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Amanda walked out of the department meeting fighting back the tears.  Her department had, once again been addressed by the MD and told that there was a complete lack of leadership in the department.  As the HR Manager in a medium sized organization that had been her home for over 8 years, she was strangely feeling increasingly isolated and targeted- she was being told in one-on-one sessions with the MD (who she had been an integral part of the hiring of as an Operations Manager, General Manager delegate some 4 years back) that she needed his assistance and support in order to be successful but who in general department meetings and in meetings with other managers was highly critical of her.  In fact it was starting to feel very deliberate but surely this was not the case?  She had seen him behave similarly towards one or two of the other senior managers in the organization, but he had assured her that they were “deserving” of this.  She and the MD had enjoyed a good working relationship up until a few months back.  Whatever the cause, Amanda was losing confidence in herself and her competence.  She was beginning to second guess herself and getting to work in the morning was becoming an emotional event in itself. But she loved the Company and her job.  She would just have to try harder. 

Meet the organizational psychopath (OP):

What is psychopathy?  In psychiatry and clinical psychology, it is currently defined as a condition characterized by lack of empathy or conscience, poor impulse control or manipulative behaviours.

For most of us, the word “psychopath” itself seems like a loaded term, and overwhelmingly shocking to use for someone who might be our boss or a colleague in the next cubicle at work.  Other terms used in the organizational context are, “industrial psychopaths”, “organizational psychopaths” or “corporate psychopaths”

In common usage, the term psychopathy probably is more correctly thought of as part of a spectrum: the milder end being populated by persons with narcissism, and the more severe end being populated by mass murders and people who lie to start wars.

On the broad continuum between the ethical everyman and the predatory killer, there's

plenty of room for people who are ruthless but not violent.  In fact, executives are even more likely to be superficially charming, egocentric, insincere, and manipulative, and just as likely to be grandiose, exploitative, and lacking in empathy.  They may be termed "successful psychopaths." In contrast, the criminals -- the "unsuccessful psychopaths" – tend to be more impulsive and physically aggressive.

High-level executives are more charming but less violent than criminals, but otherwise are quite similar.  Both groups are skilled at coming up with excuses for their behaviour.  In the corporate world, it has become standard practice to justify bad behaviour by saying that you are only doing what your shareholders expect, or that if you didn't do it, someone else would, or "it's just market forces at work".

Odds are, as was the case for Amanda, you've run across one of these characters in your career. They're glib, charming, manipulative, deceitful, ruthless -- and very, very destructive.

There's evidence that the business climate has become even more hospitable to psychopaths in recent years.  Evidence has shown their presence in fast-growing high-tech firm while others were to be found in large multinationals undergoing dramatic organizational changes -- severe downsizing, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and joint ventures.  Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behaviour.

Research claims that 1 per cent of the adult working population are workplace psychopaths. In offices large and small, in boardrooms and on shop floors the psychopath lurks; lying, cheating, stealing, manipulating, victimising and destroying co-workers - all without any guilt or remorse. These so-called organizational psychopaths thrive in the corporate world where their ruthlessness and desire to succeed is not only mistaken as ambition and good leadership skills but is rewarded with promotion, bonuses and pay rises.

Consequences of being targeted by a psychopath:

For those targeted by the psychopath, the consequences can be devastating, because they take away people’s confidence in their abilities and they take away their trust in other people.
You can expect to move through five common stages:

• Stage 1:  Shock ('why is this person doing this to me?').
• Stage 2:  Anger.
• Stage 3.  Shame, embarrassment.
• Stage 4:  Feeling like you are going crazy. Massive loss of confidence.
• Stage 5:  Social withdrawal, relationship problems at work and home. Thinking about the situation obsessively.

Taking action when you are still in stage one or two is critical to avoid the worse impact of the office psychopath.  When you are in the shock and anger stages it is still about them but when you move into stage three - shame and embarrassment - it starts to become about you.

Spotting the organizational psychopath:

Dr Clarke, a PhD in psychology from the University of Sydney, is the author of the recently-published The Pocket Pscyho (Random House), a survival guide on how to protect yourself from the organizational psychopath. According to Clarke you can spot the workplace psychopath by the following behaviour patterns and personality traits.

  • Guiltless: The workplace psychopath shows no remorse no matter how much they victimize, back-stab or steal credit.
  • Charming: They are very good talkers. They prefer to operate one-on-one and will avoid group meetings.
  • Manipulative: They bend the corporate systems and rules for their own advantage. They prey on people's weaknesses, particularly low self esteem.
  • Parasitic: They take credit for other people's work.
  • Pathological liars: The workplace psychopath is not a good liar. However, when discovered they can talk their way out of trouble.
  • Erratic: Psychopaths only experience primary emotions (happy, sad, anger). They will also shift between emotions very quickly, one minute being happy, the next being angry and the next sad.

The above provides a solid argument for the psychological screening of corporate leaders, just as there are for psychological screening of police and teachers.  The psychopath is the kind of individual that can give you a good impression, has a charming facade, can look and sound like the ideal leader, but behind this mask has a dark side. And it's this dark side of the personality that lies, is deceitful, is manipulative, that bullies other people and does not help shareholders at all. Corporate psychopaths who not only demonstrate the defining characteristics of lack of remorse and empathy, but also enjoy causing others pain.

10 Ways to Spot a Psycho Boss


The 107-question B-scan asks other workers - peers, employees and supervisors - questions such as these to determine whether executives have psychopathic traits:

1. Comes across as smooth, polished and charming.
2. Turns most conversations around to a discussion of him or herself.
3. Discredits, puts down others in order to build up own image and reputation.
4. Lies to co-workers, customers, or business associates with a straight face.
5. Considers people he or she has outsmarted or manipulated as dumb or stupid.
6. Opportunistic; hates to lose, plays ruthlessly to win. 
7. Comes across as cold and calculating.
8. Acts in an unethical or dishonest manner.
9. Has created a power network in the organization and uses it for personal gain.
10. Shows no regret for making decisions that negatively affect the company, shareholders, or employees.

A common pattern has emerged of the industrial psychopath's behaviour within his/her company.

1. The first stage, "organizational entry," is accomplished by charming the interviewer. Generally, this is "not a difficult thing to do,"
2. The next stage, "assessment," engages the psychopath's skills at gauging the utility of various members of the organization during the "honeymoon period" typically allowed new employees. He begins to charm people in power and others of use to him and establishes a communication network.
3. During the "manipulation" stage, the psychopath spreads disinformation to enhance his image and disparage others. He is adept at creating conflict between those who might pool negative information about him. In these efforts, he mobilizes a full arsenal of effective social tools, such as rational persuasion, inspirational appeal, ingratiation, and coalition.
4. This is followed, eventually, by a "confrontation" stage, in which he abandons the "pawns" who are no longer useful to him and takes steps to "neutralize" the detractors whom he has failed to take in. He does this by raising doubts about their competence or honesty.
5. The most successful psychopath finally enters an insidious "ascension" phase during which he abandons his "patrons" -- those well up in the corporate hierarchy who have facilitated his rise to power.

Companies in rapid growth or reorganization provide the freedom, fluidity, and disorder in which this kind of individual can flourish. Companies of all sizes can be duped, charmed and ultimately destroyed by a psychopath if they give them enough power. Not only are psychos inherently focused on climbing the corporate ladder by any means necessary (the riskier the better), their psychological profile, particularly their aversion to routine, makes them most suited to the executive lifestyle.  In a corporate setting, for instance, when you're looking for a leader, you want someone who is competent and loyal. A psychopath can easily convince you they're competent because they are very good liars and they are amazingly loyal because most of their relationships are built one-on-one, so they don't allow you to see the backstabbing, which is done in private. They are able to mask that – much like a modern day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Do psychos actually make it to the top? It would seem that many do. "To quote 'Survivor': They can outwit, outplay and outlast everybody." So when you call the boss crazy, you just might be right.

And Amanda, well she did not heed the warning signs outlined above and only realised that her MD was a organizational psychopath somewhere between stage 4 and stage 5.  By this time her relationship with the MD was so dysfunctional that there was no going back and she chose to move on to a new Company having learnt an invaluable life and career lesson.  Her confidence has taken a huge knock but is being repaired by the positive and supportive leadership experienced at her new organization.

Written by Mandy McGuire - Human Resources Manager - Subtech.