Troll Classification Guide

Gremlin Classification Guide


Advice on the Job . . .


PROBLEM PEOPLE AT WORK - Trolls and Gremlins


Employees sometimes encounter difficult people at work. Encountering just one of these individuals can end a promising long-term career with a company and can transform an otherwise desirable job into a nightmare.


The following are some personal observations culled from decades of client tales about bad bosses and about techniques that have been useful to clients dealing with these difficult individuals at work. They are sometimes humorous, but then humor can also be a survival strategy. Specific fictional case examples are provided as well.


For analytical purposes, we have divided the world of difficult people at work into trolls (bosses) and gremlins (peers and subordinates). Unfortunately, the catalogue is more illustrative than comprehensive.



Troll Classification GUIDE


We have all had a troll encounter at sometime in our lives. The following is a guide to recognize and handling some of the worst of these disagreeable authority figures in our lives.


The Basic Troll


The Basic Troll is your basic over-aggressive boss. He yells all the time and explodes under pressure. He is also very competent except for his inter-personal skills.


The Basic Troll either owns the business or is indispensable in some way, because if he wasnít, his lack of interpersonal skills is such that no one would put up with him. Sometimes reasonable individuals evolve into basic trolls when they are given a great deal of power. Judges are often basic trolls, for example.


You are dealing with a basic troll if your boss:

  • Has a bad temper;

  • Worries a lot about results;

  • Has a reputation of being very competent but difficult/impossible to work for;

  • Does not care what other people think;

  •  Is at the top of the corporation, an owner of the business or otherwise indispensable to the business.

How to Handle the Basic Troll


The biggest problem with handling the Basic Troll is your own fear. The troll is ugly and frightening and he makes such a loud noise, the stress alone can kill you. You must be able to control your fear. If you get anxious under pressure and tend to freeze up or screw up, forget it, because you are now in big trouble.


First, steel yourself against yelling. Also do not take the insults personally. Think about meeting your bossís needs, not about getting approval. Not that this is very easy, but it works if you can do it and calms down a Basic Troll right away.


Please note: If you have any tendency to lie, fudge results, or deflect blame when you make a mistake, the Basic Troll will ferret you out and eat you alive. If you do make a mistake in front of a Basic Troll, it is imperative that you confess and take full responsibility. If you do, the Basic Troll may be surprisingly understanding and help you solve the problem.


If you do not understand what the Basic Troll wants, it is imperative that you ask for immediate clarification. If you do not understand, try to guess and go off in the wrong direction, it could be disastrous. In order to successfully work with the Baisc Troll, you need to be able to stand your ground. Remember the Basic Trollís focus is not on how he looks or how he is obeyed--his focus is on results. To get good results, you may need to argue with him or to convince him to change direction.


If you are performance oriented, competent and confident, you may work well with the Basic Troll and be rewarded over time. The Basic Troll, while certainly scary and unpleasant, is not really evil, and he can turn out to be very loyal.

See Case Study: Darya Encounters a Basic Troll


The Secret Troll


Secret Trolls hide. They even hide the fact that they hide things. Above all, they do not want their true identity disclosed. To this end, they will exert enormous self-control to disguise their true emotions and to avoid any kind of conflict that might expose the deception.


A Secret Troll will appear at first blush like a friendly helpful person. In some ways, a Secret Troll is the opposite of a Basic Troll. A Secret Troll is pleasant to deal with and never scary. At least until itís too late and the damage is already done.


First and foremost, a Secret Troll wants to appear like a Nice Person. Although the Secret Troll is always truly self-interested and lives under the Bridge in a Dark Place with other trolls, this is not apparent. Secret Troll bosses usually have excellent interpersonal skills, and they appear to be your friend and to be very understanding. They also never get angry.


Everything this troll does is calculated. Their primary motivation at all times is how they look to their superiors and whether or not any action they take is likely to advance their career.  Fundamentally, Secret Trolls have no ethics and are completely ruthless. They are also often extraordinarily successful.     

Secret Troll Identification


Early identification clues that you have a Secret Troll Boss include:

  • There is unusual turnover in staff;

  • Employees who work for them seem inordinately anxious and attentive;

  • He or she appears modest and low-key and your initial impression is positive;

  • They are already very powerful or they are in the process of quickly becoming powerful.

