How to deal with a workplace psychopath

Long read 2,815 words

Workplace psychopaths create havoc in the working lives of victims. However, there are some strategies that you can use to deal with them.
Alex Iby on Unsplash

Case study

For many people, working with psychopaths is a long and isolating experience. This was Sandra’s experience, working in a private-sector firm. Sandra had recently joined the firm. The company was a large one that occupied an expansive, open-planned office in the city.

It wasn’t a job that she was particularly keen on at the outset. This was because she enjoyed her previous contract role, which had ended.

She also didn’t enjoy that the job was segmented; work had been outsourced to an external company. This was a problem, as the overseas firm’s employees had no understanding of the work involved. The completed work was a dog’s breakfast.

Four months into the job, things got complicated. The boss hired an employee at the urging of his intimate partner. Of course, hiring cronies can be problematic, but not always. Some are good choices; some are forgettable choices; others are a nightmare!

For Sandra, the worst part was the constant bickering, undermining and complaining about her role as a team leader. And one of the chief protagonists in this torture was the crony hired by her manager. Colleague X was intensely resentful of the fact that Sandra was appointed to a higher position. So Colleague X decided to make Sandra’s life hell. Sandra had also defeated Colleague Y for the team leader role, and together they launched a campaign of harassment against her.

After months of workplace hell, Sandra summoned up the courage to resign. It was a difficult decision given that the job prospects in her industry didn’t reflect the sunny headline numbers in the newspapers. 

Did she have any other options? Given that her work environment was challenging for the reasons explained, it was hard to find an argument to stay. Okay, but could she have made her time there a little more bearable? Sure, massage, yoga, Pilates and other therapies can help reduce stress, but none of these is a substitute for deep power imbalances in the workplace. They are also no remedy for organisational recalcitrance.

This wasn’t the only instance of favouritism at the company. In fact, the company was a cesspool of favouritism and jobs for the mates of intimate partners. Further, an elite cadre of part-timers enjoyed the annual leave benefits of full-timers.

What aspects of Sandra’s experience demonstrate that psychopathy was an issue?

Sandra’s colleagues launched a persistent and vicious campaign against her; this is a common characteristic of psychopathy. Sandra was originally appointed to the team leader’s position in preference to her other competitors.

In fact, a well-regarded colleague who worked for another firm, hearing about Sandra’s experiences with Colleague X, confirmed that not only were they aware of the difficulties of working with X, but they also said it was well-known that people backstab others promoted over them. She also confirmed that the sociopathic X had caused many problems in her previous roles by bullying or dealing inappropriately with other colleagues. The sociopath X’s other colleagues knew to walk on eggshells around X. Colleague X’s successor in at least one role had to work hard to re-establish trust after X

Second, psychopaths are very astute in creating interpersonal conflict. Sandra was routinely invited to her manager’s office and given a dressing down for her allegedly poor performance. These verbal assaults usually came after Sandra’s two colleagues had badmouthed her for being a lousy team leader.

So, why would anyone do that? According to Dr John Clarke, author of Working with Monsters: “.”

” If the organisation’s psychopath can create conflict between co-workers, it allows them to control those co-workers more easily. The psychopath also finds it satisfying to see people insulting and hurting each other. Generally conflict is creating using two simple strategies The first strategy is to select a target that is different from everyone else…The second strategy is to create conflict by spreading rumours about other employees.”

Working with Monsters: How to identify and protect yourself from the workplace psychopath by Dr John Clarke.

2) Second, Sandra’s boss deflected blame for the failed project onto Sandra, even though it was the manager who planned the project.

This is a common experience among victims of psychopaths in the workplace. Dr John Clarke states in his book, Working with Monsters: “Nothing is ever the organisational psychopath’s fault; it is always someone else’s fault or a breakdown in organisational communication. “

Third, the firm was entrenched in mobbing/bullying issues.   Indeed when Sandra did complain about bullying from her co-workers, they didn’t want to do anything about it. In fact, even when the senior manager attempted to discipline the main “organisational psychopath”, Colleague X, her behaviour resented the admonishment and actually deteriorated.

