We have already done an article on managing psychopaths in the workplace for those in mid and upper level management, but what about those who find themselves working alongside or underneath psychopaths in the workplace? What strategies are advisable in this case to deal with a psychopath?
Here are some crucial tips to effectively dealing with workplace psychopaths:
- Understand the main traits of the psychopathic personality, especially glib charm, manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt and lack of ability to ever change.
- Understand their main methods of manipulation – lying, covert smearing, malicious gossip, projection and gas-lighting.
- Understand that workplace psychopaths will be constantly trying to provoke reactions from others.
- Remain calm when dealing with them at all times to gain the upper hand.
- Thoroughly document all instances of inappropriate or manipulative conduct from the psychopath.
Being aware that these type of people exist is a huge first step to effectively dealing with them in the workplace, since so many people are taken in by the glib, superficial charm these characters often exude and do not look past this to see the sneaky and covert way psychopaths often scheme against others for their own ends in the world of work.
Let’s look through some ways we can firstly spot and then protect ourselves against these personality disordered types in the workplace.
Identifying the Workplace Psychopath
The first step is to identify if a colleague or manager in your workplace is a psychopath. This may take a little time but is not usually difficult since psychopaths will always give themselves away eventually, no matter how well constructed or initially convincing their facade or mask of sanity is. You will be able to spot them if you know the traits to look for.
We have copied over the general list of behaviors and traits to look out for from our managing psychopaths in the workplace article. Keep an eye out for someone displaying multiple of these traits over time. See also our Checklist page for a more general list of traits of the psychopath.
⦁ A glib superficiality and charm which can take people in.
⦁ A manipulative, egotistical, self centred personality.
⦁ Often schmoozes or ingratiates themself with upper management to throw them off the scent of who they really are.
⦁ Usually has a lack of real talent or ability. Moves their way up through manipulation, deceit and parasitically feeding off the success of others.
⦁ Lack of conscience or morality.
⦁ Lack of empathy and remorse for wrongdoing.
⦁ Lack of true emotional engagement with others; shallow and fake personality.
⦁ Constant denial and projection of blame – nothing is ever their fault even when it clearly is.
⦁ Tendency to scheme, backbite and undermine others. Progresses through screwing others over or holding them down rather than through their own ability and talents.
⦁ Solely on the level of ego, power and dominance over others. Not a vocational person.
⦁ Complaints of overly controlling, micromanaging and backstabbing behavior start to emerge over time.
⦁ Often speaks negatively about other employees. Constantly attempting to feed false narratives and incomplete information (biased feedback) to upper management on those they see as a threat.
⦁ Breaks rules to hit targets and numbers. No sense of ethics, or “doing things the right way” or lines which can’t be crossed.
⦁ Ruthless treatment of others, especially when in positions of power.
Contrasting the Psychopath With Genuinely Good Workers
Another good way to spot the workplace psychopath is by contrasting it with it’s opposite – the genuine, authentic, high quality employee who any good organization with a healthy culture would want to have around.
Checking off some of the traits above to spot the psychopath can of course be useful, but sometimes it can put things in even clearer perspective to juxtapose psychopathic traits with those of the high quality, empathic person. Do this and it becomes even easier to see through the psychopath’s glibness and superficiality.
See the table below for some great ways to compare and contrast toxic, psychopathic work colleagues with genuine high quality ones, by seeing how their personalities manifest differently in a workplace environment.
Psychopaths vs High Quality Workers – Contrast
|Fundamentally an honest person||Fundamentally a dishonest person|
|Has integrity||Has no integrity|
|Treats others well, as they would like to be treated themself||Treats others poorly, constant backbiting.|
|Thrives on cordiality and harmony||Thrives on conflict and division|
|Raises their employees up, develops their skills and self esteem||Knocks their employees down and controls them|
|A win-win mindset - success can be shared||A win-lose mindset - for them to progress, someone else has to lose. Only they should have success|
|Wants to see their employees grow and develop, and fulfil their potential||Purely on the level of power, ego and controlling others. Couldn't care less about personal growth|
|Looks good because of their natural talent, creativity, conscientiousness and work ethic||Looks good by holding down, controlling and dominating others|
|Gets their head down and lets their skills speak for themself||Constant schmoozing and exaggeration of worth, or feeding off success of others.|
|Progresses by showing their own talent||Progresses by undermining and holding others down|
|Does not often speak badly of others. Any criticism they do have is balanced and fair||Constantly speaking negatively about others. Painting biased and incomplete pictures of workers to higher management|
|General pattern - Positivity follows them||General pattern - Negativity, drama & politics follows them|
Understanding the Psychopathic Personality
The crucial factor in properly dealing with and responding to a workplace psychopath is to simply realize that they are completely incurable and unchangeable. There is no prospect of the psychopath changing their behaviour. See our articles Can Psychopaths be Cured and also Why Therapy Doesn’t Work on Psychopaths.
