Psychopaths are the worst types of managers you can have, with a provocative, reaction seeking style and an obsession with power and control over others that can be very oppressive to work under. How can you deal with psychopath managers? What’s the best way to handle a direct manager who is a psychopath?
There are some very broad level, general tips in other guides on this topic on how to play on the psychopath’s ego, but I wanted to approach it from a different angle and try to upgrade people’s understanding of the psychopathic personality and common tactics they resort to, so readers know what they are dealing with and how prepare and respond to their behavior.
At the end of the day, psychopaths are pathological people and they are going to do what they are going to do (create and feed off conflict and cause trouble). No amount of “training” can fix or modify them to be better managers; they’ll just resort to more sneaky ways of causing trouble.
Therefore if the person you report to directly is a psychopath, we’ll provide some tips on common patterns of behavior to expect from them, and how to strategically prepare for this behavior, and know when to respond, and also when to NOT respond and walk away when it’s a toxic company you’re dealing with, not just one toxic manager.
The worst thing you can do with psychopathic managers is walk in with a wide eyed, naive, 100% trusting mindset, since you’re dealing with an exploitative, manipulative personality type, and you’ll get eaten alive. You need to be more strategic, cunning and prepared – let’s offer some tips on this.
Note – This article deals with scenarios where you work directly under a psychopath manager. If you’re a mid or upper level manager/CEO/director etc, and want to know how to deal with a psychopathic manager you’ve identified lower down, see our separate guide on this.
Remain Calm In All Instances of Provocation
This is the foundational point that deserved mentioning first, because it’s the tactic psychopathic managers will resort to most readily, especially if they sense you have a co-dependent, weak boundaried personality style and struggle to stand up for yourself. They’ll be looking to annoy, irritate and exasperate you at every opportunity – be ready and prepared for this.
“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’”.
Most often, they’re looking to provoke you into a reaction, which they can then sneak around gossiping to others about, attempting to erode your reputation and create the perception that you’re “difficult” or “losing it”.
Rising to a psychopath’s provocation is feeding them what they want
This provocation/smear campaign follows a familiar pattern:
- 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.
You close this cycle off if you don’t rise to their provocation. If you remain calm in all instances of provocation from the psychopath, you win.
If you recognize yourself as a co-dependent, vulnerable personality type who the psychopath is likely to target, work on developing boundaries and assertiveness, with a skilled therapist if necessary.
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.
This is another foundational point – you must document all instances of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from the psychopath manager (there will be plenty because psychopaths lie, manipulate, steal, con and break rules on a whim, believing they are perfectly entitled to do so).
This has been confirmed by therapists who work with the victims of psychopathic abuse at work – the psychopath would have been so much easier to catch and expose in their toxic behavior if things were properly documented:
“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
Therefore everything you can regarding the psychopath’s behavior, including:
- Screenshots of texts and emails (especially important when gas-lighting is happening)
- Accounts of conversations where they are provoking you.
- All accounts of micromanagement and unfair criticism and fault finding, that can be contradicted by clear facts and evidence.
- Evidence of selective targeting of you, where they are engaging in this behavior only with you and not with others. Workplace bullies scan for vulnerable targets and attack only them and not people with stronger boundaries who won’t put up with their nonsense.
- All examples of deception and lying (both overt lying and lying by omission – a sneaky tactic you must watch out carefully for with manipulative bosses)
- All examples of severe breaking of rules and them acting like a law unto themselves.
- Any other examples of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from that boss or line manager (even if not directed at you). This can include shouting, loud arguments in front of staff/customers, interrupting, attempting to humiliate and embarrass staff in front of others etc.
Another important aspect of documentation is that you must demand minutes be taken on all private meetings with them. NO “informal” or “private” chats with them, since psychopaths are flagrant liars and will totally mis-represent what you or them said in any un-documented discussions you had with them.
As a general rule, psychopaths don’t want anything documented, because they like to sneak around lying, manipulating and inverting reality to fit their own agenda. To counteract this common troublemaking tactic, you need to make sure all discussions you have with them are documented at the time of the discussion. If not, it’ll come down to a “your word against theirs” kind of scenario, they are much better at manipulating and convincing others than you are, even if they are blatantly lying. Don’t leave yourself open to this risk.