This is typical of psychopaths. Unlike most people, who attempt to adjust their behaviour or work on improving their behaviour, psychopaths don’t do this. In fact, their behaviour tends to deteriorate, not improve.

Could she have solved or fixed the relationship with a workplace psychopath?

Unfortunately, the short answer is no. There was no organisational governance performed by the parent company. And fundamentally, when senior company officers are unwilling to acknowledge there is a problem, not much can be done. In that case, the only option was to leave.

Traits of psychopaths

Nothing in life seems to come in predictable packages. That’s particularly so when it comes to psychopaths (sociopaths). They can be hard to detect – unless you’ve been burned by one. Some varieties come in surprising forms – celebrities and people in supposedly caring occupations. Other varieties are more predictable: cold-blooded killers, politicians, white collar criminals, child abusers, abusive parents and work colleagues.

Regardless of their form, they leave an indelible mark on victims. They leave victims feeling scared and often alienated. Yet so often these perpetrators hide behind a cloak of respectability.

According to Hazel Edwards and Dr Helen McGrath in their book, Difficult personalities; A practical guide to managing the hurtful behaviour of others (and maybe your own!) argue that sociopaths are people who exploit others for their own gain. Sociopaths don’t suffer from pangs of guilt: they make sure that other people suffer.

They are characterised by the following qualities:

  • Lacks empathy
  • Lies and never apologises
  • Sadistic
  • Blames others for their incompetence
  • Manipulative
  • If they’re a boss, they’re likely to be micro-managers.
  • Callous

Three other caveats!

  1. They can be charming (but not always) – ” They are great conversationalists who can easily sprinkle chit-chat with witty comebacks and “unlikely but convincing” stories that make them look good ..” according to Robert Hare, who created the Hare Psychopathy checklist.
  2. Psychopaths are more than bullies and more than jerks, according to Aine Cain, Retail reporter at Business Insider, they have to meet criteria in Hare Psychopathy checklist.

3 . Psychopathy operates on a continuum, according to Hazel Edwards and Dr Helen McGrath.

“Sociopathic behaviour is unprincipled, exploitative behaviour which harms others…

All of us have some antisocial impulses. Which of us hasn’t come close to cheating on our partners, lying stealing when the opportunity arises, or catching a train without buying a ticket? But mostly we curb those impulses and don’t act on them…Occasionally, we do act on our antisocial impulses. We do cheat on a partner, make overtures to a mate’s girlfriend when he is away, borrow some company stationery, make long distance calls from work… or tell the odd lie to cover out tracks…But we don’t do much of it, or do it often.”

Difficult personalities: A practical guide to managing the hurtful behaviour of others (and maybe your own!) by Dr Helen McGrath and Hazel Edwards

Many sociopaths are at the lower end of the spectrum, some at the middle of the spectrum – and others are at the high end.High-end psychopaths are also known as high-functioning psychopaths. According to Tanya J. Peterson, counsellor and author, high-end psychos:

“Highly functioning sociopaths are adept at morphing themselves into what people want to see. They very quickly learn what makes people tick, and they know just how to engineer and oil the clock.”

Healthy place for your mental health – Tanya J Peterson.

Can anything be done with these people?

The short answer is no. Psychopaths know that their behaviour causes distress, but they are busy getting what they want by exploiting others.

Are psychopaths born?

Without a doubt, the number of psychopaths has increased over the last 40 years. A lot of this has to do with societal changes; we’re more individualistic than we used to be. Our economic system has trained us to see one another as competitors.

However, the reality is that psychopathy is more than some by-product of our society. Psychopathy is in fact highly genetic. The condition occurs because an affected individual has faulty brain wiring – there’s nothing you can do to mould or change him or her into being something else.

What if you work with a psychopath?

First, you need to know if you are being targeted by a psychopath.


Speak to someone sympathetic – if possible! Your life or your sanity may depend on it.

Psychopaths really are a living nightmare to work with, live with or deal with in any situation. Unfortunately, talking to friends, family members or colleagues don’t always help because their capacity to display empathy varies – a lot!

Some people can be incredibly sympathetic or empathetic; others well, they just don’t understand that there are people out there who are just not reasonable. In other words – pick your confidants wisely!