Once we realize this fact, alongside the fact they have no conscience, empathy, remorse or guilt, then the appropriate response often becomes clear.
These are not good people to be around and therefore the best response is usually to get away from them as quickly as possible. This means seeking out a new job or a transfer to a new department as soon as possible.
This tends to be the standard advice for dealing with psychopaths in any walk of life. Some people may decide to go up against them and confront them, but this is generally not advised unless the person is very strong and self aware psychologically. Psychopaths are ruthless characters and will go to any lengths to undermine and win against someone who decides to oppose them.
In a workplace context, this means they will backstab, scheme, manipulate, lie, charm and otherwise do whatever it takes to undermine, isolate, set up and destroy anyone who opposes them. They can tug on the heartstrings of anyone and are very adept at turning opinion against someone.
For this reason the best approach is almost always to get away from these people as quickly as possible.
The one exception may be when you have plenty of support from both colleagues and upper management above the psychopath, and also plenty of evidence of unprofessional conduct from them which can be used to initiate disciplinary or dismissal proceedings against them. Without backup it simply isn’t worth it in most cases.
How Psychopaths Ruin Companies From Within
Be Prepared For Relentless Projection & Gas-Lighting From the Psychopath
This is another common method of manipulation you must be ready for when dealing with psychopaths. They constantly project their own character flaws and mistakes onto others as a way of avoiding responsibility and creating drama and conflict.
Projection is a psychological defense mechanism whereby someone attributes behaviours, qualities or traits to others when they are actually their own. It is a form of psychological “offloading” or “dumping”, and we all do it to some extent at some point, but psychopaths and other disordered people are constantly using it to avoid facing their own behavior.
Here are some examples of how this may play out with a workplace psychopath:
- They may accuse you of being “lazy” or “unmotivated” when they are the ones who are lazy.
- They may accuse you of “causing trouble” or “being difficult” when you in any way oppose them or stand up to them, when in fact they are ones causing all the trouble, often covertly.
- They may accuse you of “not working for the team” (classical guilt trip phrase), when they are the ones who are constantly causing division, infighting and backstabbing with relentless gossip and covert troublemaking. They are also themselves supremely self serving and self absorbed, the opposite of a team player.
- They may reframe their relentless micromanagement and chipping away at your boundaries as “you don’t take criticism”, when they themselves don’t take any criticism and consider themselves perfect and beyond criticism (supremely grandiose and egotistical).
- More generally, nothing is ever their fault, even when evidence and documentation shows that it clearly is. There is always an excuse as to why they are never at fault, and they always have a clever answer, even when caught red handed and presented with evidence.
- They will often blame you for responding to a situation in a certain way, when they were responsible for creating that situation to begin with. In some cases they set up these situations on purpose, again for the fun of it as they seek to create drama and see how much they can get away with projecting blame onto others.
A closely related cousin to this habit of projection is the concept of “gas-lighting” – where the psychopath will claim something was said or happened when it didn’t or vice versa. It is a way of inverting reality, of flipping things on their head, again as a way of chipping away at people psychologically and making them think they are losing it.
This often crosses over with projection in that it is an inversion of reality – flipping things the wrong way up as a way of confusing people. If allowed to continue over time it can really mess with a person’s perception of reality and themselves, so the first major step is to be aware of this tactic of psychological abuse.
