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.
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.
* 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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