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Workplace psychopaths

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At some stage in our careers, most of us encounter a horrible boss or colleague. They exist in every sector of the business world and are not as rare as you might think. In many organisations, you will find at least one ruthless individual who will do almost anything to advance their own cause.

In my forty year career, I have been truly fortunate to have worked with some outstanding individuals. I have also had the misfortune to work for two bosses I would classify as textbook corporate psychopaths. Both were superficially charming to their superiors and downright rude to their subordinates.

This modus operandi is the classic “psycho-path” to success strategy. Turn on the charisma to those in power and behave with malice towards underlings. Adept at manipulating relationships, the psychopath is able to impress his/her immediate manager while wreaking havoc on more junior workers.

Such split personality behaviour enables workplace monsters to create successful careers. They exaggerate and lie their way into favour while leaving a wake of destruction in their path. They have no compunction about trampling over others as they lack empathy.

They are so caught up in their own world that it’s not in their DNA to consider the feelings and viewpoints of others. The only thing that matters is achieving their self-serving agenda - even if that means sticking the knife into someone standing in their way.

In my personal experience, psychopaths are also control freaks who are not all that intelligent. So, they act as bloodsuckers, stealing the ideas of subordinates and offering them up as their own. Taking credit for the good work of others helps fuel their advancement.

Paradoxically, beneath their bluster, psychopaths are typically very insecure individuals. They often feel intellectually threatened by their subordinates (and so hijack ideas) and are adroit at quickly shifting the blame for anything that goes wrong.

Of course, it’s difficult to sack a subordinate who is very good at his/her job. Even a psychopathic boss is smart enough to know that you can’t remove a high achiever by claiming “poor performance”. So, the boss resorts to character assassinations, half-truths and innuendos to undermine the employee.

Corporate psychopaths are masters at playing people off against each other. They will tell one story to one person and a different version of the same story to another. This behaviour is designed to manipulate the perception of colleagues against the employee being targeted by the boss.

The target ultimately becomes the victim of a cunning web of deceit. The boss stands victorious while the target is vanquished. The wrong person comes out on top and this was the subject of a Harvard Business Review article: Why bad guys win at work. To quote from the article, psychopathic tendencies:

...facilitate both the seduction and intimidation tactics that frighten potential competitors and captivate bosses. This explains why individuals with these personality characteristics are often great actors, as well as succeeding in (short-term) sexual relationships. Yet it is important to understand that all these individual gains come at the expense of the group.

British academic, Clive Boddy, blames the psychopathic behaviour of business leaders for the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In an article he wrote for the UK Journal of Business Ethics, he argued that such people “largely caused the crisis” because their “single-minded pursuit of their own self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement to the exclusion of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility”.

In his paper examining the behaviours which gave rise to the GFC, Boddy had the following to say about corporate psychopaths:

They seem to be unaffected by the corporate collapses they have created. They present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings, and investments, and as lacking any regrets about what they have done. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events are very persuasive in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own continued worth and value. They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disasters.

In a blog post that I published in September last year titled Conduct Risk, I opined that “the GFC was brought about by having the wrong people wedded to the wrong philosophy”. In an earlier post that I published in May 2009 I wrote that “banking is an industry built on trust and the challenge facing regulators and boards is to devise a way of identifying and weeding out megalomaniacs with delusions of global domination”.

Of course, this is easier said than done. According to research, up to one in five bosses could be psychopaths. Believe it or not, the same research suggests that psychopaths are as prevalent in the corporate sector as they are in prisons.

At the end of the day, organisations have their share of psychopaths. This condition is not a mental illness but a personality disorder. Regrettably, that distinction does not help employees whose boss’ behaviour makes them quake in their boots. Yep, life is not always fair.



Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas