Once we start researching psychopathy, we understand how toxic and destructive these characters can be, but so much of what has been written about them concerns the damage they cause with their behavior in personal relationships.
Much less has been written about the damage they cause in the workplace. Are there some common patterns to how psychopaths behave at work? Can they be spotted and dealt with in any way?
The short answer on this is that psychopaths will constantly be trying to manipulate, scheme, cause trouble and advance their own position in any workplace scenario where they are allowed to.
From personal experience and that of others, they also tend to resort to the same “bag of tricks” to control and manipulate others for their own ends. The general patterns are remarkably similar, even though workplace scenarios and contexts may differ.
Let’s first very briefly define what a psychopath is, and then list in summary form their most common behavioral patterns of manipulation, before covering each of them in more detail.
What Defines a Psychopath (Brief Overview)
Psychopaths are very commonly defined and assessed using a set of criteria known as the Psychopathy Checklist.
Here are the 12 main traits of psychopaths according to this checklist:
- Glib & Superficial
- Egocentric & Grandiose
- Lack of Remorse or Guilt
- Deceitful & Manipulative
- Lack of Empathy
- Shallow Emotions
- Poor behavior controls
- Need for excitement
- Lack of Responsibility
- Early Behavior Problems
- Adult Anti-Social Behavior
See our full article on the Psychopathy Checklist Traits for a complete breakdown of every single trait, plus examples.
The key question for this article though is what do all these traits boil down to in terms of how psychopaths behave in the workplace?
The simple summary answer is that psychopaths are extremely manipulative, dishonest and immoral characters who will do anything they feel is necessary to get from A to B, and won’t feel bad about anything they have to do to get there.
This is further exacerbated in a workplace scenario, where psychopaths can latch onto the cliched “nothing personal, just business” mantra to try and justify and rationalize their behavior towards others.
This makes for a bad situation as soon as psychopaths become ensconced within a workplace setting; as soon as possible they set about solidifying their position and undermining anyone they see as a challenge or threat.
When a psychopath is about in the workplace, almost by definition, conflict and disharmony will start to grow as they start to scheme and play politics.
Thankfully, looking into accounts of this, allied to my own personal experience, it becomes clear that manipulative and deceitful behavior by psychopaths in the workplace follows remarkably similar patterns. Time and again we find the same basic tactics being used by these people to undermine targets, play people off against each other and advance their own position.
The patterns of consistency are actually amazing – contexts, names and job roles differs, but the general patterns of manipulation are invariably the same.
Almost identical accounts come in from all across the world – good, honest workers get undermined and pushed out time and again by psychopaths at work using the same simple few tactics.
Here are the most common toxic ways psychopaths behave in the workplace:
- Bullying and Micromanagement.
- Communication issues – Deception by miscommunication, incomplete communication or lack of communication in a way which causes trouble.
- Smear tactics – Portraying people in a bad light to others to destroy their reputation.
- Manipulation of perception to portray themselves as more powerful, influential or skilled than they actually are.
- Playing people off against each other.
- Two faced-ness
We have tried to bring these points up to the broadest possible level, so whilst the particular context and things which were done and said by the psychopath in the workplace may differ, the general principle of manipulative and deceitful behavior still holds.
Some of these tactics of manipulation do cross-over and relate somewhat, but we want to sprinkle among them some examples of how situations can play out, to emphasize all the different ways psychopathic colleagues will attempt to cause trouble in the workplace.
Let’s look at each point in turn in more detail.
1. General Bullying & Micromanagement
We will start off with the more overt forms and bullying behavior that workplace psychopaths and narcissists can engage in.
Depending on the general workplace culture and staff, toxic personalities may or may not get away with these more overt tactics. Here are some common ways psychopaths can target others more openly:
- Erosion of any sense of autonomy through extreme micromanagement
- Erosion of dignity and self respect of workers
- Making issues out of things which don’t need to be issues
- Pouncing on tiny mistakes and making them into big issues.
- Sometimes simply outright abusive and denigrating language
- Isolation and scapegoating, where the psychopath works to isolate a target in a work setting, excluding them from any banter and group activities.
- Setting up situations on purpose and then blaming other people for it. Always projecting responsibility onto others; nothing is ever their fault, even when it clearly is.
- “Gas-lighting” and invalidation – trying to pretend certain things were done or said, when they weren’t, or vice versa. Chipping away at a person’s perception and self belief and making them think they are “losing it”.
- More generally, psychopaths are very skilled at getting you “on edge” and questioning yourself. A common consequence of this is that the target’s cognitive function declines, since they now doubt themselves so much that tasks that should be automatic and unconscious are now made conscious by the person. They start making mistakes they wouldn’t have before.
“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
These more obvious methods of abuse can happen with psychopaths and narcissists at work, though many psychopaths have learned this outwardly abusive behavior tends to be punished and so have “moved underground” to more covert ways to chip away at targets psychologically.
Similarly, if this kind of more overt methods of bullying and trouble-making are detected and shut off by higher management, the psychopath will not change their destructive behavior, but instead become more sneaky about it.
The psychopath will be glib, smooth, well dressed and charming, but look deeper and you will find they are very active in causing trouble in the workplace
2. Manipulation of Communication
This is another common toxic behavior that psychopaths engage in in the workplace – manipulating through skewing and distorting communication in such a way that causes trouble for others and/or distracts attention from themselves.
Put differently, psychopaths and narcissists are masters at only telling people what they want them to know, and leaving out other relevant details in a way which sabotages, smears and undermines others.
Here are some ways psychopaths manipulate communication to cause trouble at work:
- Miscommunication – Communicating things improperly in a way which causes conflict, misunderstandings or other problems for staff or the company. eg. Mis-communicating or leaving out crucial facts in a way which sabotages presentations, projects or rota management, in such a way that other people are painted out to be stupid, whilst they walk off scot-free.
- Incomplete communication – Communicating only part of the information that is relevant and required in order to complete an objective, understand a scenario, or any other context, which causes misunderstandings, conflict or other problems for staff and/or the company. Again this can come under the definition of “half truths“, and is also closely related to lying by omission, which we’ll cover further below.
- Lack of communication – Not communicating relevant facts or information to staff or superiors which causes misunderstandings, conflicts or other problems for staff and/or the company. For example, where relevant facts are not communicated to an employee which leads him to not perform a task, or perform it incorrectly.
Another way of putting this is that trouble-making psychopaths and narcissists often take advantage of a lack of context and full information regarding a person or situation, and use this to their own ends.
In economics and management jargon this is sometimes referred to as information asymmetry, which is just a fancy way of saying that in most scenarios and environments, not everyone has access to all the information required to fully see the entire picture of a situation.
Instead, it is often that several (or many) people each have only a little bit of information, a small piece of the puzzle, and it is only by combining all these pieces together that you will get the full picture of a scenario, person, or incident.
In so many workplaces, especially larger ones, it is so often the case that each person knows only enough information needed to do their job. Rarely do they know the entire picture. There is often a compartmentalization in terms of what people know.
Alternatively, in a transaction or discussion, one person knows more than the other, and chooses to withhold certain information in a way which either benefits them or harms someone else. This goes back to the incomplete communication point we made above.
Psychopaths constantly take advantage of this dispersal of information, and of no single person having the entire picture, to: 1) Manipulate situations and people for their own ends, particularly superiors; and 2) Scheme and cause trouble for those they see as a threat in the workplace.
Psychopaths love to stir trouble and then sit back and play innocent while others get the blame or are set against each other
3. Provocation & Smear Campaigns
“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 is perhaps the most important and all encompassing principle of how psychopaths and narcissists manipulate in the workplace. It is remarkably common – so many of those who have been schemed against and set up by psychopaths in the workplace will recognize this toxic pattern of behavior.
Many of us only put the pieces together long after it has happened and we have already left or been pushed out of a workplace scenario.
Psychopaths can be very clever and far sighted in the way they attack and undermine others. Sometimes it can be overt and obvious, but most times it is subtle and covert (sneaky and undercover), as evidenced by the smear tactic.
The smear tactic is perfectly summed up by the block-quote just above from Jackson Mackenzie. The psychopath is setting their target up to fail weeks or months before something actually happens.
This usually involves provoking or pushing buttons with their target(s), trying to get them to respond in a way which gives them “ammunition” to go and gossip about these reactions to other work colleagues.
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 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 colleagues and management in the workplace.
See our full article which covers workplace smear campaigns in more detail.
“Psychopaths smear their accuser/target.
If that’s you, they ruin your credibility, often starting the smear campaign long before you even realize what they’ve done to you. When everything blows up, you have no support.”
Manipulation of perception is the general principle here. Here are a couple of examples of this playing out:
- The psychopath will pick fights with someone, trying to get them to lose their temper, raise their voice and so on.
- They will then gossip to other workers about this person, painting them out to be bad tempered, unreasonable, starting fights and so on – all the things the psychopath is actually guilty of.
- The psychopath may use fact, partial fact, exaggeration or total fiction when trying to smear others.
- They may also criticize their work, work ethic and methods to middle and upper level management in an attempt to paint them in a bad light.
The crucial point here is that the psychopath here is putting negative ideas in the heads of the target’s colleague and managers to the extent that if some other situation does blow up and the target reaches out for support, help or backup when something happens, they have none, such has their image and reputation been undermined by the psychopath’s smear campaign.
The target is then often left feeling so isolated, unsupported and unfairly treated that they are often forced to resign, feeling their position has been made untenable.
Many good people and competent workers find themselves pushed out of jobs when psychopaths smear them in this way, not realizing until after the fact just how long this subtle game was being played on them beforehand.
They have been cleverly set up in advance by the psychopath to the extent that, whether it’s their fault or not, they are blamed 100% for any situation that blows up, even if they in reality hold little or no blame for something unfortunate happening with a colleague or customer.
Negativity & conflict will follow a psychopath around in the workplace, but it can difficult to isolate them as the real troublemaker because they are so good at deflecting attention onto others instead.
4. Schmoozing & Power Seeking
This is another common behavior you’ll see with psychopaths in the workplace – “cosying” up to higher-ups, not just to smear others, but to make themselves out to be more powerful and influential than they actually are. They very quickly get to work on this as soon as they’ve managed to charm their way into a workplace.
Psychopaths and narcissists and power-fixated personality types to begin with, so often quickly realize that the whole game of power, politics, deception and manipulation is really a perception game. It is about how they are perceived by others, not necessarily the reality of who they actually are, that counts in moving forward in work and personal circles.
In more general terms, context is more important than content for personality disordered individuals.
Therefore they very quickly set about manipulating the perception of others in the workplace, so as to project an image of power and influence that is most often not actually the case. But as long as they can make people think it is the case, they realize they will be treated as being more powerful than they really are.
Here are some common ways this plays out with psychopaths in the workplace:
- Psychopaths at low and mid level position in companies will often very quickly try to “schmooze” or ingratiate themselves with those higher up in the company, using their glib charm to take people in and gain allies higher up the chain.
- They’ll often be in the boss’s or CEO’s office very quickly and very regularly after starting, again putting up the perfect, friendly, likeable front act to charm and schmooze their way in with the higher ups.
- They’re also very happy to jump the ladder with this, often charming their way in, not necessarily with their direct line manager or supervisor (sometimes they might), but two or three or more levels up, with real high “higher ups”.
- They will sometimes go to lengths to be seen with these “higher ups” in front of colleagues, again generating the perception that they are gaining power and influence with them.
- This may or may not be true in reality. Sometimes when you dig a little deeper, you will find the upper management hate the psychopath, seeing him for exactly the schmoozer he is. Other times his charm offensive works and he may successfully “get himself in” with these higher ups.
- Once generated, the psychopath will often use this perception of power and influence to wield more power and control at their own level, whether it is real or fabricated.
- They may become more forthright and bold, take over projects, start to be more aggressive and confrontational with colleagues who oppose them, and in general be more belligerent with others to the point of bullying.
- If they really do gain some power and influence higher up, they may often use this to gain knowledge of others they can use against them e.g. personal information.
- The general message they are trying to send to others at their level and below is “Don’t mess with me. I’m “in” with the higher ups. I’ve got more power than you now”. Often this perception has no bearing in reality.