However, it is also very true that even documenting a psychopath’s toxic behavior might seem hopeless if you have no confidence that any grievances you take above their head will be heard fairly. They might be fully “in” with upper management, who seem to think they’re great, while you see the “real” them. We’ll cover these company culture issues below, but sometimes it’s best to move on if you see the psychopath is openly tolerated and even encouraged in their behavior.
But regardless of the company, while you’re working under a psychopath, it’s still highly recommended to document all their problematic behavior.
Be Aware Of Their Common Trouble-Making Tactics
Psychopaths are relentlessly manipulative and deceitful people, which means that as soon as you place them in any kind of environment where there are multiple people, they immediately start “working” that environment to try and cause trouble at every opportunity.
They’ll be looking to isolate targets, create scapegoats, play politics and create divisions, because that’s what they do. Here are some common, well worn trouble-making tactics psychopathic managers resort to in workplaces (plus tips on how to handle):
1. Smear campaign (as covered above) – Don’t rise to their provocation as this gives them fuel for smear campaigns, and document other toxic behaviors.
2. Deception – Psychopaths are constantly trying to con, dupe and deceive others. Be aware of this and document all instances of deception you encounter with them. This includes more obvious forms of overt lying, but also watch out for more subtle deception such as lying by omission – where they cause trouble by things they DON’T say, they fail to disclose, neglect to mention. Double check, cross reference and verify everything you can with others, and take note of any deception they engage in.
3. Gas-lighting – A phrase that refers to the deliberate undermining and dismissing of another person’s (correct) perception of reality. Psychopaths are relentless gas-lighters, especially in workplaces. Save and document all evidence you can, such as screenshots, emails, minutes of meetings etc. But be aware that even when confronted with hard evidence that contradicts their gas-lighting, psychopaths can and will still deny reality, even smirking when doing so. Be prepared for this behavior and don’t engage with anyone who continues to gas-light you.
“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
3. Triangulation – Psychopaths love to create division in the workplace, playing people off against each other. This may involve more blatant malicious gossip and slander campaigns (back-biting, sniping etc), but often it’s more subtle. Here’s one common formula they tend to use in smaller offices/shops:
- 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 1-4 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 as 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
One way of not getting caught up in this is to simply request that the psychopath communicates directly with the person/people concerned when asking about things of this nature, not through other people. This cuts off the ability to triangulate and cause division.
Another example of triangulation is the so called sociopath-empath-apath triad, where you’ll see the psychopath co-opt poor quality, easily manipulated, apathetic bystanders into a gas-lighting/bullying campaign against one specific target. Again watch out for this dynamic beginning to play out, and pay very close attention to the quality of your work colleagues. If they all seem to think the psychopath is great and they (perhaps along with upper management) seem to be wrapped around their little finger (a kind of “useful idiots” dynamic), it’s even more of a signal to move on to another company.
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Do Not Reveal Any Weaknesses or Vulnerabilities
This is a crucial dynamic to successfully handle a psychopath manager, because they’re power and control fixated individuals. This means they’re constantly probing for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in everyone, and you don’t want to make that even easier for them by giving away these things to them for free.
In their paranoid worldview, they need to dominate, control and “have one up on” everyone around them before (in their mind) they get controlled, dominated and beaten into submission (these people tend to have had traumatic childhoods that lead them to have a very suspicious mindset – “do onto others before they do unto you”).
Here is a good rule of thumb when dealing with a psychopath:
Anything you say will can and will be used against you at a later date
Therefore, do NOT reveal any weaknesses or vulnerabilities to the psychopathic manager. You will be amazed at a) how well they “clock” and file these things away; and b) how cleverly and subtly they can weave things you’ve disclosed to them sometimes months earlier into smear campaigns they run on you.
Here are some tips in this regard on handling them:
- Do not reveal any weaknesses you have on the job in interviews, reviews etc. Just stick to dry, dull, boring statements to get through the discussion (gray rock tactics). Be boring and dull on purpose to avoid being sincere, open and trusting (because that’s a disaster with a psychopath).
- Don’t tell them anything about your personal life/relationships (because it can and will be twisted and manipulated into malicious gossip).
