Managing Workplace Psychopaths (Mid/Upper Level Manager’s Guide)


Psychopaths at Work

What is the preferable approach for managing psychopaths in the workplace? Is there a specific way of handling these personality types to ensure everyone including the psychopath themself is kept happy?

Since psychopaths have such a poor track record of ever changing their fundamental character, the best approach to managing psychopaths is to manage them out of the company. Destructive character types such as these are always counterproductive to a company long term, especially when one looks deeper and considers the totality of the damage they cause in organizations, not just the downsides which are more immediately apparent.

In the shorter term, here are some other quick-fire steps for upper management to better manage and understand workplace psychopaths:

  • Understand that the psychopath is a provocative and reaction seeking personality type.
  • Be aware of their most common patterns of manipulation, like deception, lying by omission and smear campaigns.
  • Be better able to distinguish the psychopath from the genuine high performing worker.
  • Understand that the psychopathic personality is immune to any kind of reform and will never change.
  • Encourage employees and management to thoroughly document all inappropriate behavior they see from the psychopath.
  • Use this body of evidence to escalate disciplinary procedure against the psychopath with a view to managing them out of the company.

Once the fundamental traits of the psychopathic character are fully understood, which they often unfortunately aren’t at the moment, then there is very little reason to want to keep them in any company, since their long term effect is only ever negative.

Too often in organizations an ignorance of the true nature of psychopaths, as well as the damage they cause, leads to them being tolerated and allowed to fester in positions of power.

Organizational psychologist Paul Babiak gives a great description of how psychopaths ruin a company from within. See here for the full documentary.

Understanding The Traits of a Workplace Psychopath

Here are some of the more common traits of the psychopaths, applied to how they will commonly show up in the workplace:

⦁ 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.

See also our Psychopathic Managers and Screening for Psychopaths in the Workplace articles for more information and also some example scenarios of how psychopaths can manifest in the workplace.

Of course in some companies, some of the above traits are actually rewarded and encouraged, indicating that the company culture itself is psychopathic. In these cases psychopaths will gravitate towards these companies naturally, since it will feel almost like home to them. These are the companies which tend to fall through big scandals and frauds, such as Enron.

Distinguishing the Genuine High Performer From the Workplace Psychopath

As Paul Babiak brilliantly sums up in the short video above, companies need to have screening mechanisms in place to be able to weed out psychopaths by distinguishing them from the true high performers that a company would want to keep long term.

This is important for several reasons:

  1. Psychopaths are very good at mimicking and hiding amongst genuine high performers, to make it appear as though they are successful when in fact they are feeding off the success of others (parasitic strategy).
  2. The psychopathic personality is extremely envious and will be looking to undermine, set up and push out true high performers, since they will see these people as a threat. This will include back-biting, politicking, lying, and trying to smear the reputation of good workers to upper management.
  3. If they are successful at this, because management allow them to be, then over time the quality of the workforce and the overall culture will often decline as the high quality workers leave or get set up and pushed out. This hurts a company long term.
  4. To avoid this, it is important to be aware of the common manipulative tactics of the psychopaths, and to be able to juxtapose their typical traits and behavior with that of the genuine high performer.

See the table just below for some compare and contrast points that will allow you to more clearly spot the workplace psychopath by clearly also seeing it’s opposite – the high quality worker.

Genuine High Performers vs Workplace Psychopaths

High PerformersPsychopaths
Fundamentally an honest personFundamentally a dishonest person
Has integrityHas no integrity
Treats others well, as they would like to be treated themselfTreats others poorly, constant backbiting.
Thrives on cordiality and harmonyThrives on conflict and division
Raises their employees up, develops their skills and self esteemKnocks their employees down and controls them
A win-win mindset - success can be sharedA 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 potentialPurely 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 ethicLooks good by holding down, controlling and dominating others
Gets their head down and lets their skills speak for themselfConstant schmoozing and exaggeration of worth, or feeding off success of others.
Progresses by showing their own talentProgresses by undermining and holding others down
Does not often speak badly of others. Any criticism they do have is balanced and fairConstantly speaking negatively about others. Painting biased and incomplete pictures of workers to higher management
General pattern - Positivity follows themGeneral pattern - Negativity, drama & politics follows them

Understanding the Common Manipulative Patterns of the Workplace Psychopath

Once we understand the general traits of the corporate/organizational psychopath, next up is understanding the most common methods of manipulation and abuse they employ.

Thankfully, this is not too hard, since there is enough anecdotal and academic evidence to suggest that the workplace psychopath has a very predictable “toolkit” and the same manipulation and abuse tactics show up every time you have a psychopath in a company.