Being aware of this tactic and gathering as much information and data points as possible can help counteract this manipulation by the psychopath. Often it does not take too much investigating to start seeing through the often false image of power they are projecting.
With toxic personalities, try not to fill in gaps in knowledge and evidence in your own mind. This is often what makes their manipulation successful. Instead rely on hard evidence and data points.
How Psychopaths Create an Image of Power
5. Playing People Off Against Each Other (Causing Conflict)
This is something which is inherent in psychopathic and narcissistic personalities – they feed off setting people against each other and causing trouble.
Here are a couple of ways this trouble-making behavior can manifest:
- The psychopath may simply make up things about others and gossip to others about these made up smears or stories.
- General backbiting and sniping about other workers, either generally, or picking out one specific target. A general pattern of negativity and judgemental-ness follows them.
- They may exaggerate or twist or misrepresent what someone says about another worker, and gossip to them about this twisted interpretation, trying to set the people against each other.
- More generally, they may engage in a lot of malicious gossip and “he said, she said” talk.
- They may encourage workers to throw other colleagues under the bus with the way they question small details and always try to apportion blame. They create a general atmosphere of toxic distrust and “every man for himself”.
- They may target a specific individual (scapegoat) and smear them to all other workers, trying to isolate and undermine them.
- See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for a framework of how this “playing off” takes place. Psychopaths use this trick time and again.
Edit – thinking more about this general tactic, and drawing on my own experience with manipulative managers, I wanted to make it more specific. Here’s a really particular sequence that psychopath managers will use to set a workplace/shop against each other (especially common in smaller workplaces like shops and smaller departments):
- Imagine there are 2 people, Person A and Person B, working under a psychopath/sociopath manager in a shop/department.
- The psychopath goes up to person A, and ask them “did person B do/say X” (or not do/say X).
- Person A answers as honesty as they can, thinking that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes the honest answer might reflect negatively on person B.
- The psychopath then goes to person B, and says “person A says you did/didn’t do/say X”.
- As a one-off, this may seem harmless, and even justified. However, the psychopath repeats steps 1-3 many, many times, amongst all the staff and in all directions, encouraging staff to “tell” on each other, and triangulating, instead of communicating directly with the person concerned about things that were (or were not) said/done.
- Over time, this breeds mistrust and resentment among the shop/department, as staff feel like other staff are “telling” on little things that were (or were not) said/done. They then feel justified in retaliating and telling on other colleagues.
- Over time, as this continues, the atmosphere grows more and more toxic, as rapport and trust breaks down between staff, and resentment grows. It becomes an environment where staff readily “throw each other under the bus”, and the psychopaths is the one who sets up and continues to feed this through relentless triangulation.
- In my experience, rarely do the workers caught up in all of this step back from the situation and see it’s the psychopath manager who’s driving all this through relentless triangulation and “he said/she said” gossip. They might know there’s something wrong, and that the atmosphere is getting more and more toxic, but not quite be able to identify why.
- This acts as a good distraction and diversion tactic from the psychopath manager, who by setting the staff against each other, diverts attention away from themselves are the real troublemaker.
“A really psychopathic boss can make for a really toxic culture where there’s lots of backstabbing and subterfuge and lying and deceit and people throwing each other under the bus. So it can be a really toxic workplace when it’s someone at the top……Certainly, we’ve seen in the last few years more and more reports of the real dangers of abusive workplaces and what people have endured in those settings”.
Dr Ramani Durvasula
Advice – If you spot this dynamic as a worker, it’s very important to document it, and make upper management aware if receptive. I would also set firm boundaries with the psychopath, telling them to ask people directly whether things were said/done instead of going through intermediaries. Also make other workers aware of the game the psychopath seems to be playing if receptive, though be very careful in your judgement here of who to trust. If the atmosphere has been made irretrievably toxic by the psychopath, just get out and leave as soon as possible.
The bottom line to all of this is that if this kind of toxic behavior is allowed to continue, a company will find that the overall quality of it’s workplace will start to decline, as the truly good workers start to see the culture has turned toxic and leave, or else are set up and pushed out with the psychopath’s scheming and smearing.
How Psychopaths Ruin Companies From Within
This is why companies need to get on top of this particular issue of personality disordered people, since they will in time destroy the culture and workforce of a company from the inside out, as they seek to take out anyone they see as a threat and advance their own position.