- Don’t confide any political beliefs or “deeper” values you hold (again will be twisted and used against you).
- If your manager is aware of a conflict/argument/disagreement you had with a colleague/customer, be sure to thoroughly and fairly document that as well, including how it was resolved, since they’ll often twist that or blow it out of proportion and use it to smear you to upper management.
- If your psychopath manager tries to create a false narrative about you (quite common), be assertive in correcting and shutting it down, and be on the lookout for them sneaking around trying to put ideas in the heads of your colleagues.
It’s true that this is sometimes easier said than done, since psychopaths will often keep probing and pushing your boundaries even if you try to “gray rock” and resist giving anything away. If it’s clear this toxic manager has been in that position a while and is ensconced in the company like a parasite, it’s time to ask more broader questions about the company culture itself, and consider moving on as soon as possible. See the last section below where we cover this.
But while reporting directly to a psychopath, do your very best to not give any vulnerabilities and weaknesses away to them, since they can and will be used against you down the line.
Assess The Culture Of The Company (And Seriously Consider Moving On)
If it’s clear that your psychopath manager has been with this company for some time and is firmly ensconced, there are more fundamental questions to ask about why they’re managed to stay there for so long behaving as they do, and how that reflects on the company overall (culture, ethics, standards, upper levels of management).
Put more simply, if a psychopath has been tolerated in a company for a long time, despite their relentless scheming, bullying, lying and other toxic behavior, it’s a huge red flag that this is probably not a company you should be working for, never mind just a single manager.
I’ve now boiled this down to a simple mantra:
Don’t tolerate psychopaths in companies, and don’t tolerate companies that tolerate psychopaths as well.
Having seen how much damage these people cause, and how much good people suffer when these people are tolerated allowed to be in charge, it’s a very simple conclusion to now come to myself that you need to reject entire companies that tolerate these people long term, never mind the toxic manager themself. By allowing these people to fester and even flourish, they’re letting their truly good workers down.
Similarly, I’ve emphasized the importance of documenting everything you can regardless toxic behaviors of your psychopath manager, but what use is even that if you do go higher up to raise concerns, but aren’t taken seriously? This is unfortunately common, as psychopaths often schmooze their way up the ladder quickly, and often charm management levels about them and have them “in their back pocket”. You might be gas-lit into thinking you are the problem, and be forced into constructive dismissal style scenarios where you have to resign such has your own credibility been damaged by the psychopath’s scheming.
This is why it’s best to be strategic in the battles you fight with workplace psychopaths, and take into account the general company culture as well.
Remember also that psychopathic personalities cannot truly flourish long term unless the environment they are in is also psychopathic, or at least apathetic. Therefore if you’re seeing these types of people fully ensconced in a company, having been there for a number of years, that reflects badly on the company more than anything else, and right away that’s a huge red flag that you need to move on. Good companies with healthy cultures don’t tolerate these people.
The ONLY two instances I can think of where I’d now even tolerate working under a psychopath manager short term was if it was already nailed on that you or them would already be moving on soon anyway:
- It’s clear and confirmed that they are actually moving to another job/department very soon
- It’s clear and confirmed that you are moving on very soon.
Do NOT rely on hearsay or gossip or speculation or “might be happening” type take though, since this kind of speculation rarely comes true in my experience. Only hard, confirmed, evidence. Then it might be possible to tolerate working under them for a short amount of time, but nothing else.
Pretty much anything else, I wouldn’t tolerate working around them any more, having seen how poisonous and damaging they are to a company, and how much trouble they cause. Sooner or later, you’re going to either be a target for their smear campaigns and bullying, or you’re going to be a bystander who they co-opt into their politics and scheming.
Here are some additional resources that might come in useful when dealing with a psychopath manager:
- Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s “Snakes In Suits” is essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about psychopaths in the workplace. See our books section for a link.
- Our guide on workplace smear campaigns will help you understand how they scheme against others at work.
- For more tips specifically on your boss provoking you, see here.
- Our guide on how psychopaths behave at work will also go into detail more about how they cause trouble in obvious, but also more sneaky ways.
- Our psychopathy traits checklist article will give you some guidance on traits to look for to determine whether someone you work for is a psychopath.