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.
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.
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.