There are two reasons why confidants might be hard to find:

First, we come from an individualistic culture that champions winners and competition; in general, our culture doesn’t lift others up. This sadly means that a sympathetic ear might be hard to find!

And in an individualistic world like ours, it’s easy to dismiss the need for confidants and a cheer squad of supporters because, we’re supposed to tough it out on our own, right? Wrong! This is the worst you can do according to David Gillespie, best-selling author of Taming Toxic People

” If you are going to survive that, whether it’s at work or at home, then you have to provide a support network for yourself.”

Source: ABC Lateline 2017

“That means don’t let them cut you off from your friends and family … you will need them constantly when you are dealing with the confusion and disorientation that [the psychopath] brings to your life.”

A second reason why victims of psychopaths aren’t believed because many people are more trusting that they realise.

“It is hard convince people that this pattern of behaviour exists. Most recognise sociopaths only as serial killers, not as regular people who seem to behave normally in many ways. Also this kind of sociopath takes great pains to appear more trustworthy and more ‘together’ than the average person. “

Dr Helen McGrath and Hazel Edwards in Difficult personalities: a practical guide to managing the hurtful behaviour of others

If I am being targeted, what is the best way to deal with them?

Psychopath needs to be diagnosed by a psychologist. However, many who are victims of psychopathy clearly don’t have the luxury of hiring a psychologist or therapist and arranging for the person to be formally diagnosed.

Nevertheless, it’s CRITICAL to look for evidence that the person or persons are psychopaths.

That means that you have to look for evidence that contradicts your hypothesis, as well as information that supports it. Remember as Dr Helen McGrath and Hazel Edwards said unethical behaviour doesn’t always make someone a psychopath. (see Traits of psychopaths)

Assuming your boss or co-worker is actually a psychopath you need to start looking for another job.

David Gillespie, the author of the best selling novel, Taming Toxic People, says that the key to dealing with these people is to keep your behaviour low-key…”they will use emotion against you.”

What do I do next?

As for you, if you’re working with a psychopath or you think you might be, think about your next moves. Given that psychopathy isn’t a treatable condition, and given that organisations are often unwilling to recognise that they have a problem person, you need to start think about your next steps.

Some people stick around for ages, not wanting to give up their job because other positions may be particularly hard to find.

But here’s the thing, psychos are difficult and often dangerous people to deal with There’s nothing you can do.

Absolutely nothing!

For people to change their behaviour, the realisation they have a problem must start with them. Psychopaths recognise they have a problem but are too busy getting their thrills at others’ expense.

That’s why, if and when you’ve identified that you are working with one, your only choice is to leave (if you possibly can). This is always difficult advice to offer, particularly if you work in an industry with a rapidly diminishing number of jobs or live in a country area with few jobs.

Start your job search journey as soon as possible. It takes even capable, resourceful people lots of time to find work. Many people currently employed spend months or over a year searching for work in a highly competitive market saturated with capable competitors.

“I recommend beginning the job search process as soon as you are aware that you are in a toxic job. The longer you stay, the more likely it is going to end badly. If you wait, it can turn nasty, or you might find yourself so desperate you start burning bridges, making mistakes with your work or even leaving without a job to go to.” says Skye London, a consultant at Y Executive.

Even if you work somewhere harassment, mobbing or bullying is recognised and investigated by management, you still need to consider looking for a new job.

Sometimes it can be of assistance to make a note of the psychopath’s poor behaviour. This carefully curated data should be presented to and discussed with someone of authority.

Health (and other) effects of working with psychopaths

They lack empathy, so it doesn’t worry them if they cause the following:

  • Nervous breakdowns
  • Flashbacks
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Relationship problems
  • Moderate to severe depression
  • Financial damage to individuals or businesses.
  • Post traumatic stress disorder

Next steps

Remember to talk with a friend, colleague, or counsellor – most importantly speak to someone that you can trust.

Try and remain calm. It may help to use relaxation techniques like meditation, qigong etc, but importantly seek out support.

Start making a plan – work out what will be your next steps. Resigning your job won’t be an easy option for many, but you need to the weigh the costs of going and staying.

Remember not all nasty people (bullies, jerks etc) are necessarily psychopaths. Look for the evidence…

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