If you become an impediment to their advancement, the Secret Troll will mow you down. To survive, you must keep a low profile and be careful to focus your efforts entirely on making your boss look good. If the Secret Troll boss screws up, you will be expected to take the fall. One advantage of this kind of boss is that he or she is likely to be promoted within the company and acquire more power. You can advance on their coattails, provided you are willing to be 100% loyal and devoted.


The Secret Troll boss has situational ethics and he will expect you to have the same. If you do not have the moral flexibility required for this, you will get in trouble. Generally, since the Secret Trolls do not want to deal with conflict, you will have to do it for them. For example, you will be the one to fire their subordinates and to deliver bad news. Moreover, do not expect your boss to protect you. If the action the Secret Troll boss requires you to take is too controversial for your bossís superiors, you will take the fall.


Secret Troll Defense


Get away unless you want to morph into a Secret Troll. Long term, only upper management and other Secret Trolls can get along with Secret Troll bosses.

See Case Study: Jack's Secret Troll Encounter


Love Trolls


The Love Troll is on a permanent power high. The Love Troll usually works for a company where managers have special protection because they perform an essential irreplaceable service, they are the owner, are related to the owner or something similar).


The Love Troll regularly makes sexual overtures towards employees of the sexual persuasion to which they are attracted. The Love Troll promotes their attractive and flirtatious friends and give them special attention while ignoring others. They are often married.


To the extent that the Love Troll's sexual harassment behavior is part of a general willingness to abuse power, he or she may have other ethical issues as well.

Love Troll Defense


Sometimes, the Love Troll backs away if you have clear boundaries and donít make them too angry. But Love Trolls can be very dangerous. If you need to complain to human resources (and you probably do to preserve your legal remedies), watch out for retaliation. You have to consider how much power the Love Troll has. If the Love Troll owns the company, you are obviously not going to get anywhere. You definitely need to hire the best employment lawyer you can. Even if you donít want to bring a legal action, you are well advised to at least counsel with an employment lawyer behind the scenes.

See Case Study: Larry and the Love Troll



Good Olí Troll


The Good Olí Troll can be a serious problem for employees who are not good olí sorts themselves. This is not necessarily gender based because there are Good Olí Girls as well as Good Olí Boys. If you are not comfortable working with groups and are not connected to people based on relationships, you will have trouble. This boss will not evaluate you solely based on the merits of your work.


If, on the other hand, you are the preferred type, gender and attitude, you will be rewarded with a truly loyal and sympathetic boss. One of the unusual features of these bosses is loyalty is so important that if you get in trouble, they will support you no matter how damaging to their own careers.


These bosses are trouble for the following types:

  • Employees who arenít team oriented;

  • Individuals with markedly different backgrounds, cultures or interests (i.e., sports boss wants sports employees; intellectual boss wants intellectual employees);

  • Whistle-blowers (the Good Olí Troll fires whistle-blowers);

  • Non-relational people;

  • Employees who are much older than the boss;

  • Employees of a different gender if the boss is primarily comfortable with only one gender.

The Good Olí Troll tends to be a competent people-oriented manager, but he may overlook stuff, cut people too much slack, and ignore procedural, legal and more abstract ethical considerations that do not affect relationships on the job.


The Good Olí Trolls are generally decent ethical individuals, but they do not relate to abstract notions of fairness. Fairness to them is personal and within the Good Olí family.

Good Olí Troll Handling


The way to handle these bosses is to try to relate to them. If you have a problem, talk to them about it; find an area of interest in common; confide in them, ask for help. Minimize your differences in interests and background. Never turn down a social invitation from this boss. He will remember.


These bosses are really tricky if you are a different gender or ethnicity. They may just plain discriminate and you may need to seek an experienced employment attorney for legal assistance.

See Case Study: The Good Olí Troll and Maria


Dopey Troll


The Dopey Troll is, well, a dope. He may not be deficient in IQ points, but he is certainly deficient in sense and confidence. His orientation is based on hiding this. He is susceptible to predatory sociopathic employees who manipulate him by helping appear competent. These employees prey on the Dopey Troll by building his self-esteem, but their real motive is to gain power and wield it over others. Some of the most corrupt and difficult office environments are created by Dopey Trolls.


Unless you are a predatory employee (or in cahoots with one), these bosses spell disaster. 

Dopey Troll Identification


You recognize the Dopey troll by the following: 

  • They have trouble making decisions;  

  • They are nice guys;

  • They are blind to manipulative flattering employees to whom they over-delegate and who seize power for their own ends;

  • Their departments are poorly run and do not perform.

The problems you will encounter working for this kind of boss include:

  • The Dopey Troll is not fair;

  • You will not be rewarded for good performance;

  • You will not receive necessary assistance to do a good job;

  • Manipulative employees will run the department and reward their friends and punish others.

Handling Techniques for Dopey Trolls


Leave unless you are a dope yourself or a predator.

See Case Study: Peter's Scary Dopey Troll


Messy Troll


The Messy Troll is very disorganized but may be a creative genius. Messy Trolls are often successful entrepreneurs and founders of companies.


The Messy Troll needs help from his employees to be more organized and effective. Employees who are very concrete and literal cannot work for this type of boss. The Messy Troll needs employees who do not listen to his specific words but who can understand his intent and deal with him appropriately. He also needs employees who are able to take the initiative in structuring him and who can check in with him at appropriate intervals and ask questions so that they can translate appropriately.


Employees who are too timid or who require someone to tell him or her exactly what to do will clearly have trouble. Employees who do not check in or ask questions will not understand what he wants.

Messy Troll Handling Technique

  • Check in frequently and ask questions;

  • Remember it is easy to completely misunderstand what this boss wants;

  • Be comfortable working on projects without specific instructions;

  • Take it upon yourself to check for deadlines;

  • Be willing to structure your assignments yourself, constantly checking with your boss to confirm that your structure format is correct;

  • Take cues well from non-verbal communication;

  • Be sensitive to the business needs behind the assignment;

  • Be prepared to figure out business needs on your own and make your own assignments to yourself, again checking in with your boss.

See Case Study: Riana's Clean Result with a Messy Troll


Vain Troll


The Vain or Narcissist Trolls must maintain the reality at all times that they are both competent and virtuous. These Trolls usually have issues in one or both of these areas because they are unwilling to see flaws in themselves. Since they cannot see the flaws, they cannot compensate for them.


The Vain Troll bends reality to perceive it in accordance with his narcissist needs. He thus never recognizes that he has made a mistake--someone else is always at fault, such as you, his employee. You can never criticize a Vain Troll to his face: this is career suicide. It is consequently impossible to give this kind of boss honest feedback.


Unlike the Secret Troll, the Vain Troll is not particularly insightful about the political environment in which he operates. Because of their vanity, Vain Trolls are easy to deceive and manipulate. The Vain Troll is distinguished from the Dopey Troll because the Vain Troll is usually a true leader, a hard worker and often genuinely talented and charismatic as well.


The Vain Troll tolerates incompetent subordinates if they make the Vain Troll feel competent.

Vain Troll Identification


Ways to identify the Vain Troll are the following: 

  • They cannot acknowledge mistakes or flaws;

  • Their primary anxiety is about looking good to themselves; not to their superiors like the Secret Troll;

  • You can undermine them behind their back and they may not recognize it if you flatter them to their face;

  • If threatened they will always change their perception of their reality before they are willing to change their position.

Vain Troll Handling Techniques


To get along with this kind of boss, it helps to:

  • Project self-confidence;

  • Never confront them and support them even if they are wrong;

  • Flatter them constantly.

See Case Study: Karen Handles the Vain Troll


Creepy Troll


The Creepy Troll boss has serious psychopathology. He lacks boundaries, sexual and otherwise. He may be extremely seductive to employees. He can behave like your best friend/confessor/parent giving freely of his time and of material things as well.


 The Creepy Troll latches on to any employee in trouble. If an employee is lonely and going through a divorce, this boss is anxious to help and provide a shoulder or more (if you are of the opposite sex) to cry on. The Creepy Troll wants to be primary in your life, before any other relationship.


This kind of boss is dangerous--both to your career and to your own mental health. He wants to break down all barriers between you and eventually break you down into his mindless puppet. And he will be remarkably successful, if you let him. There is absolutely no way to work for this kind of boss and stay healthy. Moreover, the Creepy Troll will go to great lengths to hurt you if you ever attempt to assert your independence or turn away in any healthy way. Get out!


The Creepy Troll is generally very unethical at the core. Moreover they secretly think of themselves as Masters of the Universe.

Creepy Troll Identification


You can recognize this troll by the following:


  • Unlike the Classic Troll or the Dopey Troll, he does not respect boundaries. He gets excessively involved with his employees. He may have sexual relationships or become too intimate in other ways.

