The superficially charming, highly ambitious employee (often leader) who pretends to listen attentively while dogmatically doing it their way and treading on whoever to achieve their ambitions. Have you worked with one of these people?
Let me introduce you to the successful workplace psychopath. Often a successful corporate psychopath is described as a high-flyer with psychopathic traits such as wiliness, insincerity, dishonesty, a lack of empathy or remorse, egocentric, captivating, good with people and superficial. You’ll spot them as the highly confident person selling a new idea to the business but then not delivering real results – or managing to manipulate the situation so that it looks like they have achieved. Typically, psychopaths create a lot of chaos and generally tend to play people off against each other.
It’s very possible you will warm to the psychopath more than your other colleagues at first. This personality type tends to seem fun and be initially well liked. That explains why they often obtain rapid promotion, hopping from job to job and climbing the ranks at speed. But wait a year and their true colours are likely to be revealed.
These are the individuals most likely to engage in workplace bullying but because they are often the boss and/or very clever at covering their tracks, they are more likely to get away with it. Psychopaths are more likely to commit a crime that they know is wrong but they don’t care. The toxic environment they create leads to low productivity and morale, and at their worst, cause the breaking point of a great employee and business. But maybe you’ll never know it was them.
Some researchers have speculated that people with pronounced psychopathic traits may be found disproportionately in certain occupations, such as politics, business, law enforcement, firefighting, special operations military services and high-risk sports. Perhaps their social poise, charisma, audacity, adventurousness and emotional resilience lends them a performance edge over the rest of us when it comes to high-stakes settings.
I’m no psychologist but my best research suggests that these famous people are potentially successful psychopaths: Henry VIII, Saddam Hussein, Mel Gibson, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. Do you have other suggestions?
10 Strategies to Avoid Workplace Psychopath Disasters
- Your organisational values drive your culture and need to be supported by behavioural statements and a code of conduct that are used in recruitment, induction, performance review and reward programs.
- When recruiting ensure you use a robust selection process so that you avoid hiring a psychopath, including structured behavioural interviews, psychometric testing and reference checking. Warning signs – not providing manager referees of recent jobs and/or gaps in resume. If in doubt, investigate further or don’t hire.
- Make performance targets and feedback clear, specific and unambiguous – the psychopath will turn any leeway into an out. Make clear what is solely their responsibility. If they try to push the blame for failure onto someone else, point out that it was still their responsibility. Psychopaths manipulate, lie and change their story a lot. Ask them to be specific with their examples.
- Expect them to manoeuvre against you. For example, to butter up to your boss or your boss’ boss. The most effective defence is to name the behaviour with specific examples. Where possible, draw these examples from other people’s observations and experience, as well as your own.
- Have a well-communicated and easy process for employees to raise concerns about colleagues with an open-door policy. Because regular employees are less useful to a psychopath than leaders, the psychopath’s mask will often come off in front of staff, and employees will pick up on the psychopath’s game before management does.
- Thoroughly cross-check your impressions of your high-potentials with colleagues who know them well. A psychopath will tell you exactly what you want to hear, and it may be quite different from what they tell others. When the stories don’t correlate, take a closer look.
- Leaders are most often conscious of their strengths but not so their vulnerabilities. A psychopath will manipulate you by exploiting personal weaknesses. Learn about your weaknesses, and beware when someone seeks advantage by playing on them.
- Organisation structures that encourage interaction across teams will limit the ability of psychopaths to tell one story to one person and another story to another. The more interactive the organisation structure the more difficult it will be for psychopaths to manipulate, lie and deceive.
- When you have evidence that they are unlikely to deliver, reduce their responsibilities and give them an easy way out. Offer them the option of going through a formal disciplinary process or leaving of their own accord (with consideration to constructive dismissal). Once they recognise that you are not going to be an easy victim, they are more likely to look for greener pastures. When they go, spend time with your team helping them to cope with the emotional confusion that often occurs. The psychopath may well have “befriended” a few people, who they saw as useful to them. Best to call your HR consultant in for help with this strategy.
- Finally, remember when dealing with a psychopath not to take their behaviour personally. It has got nothing to do with ‘you’. It will help you to remain emotionally detached and it will be less upsetting.
Written by Claire Harrison, Managing Director of Harrison Human Resources and Author of The CEO Secret Guide to Managing and Motivating Employees.