Why don’t we see a psychopath coming down the tracks before he or she slams into us? Psychopaths are way too clever to be so obvious. They do not play BY the rules; rather they “play the rules.” That is, they know the advantage of appearing to be socially sensitive in order to manipulate people. The truth is that they could care less about you. It truly is “all about them.”
What does it feel to have an encounter with a psychopath? While the encounter may initially seem warm and charming, the longer-term picture will eventually emerge: you’ve been used and abused. You realize you were manipulated in some manner, and the psychopath had no care for you or your feelings whatever.
If this behavior sounds narcissistic, it is, and psychopathology is a subset of narcissism. The psychopath “kicks it up a notch” when it comes to narcissism. A psychopath is completely without feeling for others, believes the rules don’t apply to them, and will engage in lying and cheating without conscience to get what they want. People are objects to be manipulated. They have highly skilled manipulative skills, including charm and faked emotions.
If you thought psychopaths were all criminals, you would be wrong. Most are not. Most operate below the level of outright crime, but they still are poison to social relations, both at home and in the workplace. If they manage a work unit, you will see the damage eventually: distrust, negativity, poor morale, high levels of stress and depression, poor teamwork, and high levels of fear. A psychopath can be identified also by several workplace characteristics: they steal your ideas, take credit for your successes without recognizing you, blame you for their failures, and lie about their true motives and actions.
It takes considerable opportunity and time to identify a psychopath because they are so adept at “blending in” to “normal” social behaviors. But time is not on their side. Psychopaths leave a wake of destruction behind them. The problem in identification of a psychopathic boss in the present economy is that the opportunity to observe and track is lacking. Employees are much more likely to change positions and companies every few years now. Also, in a time of downsizing and general fear of lay-offs, the cold, calculating and manipulative personality type actually may be seen as an asset in making “hard decisions” and “getting the most” out of a decimated work force. Psychopaths are unencumbered by feelings when cutting people and costs. The psychopath sees the power to fire or lay-off as another weapon of manipulation.
Of course, there is no scientific tracking of psychopaths in the workplace. Bernie Madoff was a charismatic charmer who inspired high levels of trust. He also had psychopathic tendencies. He believed in his own grandiose statements of financial prowess, and he was willing to take extraordinary risks with other people’s lives and money. He probably never lost a night’s sleep worrying about his victims.
British researcher Clive Boddy and Canadian psychologist Robert Hare have written about the successful corporate psychopath. They identify an increasing number of psychopathic personalities rising to positions of senior management. In a 2010 paper they estimated that the percentage of such senior level management who were diagnosable as psychopaths was 4%. The average in the general population is 1%. [“Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis”—2010 Journal of Business Ethics]. Why do psychopaths seem 4 times more likely to occupy the corner office in a work environment? The answer is the “Trojan horse” principle: Coming in, they look quite attractive. Over time, the poison within spills out into the work force, causing mayhem. By the time they are “found out,” they have eliminated or demoralized many of the emotionally healthy, and positive personalities that they oversee.
Companies that have strong values and practice decency in work relations are like healthy individuals: they tend to attract what is good and to avoid or expel what is bad. Dysfunctional individuals, and companies, of course, practice an opposite behavior pattern. Denial is the hallmark of the dysfunctional organization. “We really aren’t becoming irrelevant to the emerging new market” is an organizational idea, for example, that leads to bankruptcy. Likewise, in work relations, the failure of trained Human Resources personnel to see that a senior manager is a major destructive force is a form of organizational denial. Intervening to cleanse the system of such poison requires courage and clarity. “Blowing the whistle” is of course more difficult if the psychopath is a CEO or Senior Vice President. Many times, good people simply leave, and the bleeding continues.
This article is like a flare shot into the night, in the hope it will bring some focus and resolve to an individual reader needing to make a decision about how to respond to a “successful corporate psychopath.”
[This article was inspired primarily by a CNN piece by Kevin Voight, Jan. 20, 2012: “Bad Bosses: The Psycho-path to Success?”]