  • The Creepy Troll lacks moral as well as emotional boundaries. This boss is corrupt and dangerous.

  • He often owns or runs his own business or non-profit organization. He generally has a bad upbringing and terrific ambition.

  • He tends to be ďtoo helpfulĒ or ďtoo niceĒ in a way that you donít understand at first.

  • He often cheats or commits illegal acts in their business dealings--he crosses boundaries there as well.

  • He makes you uncomfortable at first. Then he seduces you, and you think he's a great guy. Down the road further you just feel dirty around him.

  • His long-term employees tend to be dependent, with abuse histories from prior relationships.

  • He tends to have bad family relationships.

  • After a while, he feels, well, creepy.


Creepy Troll Handling


Donít. Run for your life.

See Case Study: Phyllis Meets a Creepy Troll


The Abacus Troll


The Abacus Troll is more comfortable with numbers than with people. Abacus Trolls are hard-working and usually promoted in spite of their lack of people skills because they are great at faithfully following rules and focusing on budgets and short-term concrete goals. Abacus Trolls seem to come to the forefront in companies whenever companies are in financial panics or being transitioned to ďlean and meanĒ with emphasis on mean.


These guys are the hatchet people. They are comfortable laying off long-term employees, reducing benefits, and imposing impossible goals on others. They speak and think in corporate double speak and are no doubt the inspiration for the devil boss in the comic strip, Dilbert. The Abacus Trolls see their job functions purely in process terms--i.e., they are successful if they meet abstract numbers; the fact that the core business is falling apart for long term purposes may not even register on their screen.


Working for the Abacus Troll is difficult for employees who are more people-oriented or big picture oriented. And if you do not like playing numbers games and REALLY care about what you do, this Troll is definitely your enemy.


Ways to recognize the Abacus Troll include the following: 

  • You donít like them (unless you are also a numbers person);

  • You donít respect them (unless you are also a numbers person);

  • They frequently have accounting or other technical backgrounds;

  • They are very ambitious and lack much personality;

  • They are workaholics.

Abacus Troll Defense


Abacus Trolls are toxic for most of us. However, you may do fine if you are similarly inclined. If not, you can also do fine if you have great people skills and are willing to apply them to assist your boss. Also, sometimes these bosses donít last very long, and you may be able to wait them out until theyíre gone.

See Case Study: Adam and the Abacus Troll


Gremlin Classification Guide


Gremlins are peers and subordinates who are difficult problem people. Unlike trolls, gremlins hide their true identity to maximize their power. This tends to make them extra dangerous. Although occasionally a gremlin will creep into the best-run office, unhealthy offices to provide the best enrichment for gremlins to flourish.


If you are for any reason facing a gremlin or two at work, this will help you analyze the situation and consider some options. Some common types of gremlins include the Green Gremlin, the Jilted Gremlin, and the Wronged Gremlin.



Green Gremlin


One of the biggest dangers for employees comes from the Green Gremlin. These are unethical and ruthlessly ambitious employees who feign kindness, helpfulness and loyalty.


The best defense here is an early warning system. Recognizing this individual while you are still in a position to protect yourself is key. When they grow up and becomes a boss the Green Gremlin turns into a Troll--most likely a Secret Troll and sometimes a Vain Troll or a Creepy Troll. The following are signs to pay attention to: 

  • The employee seems almost too nice to be true;

  • Other employees seem wary of this person without apparent reason;

  • The employee denies being ambitious;

  • Employees supervised by this individual dislike him, while higher-level supervisors like him a great deal;

  • The employee portrays himself as a team player, but in reality always acts out of his perceived self-interest. For example, if he files a grievance or complaint or protests wrongful conduct of others, it is only because he is already in trouble and is seeking to bring down a supervisor before the supervisor brings him down.

Employees who are ruthless can ruin careers of others, particularly other employees who befriend them or trust them. They can secretly criticize you to others or fail to support you during crucial moments. The fact that you treat them as friends or with respect when they undermine you to others often gives them extra clout--i.e. it appears as though they are people worth listening to based on your attitude. They are often masterful at scapegoating you while appearing to support you.  

Green Gremlin Defense


First and foremost, recognize the danger. This is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself. Then watch your back. Anticipate the Gremlinís moves in advance and protect yourself.


