For all our recruitment tests and practices in HR, the problem of psychopaths in the workplace remains a problem that’s hard to solve.

Everyone has worked with a psychopath. I’m a lay-person, so I use the term in it’s popular sense, but I’m on their case because they're so disruptive. Sometimes they are the obvious bullies in the office, sometimes they are your boss, and sometimes they are someone not apparently in charge, but who has everyone running around after them and who manipulates and wreaks havoc on the whole group by subtle disempowerment.

I’ve known a few. The first one was my boss, and he nearly destroyed my health and my career.

Sometimes, psychopaths are so effective at getting their way and destroying everyone around them, that the only way you can detect them is by noticing the destruction around them. Like a Black Hole in the universe, which you can only detect from the glow around it as light gets sucked in, you can tell if there’s an office psychopath around because everything in the office will be going wrong somehow: team spirit will be low, team work and cooperation will have disintegrated, group optimism and company or department vision will have disappeared, everyone will be tense and guarded and resentful, and nobody will really know why. And most likely, the psychopath will be undetected, and worse, they might be the only person that everyone thinks they can trust.

It’s scary.

I’ve just been reading the website of one of the more recent psychopaths in my life. Having totally destroyed the morale of the people he worked with, having repeatedly covered up monthly losses by making charismatic and extravagant promises to the people above him and blaming other people, having (in this day and age!) indulged in outrageous and blatant sexist, harassing and upsetting behaviour with his junior staff, having offended clients with his use of bad language and other inappropriate and crass behaviours, he is now the CEO of a company.

I can see how he got there. He got there through deceit, using other people and destroying lives, reputations and health.

His website looks pretty good. In fact, I recognize some of my own words and ideas there. According to his bio, at the company where he used to work, and where he was finally let go because they just couldn’t afford the losses he kept making, he now claims he made huge profits. Not only that, but the bio is misleadingly worded to give the impression he was much higher in the organization than he actually was. From the bio, you get the impression this guy was actually in charge of the whole Australasian operation. You’d think his former employer would make him change it. The website shows he’s even got some of his ex-victims working for him. How does he get away with it? Because it's the way psychopaths work, that’s how.

Psychopaths have a way of charming people. Psychopaths tell us what they think we want to hear. Psychopaths have a sense of over-entitlement. They manipulate us and destroy our reputations behind our backs. They divide and rule.

The most powerful weapon a psychopath has though, is their total lack of shame, and this is what makes them different from everyone else. The rest of us care what other people think of us, most of us want to genuinely cooperate, and most of us would be embarrassed if we behaved outrageously in public. Not the psychopath. They are able to lie and cheat to great effect.

In tandem with their lack of shame is their other secret weapon: they are really great actors. Though they have no remorse, they can pretend. They are very good at mimicking normal (and even empathetic) human behaviour. They don’t feel it, but they copy it. They are very convincing and can be very charming. While if you stand up to a psychopath they’ll eventually yell, scream and in extreme cases even kill you, they don’t usually need to because they’re so adept at manipulating through charming deceit.

The psych tests we apply in HR to job candidates and staff development are not clinical tools and should not be. They won’t pick up a psychopath. In any event, psychopathy, or sociopathy as it’s now called, is a Personality Disorder, not a mental illness as such, and is extremely hard to detect even in a clinical setting (they’re charming right, and they even know what a clinician wants to hear).

If you gave an Emotional Intelligence test to a psychopath, they’d probably blitz it. Some psychologists even argue that giving EI information to a psychopath is like giving them a loaded gun. It gives them more ammunition to use against the rest of us by teaching them how to be even more charming and apparently agreeable.

So what can you do about an office psychopath? Start to look for the human and organizational fall-out around them. And don’t kid yourself that you are immune to their charm and stories.

The only way to slay a psychopath is with rationality. Insist on evidence and measurable outcomes, not their promises and stories. If everything seems to be awry in your team, and you don’t know why, then you’ve most likely got a psychopath in your midst.

 

Lynette Jensen

genesysaustralia.com

 

* The example given in this post is an amalgam, not a particular individual, and is used to illustrate typical behaviour

I'd be very interested to hear of other people's experiences. Leave a comment or if you'd prefer more privacy you can email: info@genesysaustralia.com

 

Views: 5374

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on September 2, 2011 at 11:42
It might be the case that 'everybody' works with a psychopath but they don't know how to call them that.  It might well be the case that the 'psychopath' is known by other phrases such as "having his/her head up the boss's a.s", "the protected species", "the boss's pet" and other various terms of 'endearment'.  Abuse and misuse of power seem to be part and parcel of this type of person and for a layperson, understanding why they choose to operate in this way can be extremely disconcerting.  Workplace policies and procedures for the prevention, detection and resolution of bullying/harassment do not traditionally cover these aspects.  The policies and procedures are more there to show that the organisation has something in place.  Experience suggests that if we take away the label of 'psychopath' and use everyday language to describe the behaviours, then people start to have a better understanding of what might be inappropriate in the workplace.  As indicated in the above article, some people underestimate the danger that 'psychopaths' cause, and by then it is too late - they have your job (and that would be of concern if you are the person they have been targeting from day one).
Comment by Yvonne Walker on September 2, 2011 at 13:51

Wow, Lynette you have nailed this. I know the concept of workplace psychopaths and you describe their impact brilliantly. How sad that you have had to go through that exposure though.... I too have worked with a workplace psychopath and agree completely with your comment that people can believe the psychopath is the only one they can trust... and that, to me, is the scariest thing,

Thanks for your post

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on September 2, 2011 at 14:06

The very good book written by Babiak, P & Hare, R.D (2006) titled "Snakes in Suits. When Psychopaths Go To Work".  HarperCollin Publishers Inc., New York gives a good understanding of the topic.  It is well worth the read.  Psychopaths might be more of a problem than some people would like to think.  I used to think that the office psychopath was easily identifiable and now I have a better understanding of what they do and how they manipulate others, I think the more we talk about them and their impact, the better we will understand the need for caution.



Comment by Lynette Jensen on September 2, 2011 at 15:09
Thanks for posting these comments. I think bringing the problem out in the open like this goes a long way to developing our understanding and maybe being able to do something about it.  "Snakes in Suits" is a great book Bernard, there's a link to a review of it in the post, but it's a bit hard to spot. Yvonne, we can think of ourselves as Buffy the Psychopath Slayer!
Comment by Prachi Ola on September 3, 2011 at 18:11
Wow Lyn, you have hit the nail on its head.Ita a very common seen in workplace yet not confessed.
Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on September 7, 2011 at 12:11

Bullies can be found from the sandpit to the boardroom and the fall out from exposure to those who use bullying behaviours can have a life long devastating impact in more ways than one.  It seems that unless behaviours change, the bully can end up in charge.  Given that some bullies may be classified as 'psychopaths' where their behaviours may be more damaging than the 'incidental' or 'accidental' bully (those who are once told about their bullying behaviours, do change), more has to be done in creating a better understanding of why they are so damaging, and even how they can be managed. Shifting the 'psychopath' around the organisation or even moving them to another organisation, is not going to be beneficial in the long term and damage will continue to acrue. It is problematic in organisations where employees are in fear of speaking up about the behaviours of bullies and psychopaths.  It seems that in workplaces where the workplace culture does not support the whistleblowers or those who make public interest disclosures, the bully/psychopath live safely in the knowledge that they are going to get away with it.  Standing up to bullies etc takes courage, determination and a lot of heart, and a special knowledge that in doing so, one will have to fight a hard battle (sometimes alone) as others may not want to be involved.  This is precisely what the bullies and psychopaths rely on - they don't want their behaviours challenged and in fact, they want someone to confirm that their behaviours or actions are justified.  Victims/targets are beaten into submission and become further traumatised.  Executives end up believing that there are no problems in relation to bullying etc because there are no reports and the lack of data creates a bigger risk exposure.  It is hard as an individual to speak up, but it can be easier when done collectively even though there will be some difficulties.  One should never lose sight of the fact that in every organisation there are others who may feel exactly as you do about the bullies and psychopaths and until the forces are marshalled, the bullies have free reign. 

Comment by Lynette Jensen on September 7, 2011 at 12:40

Bernard, this is a powerful and heart-felt comment that seems to me to sum up the situation very well. From my point of view, everything you say in your comment above is true, and hard-hitting.

 

It needs to be hard-hitting. Many, many lives are disrupted and affected by this insidious behaviour. Some bullies are easy to spot, and these are not necessarily the ones who are "psychopaths". It takes moral courage, clear sight and quite a lot of personal confidence to even identify them, I think.

 

After this article was posted last week, I received a number of often quite heart-breaking emails, in which people told me about their own experiences. I was touched that these people trusted me to hear their stories.

 

I think the astonishing number of people who have viewed this post attests to the enormity of the problem and of the experience of it that so many people have.

Comment by Bernard Keith Althofer on September 7, 2011 at 16:08

I think that individuals (be they the victim/target, the alleged bully and even the executives) underestimate the physical and/or psychological trauma that is caused from bullying.  Whilst some organisations may have a culture of tolerance that leads to acceptability, and even and expectation that one should 'suck it up', 'build a bridge and get over it', or any of the many similar beliefs, the reality is that bullying behaviours can result in death.  Like you, I hear from people who tell some tragic tales of how badly they are being treated, and in some cases, the conduct includes a range of behaviours that are not necessarily bullying, but certainly no less offensive or discriminatory. A number of victims/targets have expressed the view that 'a bad job is better than no job' and some even hold a view that 'things will get better'.  There is no doubt that workplace bullying and harassment appears to be escalating in interest given the responses being provided on this site and various other sites.  There is little doubt that as individuals we all have views about how to handle, manage or resolve the problem.  However, whilst we have a situation that sees a number of different definitions about what is and what is not bullying or harassment, and what is and what is not reasonable management, we also have a situation where it appears that the solution in workplaces is to run basic workshops or presentations.  Given the complexity of issues involved in preventing, detecting and resolving workplace bullying, it almost seems that any presentation or workshop that does not cover the legal issues, the physical and psychological issues and the practical issues will not result in any lasting changes.  By all means, tell employers and employees what it is and how to resolve it, but one should also look at the many silos and how the silos are connected.  If as some suggest, one should change the environment so that bullying behaviours can be addressed, one might also need to look at what constitutes the environment e.g. job/position description, tasks, people, internal and external demands and the list goes on.  Simply telling everyone about a policy may no longer be effective.  Giving people coping or resilience strategies, addressing behavioural issues and creating an understanding about mental health issues are important and sometimes not even addressed during 'workplace bullying presentations'. Some data suggests that as many as 1 in 3 will be a victim/target of bullying, whilst other data suggests 1 in 5.  Calculating the cost is difficult depending on what is used to determine the costs and whether or not more than compensation data is used.  Some posts suggest that bullying costs between $1600 and $4900 per person per year.  However, that might only be the tip of the iceberg. As we generate more discussion and commentary, we may create a situation whereby there is more understanding and a willingness to change the current situation.

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