‘Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people’ ~ Carl Gustav Jung
As a mediator I frequently come across people who refer to their colleagues as psychopaths. Only professionally trained experts can label people as psychopaths, others should refrain from doing so. That being said, it is important to understand what signs to look out for so that your alarm bells will start ringing when colleagues display certain characteristics. Armed with some knowledge about psychopaths in the workplace, you will be in a better position to defend yourself against them and adjust the way in which you handle conflict with such a person.
Most people think psychopaths are violent and manic serial killers like Ted Bundy, Ivan Milat or Saddam Hussein. However, most psychopaths are not crazy, ferocious killers and actually live in our communities and work alongside us. In the book ‘The Sociopath Next Door, The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us’ of Dr Martha Stout. In her book Dr. Martha Stout gives an inside view at how psychopathic people function in our society without ever being ‘outed’ as such. Just for clarification, experts use the terms sociopath and psychopath interchangeably.
Modern workplaces are diverse environments, and they reflect society because they include many different people with diverse personalities, backgrounds and cultures. So statistically there is a good chance that one of your colleagues - it could even be your boss - is a psychopath. Dr. Stout estimates that 4 percent of the population could be labelled as sociopaths [psychopaths]. So that would be one in 25 people.
In another book ‘Snakes in Suits: How psychopaths go to work’ by Dr. Paul Babiak and Dr. Robert D. Hare it is estimated that 1 percent of the general population, or one in a hundred persons is a psychopath. If statistically 1 in 25 -100 people you meet could be a psychopath, you may wonder why you personally have never come across one. If your company has 500 people, there may be a minimum of five and a maximum of 20 psychopaths in your workplace.
The reason you think you have not come across one is that ordinary people have a hard time recognising psychopaths. Our filters – the way we see the world - are simply not trained to identify them. For people who are completely driven by a moral compass (most of us) it is very difficult to identify people who have no morals at all. Especially as psychopaths are very smart and manipulative and can mislead even trained professionals. They know what makes us (people with a conscience) tick so they use us and are master to disguise themselves like us.
So how do you know if your colleague is a psychopath?
For a full list of the characteristics of psychopaths, I refer to the Psychopathy Checklist, the standard instrument to diagnose psychopaths by Robert Hare, professor of psychology at the University of Columbia who is also the author of the books Without Conscience and Snakes in Suits.
The following are the main characteristics of psychopaths:
Psychopaths feel no distress when other living beings – people or animals – are suffering.
Psychopaths are incapable of having empathy, that is making a connection with other people. Once people have served their purpose, psychopaths dispose of them.
Psychopaths only have shallow, primitive, feelings (reactions) that result from immediate physical pain and pleasure, frustrations and successes.
Psychopaths are masters in manipulating others (including organisations) to fulfil their needs.
Psychopaths are pathological liars and ruthlessly use dishonesty.
Most psychopaths have ‘charisma’, and are often immaculately dressed and well-articulated.
Psychopaths like to be in a position of power and influence and take financial, legal and additional risks that others would consider to be foolhardy.
Psychopaths have an unrealistic idea of their own greatness and an over-the-top sense of entitlement.
Psychopaths are predators who seduce their victims with their charm, use and control them and once they don’t need them anymore they abandon them abruptly.
Psychopaths don’t accept any responsibility and blame others, the system or circumstances. They also like to present themselves as a victim, so people pity them and are keen to offer help.
What to do when you are dealing with a psychopath?
It is normal human behaviour to doubt your own intuition of an incipient problem, rather than judge the behaviour of someone else, especially when they have positively impressed us on first encounter. So in the workplace you may start to ask yourself: is it me? It’s only after witnessing repeated problematic behaviour from this colleague, and perhaps by talking to others that you may come to the conclusion that it is not you.
So talk to co-workers to see if they have had similar experiences with your colleague. This can help you getting over your initial ‘Is it me?’ feeling, and perhaps further confirm your suspicions.
It may be good to know that not everyone falls for the charm of a psychopath. You may find other colleagues who feel ill at ease with your colleague. People often have an odd sensation when in the presence of psychopaths. There are clues such as a ‘cold-heartedness’ or ‘lifeless eyes’ that they pick up on.
In relation to communication/ conflict resolution there are unfortunately no magic solutions for communicating with psychopaths. In fact there is no way that you can communicate with them at all. The best thing you can do is to acknowledge to yourself that this colleague is not capable of empathy or of truly connecting with other people.
This total lack of empathy makes it impossible to have a courageous conversation with that person. They will never be able to see your point of view. Given their nature you know that they see conflict as a competition and if you try to compete with them you are sure to lose. They also use conflict as a tool to divide people.
Sadly, there are no ‘collaborative ways’ to approach psychopaths when you are in conflict with them. The only way to protect yourself is to not even engage with someone who you think is a psychopath. This means no conversations and also no mediation.
This is the rare case when avoiding confrontation is the most viable alternative.
However, all is not lost. In collaboration with colleagues you may be able to find powerful strategies how to deal with the psychopath from a HR perspective before too much damage is done in your organization. Some useful strategies are mentioned in Snakes in Suits.
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