Psychopaths are present in every workplace. And the higher you go in the organisation, the more likely you are to encounter one.
Working for a psychopath is no holiday. Here’s how to tell if your boss is one, or just a garden variety bully.
A human resources manager is more likely to know them as sociopaths, micromanagers or workplace bullies. I call them psychopaths, not to insult them or even to suggest that they might be chopping people up for fun, but because they share a common set of character traits with all those personality types and also with criminal psychopaths.
1. They are two-faced
A workplace psychopath has a two-faced nature. One face oozes charm and charisma, while the other is viciously mean. They work very hard at flattering those that have power over them, but present a very different face to the people that work for them. To most of their team they are manipulative and controlling. People who work for a psychopath see this face most of the time.
2. They have a pawn
Psychopaths will also recruit a pawn or two. These are people who the psychopath won’t attack, so long as they do their bidding. Frequently it is the pawn delivering the latest piece of manipulation rather than the psychopath themselves. This allows them to put distance between them and their victims and build in automatic plausible deniability if it goes pear-shaped. “No, Terry-The-Pawn was acting on his own initiative, it was nothing to do with me.”
3. They are excellent liars
They are convincing liars and they lie compulsively, often for no apparent reason. The truth to them is whatever needs to be said at that moment. It is whatever they judge their audience wants to hear. And they will have no compunction aggressively assuring you something happened which you know didn’t, often to the point where you will doubt your own memory.
4. They treat employees as dispensable livestock
They treat most people who work for them as dispensable livestock. And this usually causes the cattle (that would be you) unprecedented levels of stress, frustration and fear. When one victim burns out or leaves, they just move on to the next. They damage the health of individuals and the reputation of the organisation without any regret or shame. The workplace under a psychopath is in constant turmoil. Factions are rife, sick leave sky-rockets, staff turnover becomes endemic and productivity drops like a stone.
5. They can’t take criticism
They react to any criticism with aggressive denial or retaliation. If those aren’t options, usually because the critic has more power than them, they will feign victimhood or blame the victims of their actions. Punishment and threats have absolutely no effect on them. They will keep doing things their way, regardless.
In short, they are the classic malevolent workplace bully. This is not to say that all bullying in the workplace is done by psychopaths. Bosses can be mean but it is the frequency of bullying-type behavior that sets psychopaths apart from an everyday horrible boss.
In 2008, UK researcher Clive Boddy from Middlesex University set out to determine exactly how much workplace bullying was caused by psychopaths.
Boddy took a psychopathic checklist and embedded it in a management survey of Australian middle and senior managers. Almost six per cent of the respondents were working with a corporate psychopath as their current manager and thirty-two percent had worked for a psychopath at some time.
A further eleven per cent of respondents were working with managers who showed some psychopathic traits but were not rated at maximum in all categories.
The respondents also revealed how many times they had experienced bullying. Under normal managers, employees encountered bullying less than once a month (nine times a year), but the moderately psychopathic managers bullied employees more than twice a month (on average twenty-nine times a year), accounting for a twenty-one percent of all bullying. If that manager was a psychopath, the employee experienced bullying more than five times a month on average (64.4 times a year) and this accounted for twenty-six percent of all reported cases of bullying.
This means that, as an employee, you can, and probably will, be bullied in the workplace. If your boss is normal, bullying will happen once every six weeks or so. If you are working for a psychopath it will happen once or twice a week, or more. If the behavior described above is happening all the time then your boss is a psychopath. The bad news is that there are not many good options for solving it.
The exit beckons, but while you wait for the right opportunity, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself and improve your position. Those strategies are the subject of the next part of this series.