6. Two Facedness
In a way this factor seems self evident, since how could the psychopath get away with all this without being two faced in their behavior and showing different faces to different people?
So in a way this trait is implicit in all the deceptive tactics we have mentioned, but we also want to state it explicitly, simply to emphasize the brazenness of the two facedness psychopaths so often employ in the workplace.
The extent of the two facedness can be stunning, even to those who become aware of it. The sheer contrast between the bright, beaming, superficial charm and warmth the psychopath presents to their target, and the nasty, vicious, dishonest smearing behind their back can be stunning.
It is often like night and day. The psychopath can alternate between the two extremes literally within seconds. On rare occasions they may be caught doing it, yet still transition back to the “beaming” front act as if nothing is wrong!
Therefore anyone dealing with psychopaths in the workplace needs to be aware of the two faced (in fact many-faced) nature of the psychopathic personality. They can present a different facade to each individual person they need to, and do so very convincingly, to set up scenarios and cause trouble.
Therefore it is very important for others not to be taken in by the glib, superficial charm the psychopath presents to them, not matter how warm this front act may seem to their face. Be rest assured that the psychopath is presenting a very different image to the target behind their back, when they are not around.
“All the reading in the world cannot immunize you from the devastating effects of psychopaths. Everyone, including the experts, can be taken in, conned and left bewildered by them. A good psychopath can play a concerto on anyone’s heartstrings”.
Dr Robert Hare
Summary on Psychopathic Workplace Behavior
To really boil the behavior of a psychopath at work (or anywhere really) down to two words – it would be manipulation and deceit, but especially manipulation:
- Manipulation of communication
- Manipulation of information
- Manipulation of perception.
We believe all of the other common patterns we have mentioned in this post can really be boiled down to these three core principles. Understand these and you go some way to understanding the negative effects of the psychopath or narcissist in the workplace.
For essential further reading on the topic of psychopaths manipulating in the workplace, see Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon.
As well as being chock full of great information on workplace psychopaths, the book captures in narrative form by way of an unfolding mini-story at the end of each chapter, so many of the manipulative tactics we have mentioned in this post.
Dealing With A Psychopath’s Toxic Behavior in the Workplace
We have covered this more extensively in other articles, but we will briefly cover this here for readers who may recognize the problem but want some concrete steps to take to deal with it.
Here are some quickfire steps for handling toxic behaviors from psychopaths in the workplace, both for lower level employees and managers:
Handling Workplace Psychopaths for Colleagues/Subordinates:
- Document everything you see them doing that is inappropriate, as well as all texts, emails, meetings etc.
- Be ready for relentless provocation and smear tactics; stay calm in the midst of all this to gain the upper hand. Psychopaths are looking to provoke reactions from others.
- Report concerns to upper management if receptive, with documentation.
- If the culture itself is more generally toxic and un-supportive, don’t do this and instead exit the company as quickly as possible.
- See our article on dealing with psychopaths in the workplace for more tips.
Managing Psychopaths For Mid and Upper Level Managers:
- Thoroughly research and understand the psychopathic personality, so you know what you are dealing with.
- Understand that punishment, “training” and “reform” are futile with psychopaths. They never change their toxic behavior; they just get more sneaky and covert about it.
- Document everything inappropriate that you see from them, and encourage all other staff to do the same to build a case against them.
- Understand how toxic these people can be to your culture long term, and therefore look to manage them out of the company at the earliest opportunity.
- Be careful not to lose your best workers to these troublemakers. Do not take anything they tell you about others seriously. Verify from reliable sources and even then, be aware that psychopaths can be very successful with smearing a target or scapegoat by turning others against them.
- Understand that this personality type is relentlessly provocative and reaction seeking. Do not blame other workers for eventually reacting to them; since this is not the problem. The problem is that you have someone relentlessly provoking others until they get a reaction, and this is what needs dealing with to eradicate the problem.
- See our article on managing workplace psychopaths for more on this.
- See also our Workplace Conduct Policy draft for some things to write into your company’s conduct and disciplinary policy to weed out this this kind of covert trouble-making.