to adopt, or tell yourself it’s a temporary adoption) a fixed mindset.

    3. Sarahnova

      Yes, I worked in one of these. Loudly preaching personal development to clients, privately crucifying and blacklisting people for every minor mistake. Needless to say, no one grew; they just spent a great deal of time arse-covering and playing it safe.

      1. So Very Anonymous

        Yes, exactly. I’m someplace similar to that now. It’s such a mixed message. There’s pressure on us to “grow,” but in a very fixed way that is disconnected from any real growth. Very frustrating.

  10. Mean Something

    Re “The contrarian”: SO MUCH THIS. Some people are truly more comfortable being the lone voice in the wilderness and will seek that position no matter what. I used to work with someone (Alpha was her pseudonym on my blog) who would do a 180-degree turn on any issue as soon as she realized that people agreed with her. It was maddening!

  11. hayling

    I feel like the successes of people like Steve Jobs create this idea that it’s okay to be a brilliant jerk. And it’s not.

  12. Nutcase

    Those stock photos are brilliant.

    I try not to be a “yes man” but I’m surrounded by a lot of very clever people with much more experience than I have who I think have very good ideas. I will always voice my own opinion if I have one but I suppose while I’m still relatively inexperienced I’m happy to just be a part of the decision making process at all so that I can learn from them.

  13. Mollyg

    i must strongly disagree with the “brilliant jerk”. Many highly intelligent people are “jerks” because they have some sort of minor disablilty such as mild autism. To reject these people because of these disabilities is both mean and discrimination (even if not in the leagle sense).

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