April 21st, 2008
By Dr Alicia Karwat, KeySteps Pty. Ltd.
Workplace psychopaths, some estimate that there are about 3% of them in the workplace, and some say that their number is on a raise, but if it is the first time you are working with one and if you are a target of their attention you may start to feel like a paranoid freak. On the other hand workplace psychopaths with milder forms of psychopathic behaviours could be useful if managed properly by organisations.
However, to deal with workplace psychopaths, employers and employees have to know how to recognise them and assess whether they are dysfunctional or can be utilised.
You will be mistaken in thinking that if you meet a workplace psychopath you will spot him or her straightaway. In fact it is not obvious if you had not come across one before. We can be easily fooled and often charmed by them. We do not suspect anything until we start to feel trapped and controlled by them. To make the situation worse, they might be highly respected by their superiors because they usually have a drive, high level of energy, are highly intelligent, appear as natural leaders and they get things done. The paradox is that if you start to complain about their behaviour you may appear as an incompetent underachiever who cannot cope with stress or the demands of work.
Imagine a situation that you are a manager working on a project. You think that you are doing well and the project is well on track and under control. You have scheduled few meetings with clients and your boss says “I will go to these meetings – you have such a good attention to detail, could you do some paper work for me in this time. My PA is too busy today to do it.” You have not expected that, never seen it before, you are speechless. You start to think that your boss is taking over your project. You find yourself in such absurd situations day in and day out. Does not matter what you say or do, it is always wrong. Your confidence is completely shattered and you start to feel like a paranoid freak defending your existence. Does the boss think that I am incompetent?
Actually, it might be quite opposite, you may be a high achiever and you are a target because the boss wants to take credit for your work.
Bosses are also often targeted by workplace psychopaths. In the background, the workplace psychopath will try to undermine the boss and will complain about him/her to senior management at the first opportunity. By the time the boss expresses his/her concerns about the workplace psychopath, he/she is not taken seriously anymore. That happens usually but not exclusively when the workplace psychopath wants their boss’s job.
What makes workplace psychopaths different from the norm is that they are manipulative, impulsive, egocentric, callous, ruthless and remorseless. They use superficial charm, manipulation, intimidation, and aggression to control others and satisfy their own needs. The usual assertiveness does not take us far in dealing with workplace psychopaths. The more you recognise them for what they are the more you will become the target. If you try to deal with them by telling how you feel, the more they will attack you. This is exactly how they want you to feel.
So, how to deal with workplace psychopaths?
Some suggest to document every incident and take it to someone higher than your boss, but to be prepared for consequences such as being managed out or forced out with redundancy. However, based on experiences of others, I would advise to get out of the situation as quickly as you can before it gets out of control. Apply for another job either within the organisation or outside.
I had a discussion recently about workplace psychopaths with an HR manager from a large corporation in Europe. He said that workplace psychopaths do not have emotional intelligence. However, many of them could be utilised in a very effective way. In his organisation, once workplace psychopath character traits are spotted in an individual, he/she is not placed in a leadership position to manage a regular team. He/she is assigned to work and lead on a project basis.
Because of their drive, intelligence, ambition to achieve and ability to get things done, the workplace psychopaths can be very effective in strategic and high impact projects. The people on these projects do not stay usually long enough to become victims of the workplace psychopath’s tactics. Most importantly, the workplace psychopaths want to achieve within very tight deadlines, therefore do not have much incentive to victimise people who work with them. Even more, many people said that they learned a lot from them. The danger is that some might adopt some of the destructive behaviours, believing that that will ensure progress within the organisation.
Have you ever worked with a workplace psychopath? How is your organisation dealing with workplace psychopaths? Maybe you would like to share your thoughts with others. We would love to hear from you.
1. Working with Monsters: How to identify and protect yourself from the workplace psychopaths, John Clarke, Random House Australia 2005
2. The Pocket Psycho, John Clarke, Random House Australia, 2007
3. Snakes in Suites: When Psychopaths Go To Work, Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Regan Books, 2006