Disordered personalities like psychopaths and narcissists constantly use gas-lighting to manipulate and control others. Here are some way it can manifest in the workplace:
- Saying something happened when it didn’t or vice versa.
- Saying you or them said something when they didn’t, or vice versa.
- Creating situations themselves and but then saying you created them or blaming you for them – again crosses over with projection.
- Sending out incomplete or incorrect rotas and then claiming you didn’t read them right when inevitable problems occur.
- Sending out incomplete reports and presentations and then claiming it was your responsibility to finish them when it was clearly theirs.
“If you’ve ever felt the need to record a conversation to play it back to that person as proof or so you can be sure you heard it right, you’re being gas-lighted”
Dr Ramani Durvasula
Keep a Record of the Psychopath’s Behavior
Because of everything we have already mentioned, especially the gas-lighting tendency, another very important thing to do is to keep a very detailed and thorough record of all the psychopath’s manipulative and otherwise unprofessional conduct.
This can include evidence of lying, gas-lighting, projection of blame and responsibility, stealing, knowingly break company rules and procedures, troublemaking, spreading of false allegations and rumors and any other inappropriate behaviors.
Even if these allegations are not taken seriously or cannot be 100% proven, it is still important to make a record of them. Over time psychopaths will always leave a long trail of dishonesty and destruction behind them and documenting all the different ways they are harming others or the company will be very valuable to everyone down the line.
“When you are in workplaces where the person you report to directly is a psychopath, the key again is document, document, document”
Dr Ramani Durvasula – see here.
Another reason to keep records is simply that psychopaths and sociopaths love to “gas-light” others, meaning they love to pretend things were done or said then they weren’t and vice versa. See our article on gaslighting.
It is a common form of emotional abuse and manipulation and serves to undermine a person’s sense of reality and perception. The audacity and brazenness with which a psychopath can outright deny something happened when you know it did will take you aback and if they are allowed to keep doing this then over time it will start to erode the self belief of the target.
Over time you will start to increasingly doubt yourself and think you are “losing it” and so keeping a clear, definite record will help you stand up to this kind of behavior. You can clearly confront the psychopath when they are try to gaslight you.
They often still find a way to try deny and wriggle out of the situation, but once you catch them doing it red handed and confront them with contradictory evidence, they will think twice about trying it again.
Having a clear and detailed record of toxic behavior from the psychopath can provide you with a clear body of evidence to use in your support to take to upper management should you decide to report them. If other colleagues also keep their own records then this will obviously help.
Whether reporting a psychopath will do any good comes down to the culture of the company itself and the quality of the mid and upper level management. Making a judgement on this before you decide whether to report them or not is a good idea. We’ll cover this further in the final section below.
You must document all unacceptable and unprofessional behavior from the psychopath in case you ever do decide to escalate a grievance or litigation against them down the line.
Be Ready to Handle Relentless Provocation from the Workplace Psychopath
This is another crucial thing we can realize especially if the psychopath we are working we also happens to be our direct line manager. We need to be aware of how commonly they use smear tactics to turn opinion against someone they want to target and undermine.
What do we mean by this? It means that the workplace psychopath will be constantly trying to provoke those they see as a threat, hoping to elicit a reaction so they can then sneak around gossiping to colleagues and other managers about this reaction, trying to paint the person in a bad light to others and slowly destroy their reputation and credibility.
“It’s called the smear campaign and it started even before your breakup or the blowup in a work situation…What they’re doing is provoking reactions from you and then sneaking around sharing those reactions with people to slowly show this person is going “crazy”….
That smear campaign is about turning people against you, even your own friends, so you have no support after it’s done”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
This smear tactic is so commonly reported by victims of workplace psychopaths that it has to be included here. The basic pattern of manipulation is the same, so once you are aware of it, you know what to watch out for and document, when you see them trying to do this.
Here is a quick breakdown of how this provocation/smearing process invariably plays out, adapted and modified for the workplace from a section of Jackson Mackenzie’s latest book:
Here is how it goes:
- A disordered individual (psychopath/narcissist) provokes you.
- You deal with the issue calmly, thinking the conflict is resolved.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, many, many times.
- Eventually, you react less calmly, sick of the provocations.