Watch out that you do not get so carried away with the demands of your work that you neglect the emotional needs of your peers. Build alliances. You need inside political support AND information about what the Gremlin is doing, and that requires support from others. Sometimes, a little sensitivity will even forestall the development of the Green Gremlin in the first place.


In this regard, some suggestions are: 

  • Sensitize yourself to be aware of your impact on others. Listen carefully for early signs of resentment by others;

  • Do not assume that other employees think and feel the way you do;

  • No matter how busy you are, stay in touch and check in with the employees with whom you work. They matter! If someone is distancing himself or herself, pay attention and try to be particularly kind and thoughtful;

  • Make a conscious effort not to be critical of others and try to make them feel better about themselves;

  • If you are reasonably sensitive and thoughtful, and you are aware that there is still a Green Gremlin trying to hurt you, try to get help from other employees and management, if necessary. Relationships count a lot here. If you donít have support, you should consider transferring to a different department or getting another job.

See Case Study: A Gremlin Named Gretel

See Case Study: Joshua Deals with a Green Gremlin


The Jilted Gremlin


The Jilted Gremlin feels hurt and rejected. Sometimes, these are simply overly sensitive pathological types. More often, it is someone who was your friend/date/lover who still cares about you, but in a negative way. The following are suggestions for dealing with Jilted Gremlins: 

  • Be careful whom you get involved with in the first place. Keeping personal boundaries between yourself and other employees is a good idea, particularly if you are planning a permanent career with your present employer.

  • Be sensitive about behavior that can be perceived as rejection by others. If you break-up or decide to cool it with a friendship, explain the reasons in a tactful manner and reassure the other person in the relationship about your loyalty and positive perception of them.

In general the best precaution for not having problems with this type of employee is not to get too involved with these individuals in the first place. It is best to avoid sexual relationships or other intense special intimate relationships with your peers at work. If you do think about getting involved in such a relationship, understand your vulnerability and think seriously about the emotional maturity of the individual with whom you are considering becoming involved. Getting involved with the wrong person can spell disaster at work-- particularly when the relationship breaks up.


Ways to recognize employees who are a special risk to become overly involved with include: 

  • Employees who are overly seductive at the beginning of the relationship and excessively eager to please;

  • Employees who show early signs of unusual possessiveness -- i.e. remember Glynn Closeís character in the movie, Fatal Attraction;

  • Employees who are generally isolated and who carry a lot of internal anger.

Often this Gremlin presents as the perfect employee who is absolutely loyal to their boss. They live and breathe to protect their boss. They lack boundaries and have merged with their boss as much as possible. Vain Trolls are often attracted to this kind of Gremlin.

See Case Study: Magdaís Mess


See Case Study: Gregory Is Likely a Jilted Gremlin


The Wronged Gremlin


These employees are characteristically negative people and they can single-handedly sour the work environment. Wronged gremlins are often in subordinate positions. These employees create problems for others because they transfer their problems and issues to other employees rather than dealing with them directly. These employees are often passive-aggressive and/or narcissistic. They work subtly by imparting misinformation, information out of context or one-sided information. These gremlins almost always lack insight into their own behaviors and they rationalize their behavior by their view of themselves as victims of other powerful and evil employees.

Signs to Recognize Wronged Gremlins: 

  • They portray themselves in a noble self-sacrificing and suffering light;

  • They often adopt other vulnerable employees and become their protector;

  • They tend to be highly critical of other employees behind their backs where those employees are perceived as any kind of threat;

  • They are complainers;

  • They may be idealists;

  • They see the world as black and white or good and evil;

  • They may be talented, yet have set up their lives so they are not as successful as their abilities warrant;

  • There is generally someone at work--usually a supervisor--who is the target of their anger;

  • They have a victim mentality about life -- they do not accept responsibility for things that happen to them;

Employees like this can often turn on you. They can be wonderful at first and turn on you when you obtain a position of power or if a situation develops where they blame you for some condition at work. Often, because of their low self-esteem, these employees are ultra-sensitive to criticism. The best advice is to be careful and keep your distance. Avoid these employees if possible.


If you have such an employee in your midst, distance yourself and watch your back. That employee is not to be trusted. Unfortunately, direct confrontation rarely helps at all because of the rigid views of these employees. If you do not have the power to terminate the employee, the best defense here is to identify and isolate the employee. You need to share your insights with other employees and work together. If the problem is serious enough, you may need to involve the employer as well by informing him or her what is happening.

See Case Study: Wanda, the Wronged