Are you working with a psychopath?

Gary Martin


written on January 25, 2018

They aren’t just confined to your television screen. How to tell if a workplace psychopath is in your midst.

A good friend of mine was complaining to me about his boss. He quipped that he thought his managing director displayed a raft of psychopathic tendencies, but quickly retracted his statement, saying “that’s not right – after all, psychopaths are killers”.

“Not so!,” say many experts. Only a small number of psychopaths are criminals. Others make use of their traits to navigate or “take hold” of the workforce. Yes, that’s right! You did not misread: there are many more psychopaths in the broader community than you would like to believe.

Our perception of psychopaths being violent criminals stems from an array of television shows that portray them as serial killers who simply cannot function in a normal society.

Yet the reality is, if you believe the many anecdotal accounts of those in the workplace, there are literally hundreds of non-criminal but self-serving, egocentric, conceited, self-loving people in the workplace – some of whom lead major organisations or hold senior leadership positions – who qualify as psychopaths or at least possess psychopathic tendencies.

The Traits

Taking the criminal element out of the equation, ask the average worker to describe the characteristics of the workplace psychopath and the traits pour forth:

  • an exaggerated sense of self-worth
  • pathological lying
  • a heightened lack of emotional intelligence and lack of empathy
  • a skilful manipulator
  • a parasitic workplace style
  • a master of persuasion
  • a lack of self-control and a remarkable absence of social conscience.

And this list is by no means exhaustive!

Just to seemingly mitigate the impact of these characteristics, workplace psychopaths have another set of characteristics – they can be absolutely charming, a master of disguise, and can be amazingly charismatic.

And here’s the rub – some experts believe that, in many organisations, positive characteristics such as charisma conceal narcissistic behaviours in a way that portrays the workplace psychopath as emerging leadership talent.

The Outcome

Once in a leadership position, those with psychopathic tendencies will use their traits to carve out distinguished careers for themselves while leaving behind them a path of destruction, with the professional lives of subordinates being the carnage along the way.

And a further warning – psychopaths are attracted to organisations that allow their negative traits to go unchecked. There’s a message there for all human resources professionals. And a broader lesson – inappropriate and poor behaviour going unchecked in the workplace provides a foundation or fertile breeding ground for the wrong type of leadership. It allows those with psychopathic tendencies to take hold of an organisation, so that their negative characteristics and behaviours appear to become the norm. And, once they are entrenched in an organisation, they are there for a very long time.

So, I explained to my friend that he ought not dismiss his thoughts about his managing director. That got him thinking more – that there might be more than just one psychopath in his organisation.

Professor Gary Martin is Chief Executive Officer, the Australian Institute of Management WA, Board Director, and an International Management and Leadership Commentator. This is an edited version of his LinkedIn article

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9 thoughts on “Are you working with a psychopath?

    1. That is so true Gary! You’ve hit the nail on the head so to speak. I’ve worked with these people over the years and if HR Managers aren’t aware of these toxic people they can change the whole culture of the business, especially the humanitarian side!!

  1. Having recently experienced working for a CEO with all of the personality traits listed in the article I did choose, as Gary suggested to go, go, go. The consequences are of course facing a period of unemployment and all that brings which is exacerbated by being based in a regional area where great HR roles are very few and far between. On top is the emotional turmoil resulting from the experience and its impact on self esteem and self worth. I have no doubt there are many people who have experienced similar situations to mine and who have hung on for as long as they could and to their detriment because of fear for the future. Although 3 months later and still unemployed I have recovered from the experience and focussed on creating a bright new future knowing that my decision to go, go, go was the right one for me together with seeking valuable support from a great counsellor to help process the unfortunate experience. Always remember, it’s not you, it’s them and it’s not okay. There will always be another opportunity around the corner so go, go, go and be true to yourself and your values.

    1. I completely resonate with this and unfortunately, I went from the workplace you describe above to a worse environment working for many narcissists and sociopaths in very senior positions paid a lot of money (essentially funded by tax payers). I have been planning my exit strategy since week 1 but am so concerned about making the same mistake again. 8 months later, I am seeing a great holistic therapist (to cope with the impact on my self-esteem and self-worth) and tell myself every day that it’s them with the problem. I just can’t believe our HR department will not do anything about it unless I put in a formal complaint. They agreed that finding another job is the only way – how ridiculous is that? I now cling onto hope and there are some great opportunities on the horizon so go, go, go is nearly here. I urge anyone in the same position to stay strong and believe in yourself.

  2. I only realised I worked for a phycopath after the fact. It was not until my new boss arrived that I noticed that my conditioned behaviour was wrong, poorly focussed and not always on target. You see I was caught in a workplace trance and behaviours that I now have know to be wrong were rewarded and justified. I was in a state of survival. I felt unworthy and made to feel like a faulty human as ever engagement with my boss turned into a lengthy personal improvement sermon. I have since realised that my boss was actually lacking EQ and social skills. Any social event he could not control or dominate would lead to him withdrawing. My workplace is better for his departure and while we still have some rebuilding to do, morale has returned and people are now happy in the work they do.

  3. You should have not felt like you were a second class citizen/employee…be wise and identify these toxic people up front, post them somewhere else where they can do less harm, they soon will get bored (being out of the limelight) and eventually move on….they are self-absorbed and do not add value to the organisation or the bottom line long term…the damage they cause can sometimes be irretrievable!

  4. Without trying to sound like a martyr, I’m currently working for a psychopath but I stay on because I’m often the foil between his behaviour and its impact on those employees less empowered to deal with it. Being ex-military I have an inbuilt need to protect ‘my’ people. I continue to advise him and I try and convince myself that perhaps he can learn but after 2 and a half years I know I need to let go of that slim hope. The fact that he is the son of the owner means that he’s not leaving either as this is the only place he can get away with such appalling conduct. Maybe this year I’ll go go go.

  5. In any case, a toxic worker of any kind should be avoided in the workplace! It provides more benefit than taking one on simply because they are an A-player. It’ll make the environment toxic, even if it’s a slow process.

  6. The greatest difficulty working with people like this is that they just don’t follow the same rules as everyone else, and responding to them as if they do, will never work.

    We all have to get better at identifying and responding appropriately to these behaviours, because the psychopaths are not going to change – and the stock standard ways of managing people will never work with them.

    I can recommend Billy Eddy’s work on High Conflict People for clear strategies and steps to make sure you can protect yourself (and your sanity) in most situations, and Emotional Vampires by Albert Bernstein to help recognise and respond to the various types of psychopaths we will all encounter.

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