How to handle a dominant colleague

Nov 11, 2019

5 mins

How to handle a dominant colleague
Elsa Andron

Psychologue du travail et psychologue clinicienne

We’re all different and it’s these differences that make teamwork so enriching. However, this is put to the test when it comes to dealing with strong personalities, who can complicate matters.

These personality types are often problematic within a professional environment and working with them can be difficult. This is especially true in the case of dominant personalities. As you read this, you probably already have a colleague in mind who all too often cuts people off, aggressively imposes their opinion and belittles those around them.

Here’s a brief overview of how to spot a colleague with a dominant personality — and how you can make working with them a success.

Dominance or submission?

A unique combination of character traits make up our personality, with each of us being more or less extroverted, organised, optimistic and so on.

We also tend to either dominate or submit to others, which determines our integration within a group. This type of social behaviour is strongly linked to the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs our reaction to fear or threats.

We can be dominant or submissive to varying levels, but there is also a neutral stance. Here, an individual can adapt depending on the person they’re dealing with. This individual will become more dominant when faced with a more submissive personality, or become more submissive with more dominant individuals.

Relationships of domination and submission shape the structure of social groups, especially within companies. They reveal a primitive human behaviour inherited from our ancestors. This is governed by the reptilian, or primal brain, which controls our social positioning in a group and is responsible for social fear.

According to studies in ethology, social psychology and neuropsychology, including Stanley Milgram’s famous study (1963) on submission to authority, these relationships between dominant and submissive personalities help to preserve the social structure of a group. A social group where everyone has a defined position—more or less dominant or submissive— functions better than a group where everyone claims the position of leader or follower. For example, if all the members of a company team claimed a leadership position, each would present their point of view as the most relevant. This would lead to aggressiveness from other team members and compromise the project. Similarly, if everyone adopted a submissive stance, who would make a decision? Such a high level of group inertia would stall the project.

Signs of a dominant personality

Dominant behaviour is shown in three types of communication: verbal (speech), para-verbal (voice intonation) and non-verbal (body language and facial expression). A dominant individual often talks confidently and assertively, and tends to give orders and instructions. Their voice is self-assured, and they won’t hesitate to raise it if doing so will help them get their own way. Their physical stance and body language is also very assertive, and suggests that the space belongs to them.

Those who have a dominant personality tend to impose their point of view, which they consider to be the most relevant, on others. Because of this, they can’t handle criticism. They tend to either turn on the charm to gain support for their vision or use intimidating behaviour such as threats, guilt trips, mood swings or humiliation.

For example, it’s 6 PM on Friday and your boss asks you to finish a “really urgent file” even though it’s the weekend and you have plans. But you weren’t really asked, you were told—and you feel any refusal could trigger an angry response on their part (screaming, or even door-slamming or a file thrown across the room) because this is their usual reaction when they encounter resistance.

Generally, those who work with a dominant colleague try to avoid upsetting them. When it comes to confrontation they walk on eggshells, afraid of an angry outburst.

How do I react when facing dominant colleagues?

When a dominant individual meets a submissive one, the latter’s behaviour—a tendency to feel guilty, be self-effacing and put the needs of others above their own—reinforces the dominant personality’s behaviour, and vice versa. This becomes a vicious cycle. Let’s take the example above. At 6 PM on Friday your boss demands you finish a file, even if it means giving up your weekend. If you lean heavily towards submissive behaviour, you will take on full responsibility for this file if it isn’t dealt with (this is self-induced guilt). Then when your colleagues offer to help, you refuse, presuming that they have better things to do with their weekends. Your concern for others comes at the expense of your own well-being.

Colleagues with dominant personalities are truly problematic within a team because they struggle to listen to opinions. Further, their mood swings affect communication. In fact, team morale can quickly suffer. Dominant personality types tend to perceive others as potential threats. In anticipation, they place themselves in a position of dominance to counter any aggression. They often have a Manichean vision of social positioning—it’s the strong versus the weak—and adopt a dominant stance to show their strength.

However, all is not lost. Follow these 5 tips to learn how to interact with dominant individuals:

  1. Don’t get emotional, stay factual. It’s important not to get overwhelmed by emotion when dealing with a dominant colleague. This gives them the opportunity to either turn on the charm or humiliate you. Make sure you know exactly what you want to say—take the time to find the right tone and prepare your words—while staying as factual and neutral as possible.
    It might be useful to write down the important points you wish to convey. Staying as factual as possible also means using non-verbal language: try as hard as you can to make direct eye contact and maintain a neutral expression. Remember, any smile or jutting of the chin could be interpreted as a direct challenge. If the conversation heats up, keep a neutral expression by thinking of something else. Anything works here: your shopping list, weekend plans or even that nice little dish you’re going to cook for dinner!
  2. Be assertive and firm. Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for yourself or others in a positive way. It can be characterised here by a neutral stance—neither dominant nor submissive—and also by a firmness in tone or message.
    If a dominant individual raises their voice to intimidate you, use the broken record technique of repeating your message factually in a firm, neutral tone. For example, if you go to book your Christmas holidays and you’re asked, like you have been the past four years, to compromise, calmly repeat, “I’m not free at that time.”
  3. Remind your boss of the rules. Keep a dominant individual in line by reminding them of the rules and regulations. For example, “The laws concerning overtime state that…”
  4. Ask for everything in writing. If you get something in writing it means that you can keep track of exchanges. It also lets you pass on the message if it seems inappropriate. Third party intervention can help to keep overly dominant behaviour in line. Ask anything of a sensitive nature by e-mail—and if the response seems a bit too cursory, make sure you get that in writing, too.
  5. Don’t justify or apologise for anything. When addressing a dominant individual, it’s important not to put yourself down, nor to justify your actions. It’s also unhelpful if you resort to “I’m sorry, but….” or “I won’t be able to because I…” When delivering a message—for example, you explain that you can’t make it to the next meeting because you’re away on business that day—don’t apologise for your absence or provide justification. Simply say you are unable to make it and suggest a date that suits you better. And if you tend to put yourself down, be careful with phrases such as “I’m so dumb” or “I’ve messed up again”.

Dominance or submission are normal human behaviours that dictate interactions within social groups. However, when someone abuses their status or demonstrates excessively dominant behaviour, it can quickly become difficult to work with this particular individual.

Remember, although these behaviours have neurobiological origins, therapy can help towards relaxing our rigid modes of behaviour, whether they are more dominant or more submissive.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: WTTJ

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