- The disordered individual victimizes themselves from your reaction: “Oh wow, you’re so crazy/sensitive/impatient/cranky/moody/difficult/awkward)!”
- They also go sneaking around to others in the workplace gossiping about your provoked reaction, trying to paint you out to others (including middle and senior management) that you are “going crazy” or some other smear. They try to gradually erode your reputation among colleages and management in the workplace.
“Custer B is the .. definition of reaction seeking or dramatic personality disorders. This is not ‘I want to go away and sit on my own in my room’, this is ‘I need to annoy you to live. I need to hurt you to feel OK. I need to cause chaos and drama wherever I go just to feel basically alright'”.
A workplace psychopath will continue this game of provocation and smearing until they get the desired outcome – you completely ostracized and smeared in the eyes of your colleagues and seniors as “crazy/difficult” etc.
But being aware of this pattern of manipulation from the outset (it is remarkably common among workplace psychopaths – you’ll find the same accounts from all over the world) gives you the power back.
You simply need to document everything you see and hear of the psychopath doing in this regard in terms of malicious provocation and smearing, remain calm at all times to “win” the game they are playing with you, and report concerns to management if receptive. See the next section below for more on this.
“One of the biggest things you can do for yourself if you are dealing with someone like this is to always remain calm when dealing with them because what you’ll find with psychopaths and narcissists especially is that they’re trying to provoke you.
They’re trying to provoke reactions so that you look crazy and hysterical and they can then sit back and play victim and say ‘oh look what this person did to me and how crazy they’re acting’.
If you remain calm completely with them, you gain that upper hand. They’re trying to put you on the defensive. They’re trying to make you feel like you’re under attack. So if they say the perfect thing that has you thinking ‘oh my god, I have to respond to that because I have the perfect response, you should know that was intentionally planned”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
Evaluate the Culture of the Company
Another crucial step to take when caught up with a psychopath at work is to evaluate the culture of the company itself. By this we mean to make a judgement as to whether this psychopathic colleague is an isolated “bad egg” in a company which is otherwise pretty good and has pretty good people in it’s workforce, or whether the culture of the company itself is also toxic and psychopathic.
Unfortunately some companies and corporations have psychopathic cultures, where people with these traits are not just tolerated but even actively encouraged and rewarded for their toxic behavior. They do very well for themselves in such companies since their behavior is implicitly or explicitly condoned.
The company actively promotes and rewards a “win at all costs”, ruthless mentality. See our article on psychopathic companies for more on this.
Here the presence of a psychopath might not be an isolated case but symptomatic of a more toxic company culture which actually draws in psychopathic characters. They feel at home in these environments since the culture and mindset of the company matches their own!
The line of work can be especially relevant here; look out for non vocational, soulless corporate and retail jobs as areas where this can happen.
In these cases it is an even stronger indication that you need to exit the company altogether. The psychopath will likely not be dealt with properly even if reported and moving to a new department or shop simply runs the risk you will be put with another toxic manager or colleague and the problems will begin all over again.
In cases where it seems more an isolated case, then it may be worth reporting the psychopath’s behavior as long as the management appear to be receptive and supportive to your concerns. If a transfer is possible then this is a good way to get away from their influence and start over.
Even in companies which are otherwise fairly good though, psychopaths can still flourish simply because most people people are still ignorant of their real nature and so easily taken in by them. This can include even mid and upper level management.
Keeping a detailed record of their behavior is still a good idea regardless of whether you decide to officially report it. If you decide to move to another job you can pass on your concerns to management on the way out if you want.
This may not directly benefit you but will help others down the line, since psychopaths will always give themselves away eventually and as people start cross referencing and seeing evidence of their lying, deception and manipulation of others over time, they may well realize in hindsight that your concerns were correct, even if they didn’t at the time.
For more on this, see the book Snakes in Suits, available online. Psychopathy expert Robert Hare and organizational expert Paul Babiak team together in this excellent book on psychopaths in the workplace. In it they do into detail on the common behaviour patterns of psychopaths in a work environment and how to spot and defend against psychopaths in this setting. There is an ongoing bitesize chronological story at the end of each chapter that perfectly describes how a psychopath manipulates in the workplace. Highly recommended reading