Is your colleague a psychopath?

Here’s what you should know about working with people exhibit psychopathic tendencies

Work life

PHOTO: Phovoir/ Ingimage

Everyone knows what it’s like to have crazy colleague, but how many people can say they’ve worked with someone who is an actual psychopath? According to Manfred Kets de Vries, a leading figure in the clinical study of organizational leadership, our offices might be populated with undiagnosed psychopaths. These are people who will stop at nothing to work their way up, who are incapable of feeling guilt, and whose expertise at faking genuine emotion can mask their actual lack of empathy.

Given the publicity that corporate scandals receive – as well as your own experiences – the presence of psychopaths in the office might not come as a surprise. But if that 17-second viral video of the Singaporean office worker slapping his subordinate has taught us anything, it’s that people love hearing tales of bosses gone bonkers – as long as those bosses aren’t their own.

So without further ado, here’s what you should know about working for, working alongside, or hiring a psychopath.

1. What’s a psychopath?
Psychopaths are diagnosed using the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) scale, which measures who strongly they exhibit some of the most common psychopathic traits. These include shallow emotions, grandiose self-worth, failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions, irresponsibility, impulsiveness, poor behavioural controls, and parasitic tendencies – all of which are linked to the person’s inherent lack of empathy.

2. A psychopath isn’t your average jerk
While most people called the physically abusive boss in the video a psycho, he’s not actually a psychopath. In fact, Manfred posits that whatever the office worker is suffering is probably closer to narcissistic personality disorder, which might explain why he thought he was entitled to slapping his subordinates. At best, he’s just your average jerk with a hot temper – a far cry from textbook psychopaths, who are primarily characterised by their inability to feel remorse. A true psychopath would have held back a little, lest the violent act blow his cover as a “normal person.”

3. Psychopaths tend to be extremely charming
Far from being the typical scumbags that everyone avoids, psychopaths are often charming, well-spoken, and quick-witted. There’s a reason why fictional psychopaths, such as Hannibal Lecter, are so compelling to watch – and it may explain how serial killers like Jeffery Dahmer and Ted Bundy were able to lure so many young women into their traps.

4. There are no advantages to having a psychopath in the office
At least not according to Manfred, who insisted that “people don’t want to work in a gulag.” Because psychopaths are inherently deceitful and callous, it can be easy for them to lead others by fear rather than by compassion and cooperation.

5. They tend to gravitate toward certain careers
Every occupation attracts a certain temperament. While no one should be surprised that a lot of psychopaths end up making it as lawyers, salespeople, and CEOs, you might want to be extra wary of working alongside psychopaths if you become a journalist, surgeon, chef, or civil servants. According to an article published in Forbes earlier this year, careers that attract psychopaths typically encourage one to be independent and egocentric. In fact, psychopaths may be more common in business circles than among murderers, as successful psychopaths function at such a high level that the average person would have a hard time sussing them out. 

6. How to deal with psychopathic boss
So what happens if you end up stuck with a psychopath for a boss? While diagnosis is a tricky thing—and no one should attempt to diagnose others without having access to an expert opinion, it’s not wrong to set up some defenses when you sense that something’s awry. Document every encounter with your “psychopath” boss. Take note of those who witness your encounters, and when you approach human resources, you should make a case for the organisation rather than for yourself. Rather than eliciting sympathy for yourself, you should convince those in power that your boss’s psychopathic behaviour may be very costly for the organisation.

7. How to prevent one from entering a position of power
If psychopaths are so good at working their way up the ladder, how should you go about preventing one from entering a position of power? Those working in human resources could try thwarting their attempts to join the company, but of course, a really skilled psychopath would ace the interview with his charm. Nowadays, there are plenty of organisations that use a 360-degree feedback system that can keep power-hungry colleagues in check. But on a smaller scale, you can work to create a collaborative culture in your own office – one that prioritises accountability – as psychopaths are notoriously bad at being team players.

8. Your survival plan
Is your colleague – or worse, your boss – an actual psychopath? Manfred only has one solution: run. At best, you’ll have to deal with a negative environment in the office. At worst, you’ll have to deal with massive layoffs, scandal, depression, or suicide. The business world is notoriously ruthless, but the last place you want to work is at an organisation where the boss enjoys stepping on people. It’s one thing to be ruthless for the sake of the company – it’s another to be ruthless because you are bent on achieving success no matter what the cost.

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