The specific scenarios and contexts may differ, but the general toxic behavior patterns of the psychopath remain remarkably similar.

Here are some of the main ways they cause trouble, taken from our full detailed article on the topic:

1. General Bullying & Micromanagement – Psychopaths will often just outright abuse others if they are allowed to, by verbal and non verbal means. Micro-management is designed to chip away at a worker’s confidence and remove any sense of autonomy or freedom. Psychopaths must have absolute power and control over others.

Also watch out for regular patterns of psychological abuse that psychopaths engage in, such as gas-lighting and invalidation, are also now very well defined and understood and so can also be written into company conduct policy to catch out psychopaths who are trying to chip away at other worker’s sense of reality and self esteem by constantly denying their perception even contrary to hard proof and evidence. Again get workers to document this and keep hold of evidence to build up a case against the psychopath.

2. Deception centering around communication – Miscommunication, incomplete communication and lack of communication. A key way in which they cause trouble for others. Not passing on relevant information, or only some of it, in a way that sets people up.

3. Lying by omission – a huge factor with psychopaths which needs addressing – psychopaths lie when confronted but also by omission. Linked to the above point but needs pointing out explicitly. A psychopath manipulates not just by what they say but also by what they don’t say, what they leave out.

This kind of deception is often used to paint a negative picture of someone to upper management or other staff. A simple way to manage this is to write it into the misconduct documentation and punish repeated instances of it when it is exposed – it often will be when feedback given by a psychopath does not square up with common sense or other people’s accounts.

They are only telling others what they want them to know, not the whole picture. Manipulative workers who repeatedly get caught doing this can be managed out the company through the disciplinary process, if such rules are written in company documentation.

4. Smear Tactics – A huge one to watch out for. Psychopaths love to deliberately provoke reactions from others and then sneak around gossiping about those reactions to others, trying to paint the person out to be “losing it”, “Difficult”, or some other smear on their reputation. If a situation with a colleague or customer does later blow up, the victim often has no support if the smear campaign has been successful. Often works unfortunately.

Malicious Gossip – Psychopaths love to “play politics”, play people off against each other and engage in malicious gossip and backstabbing. They are often very sneaky about it, taking pleasure in setting others against each other while they sit back and play innocent. It often requires an inquisitive mind and some digging to find the real troublemakers in workplace politics.

See our full article on psychopathic workplace troublemakers for more on all of these points.

Psychopaths Lies Deception

Psychopaths are constantly manipulating and deceiving others but you may need to dig a little deeper to see how they are are doing it

Understanding Who Psychopaths Target & Why

Another crucial piece of the puzzle in understanding workplace psychopaths is to realize that they don’t target just anyone with their manipulation and mind games. They go after people with a very specific profile and traits.

Here are some common characteristics of people psychopaths commonly target:

  • They like to go after high quality workers (they see them as a threat)
  • They like to go after people who are conscientious and like to do a good job and never be in trouble.
  • They go after people who are good natured, but have weak ego boundaries and often struggle to say no or call bullying out for what it is.
  • They love to use people’s kind and forgiving nature against them, constantly eliciting forgiveness and second chances from behavior that doesn’t deserve it.
  • They like to go after people with strong empathy and a sense of right and wrong (they have neither of these things).
  • They love to co-opt apathetic, lower quality people into the politics they play against others.
  • See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for a crucial framework in understanding how psychopaths isolate high quality people (empaths) using lower quality, easily influenced people (apaths). An extremely common dynamic in the workplace – awareness of this must increase if you want a healthier work culture.

This also explains why there can be a secondary gas-lighting effect of psychopathic abuse, where the victim is invalidated not just by the psychopath themselves, but by onlookers and managers they turn to for support, since these people do seem to see this side of the psychopath.

“They’re not like that with me, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. Are you not just making all this up?”, onlookers and higher managers may say.

The reason for this is that psychopaths don’t target “neuro-typicals” with strong ego boundaries and an ability to say no. They tend to go after people who are fundamentally kind and good natured, but have weak boundaries and are more open to abuse. They are predators and go after the easiest, most vulnerable target.

Therefore it can seem like the victim is making everything up, when in fact they aren’t, which adds to their distress. In reality, psychopaths are very cunning and calculating in choosing who they go after, and are very skilled at turning opinion against this scapegoat and making them seem like the problem.

This is crucial to understand because it is often your most sensitive and creative workers who deliver the best results in many lines of work, and care the most. Your conscientious, kind and good natured staff form the backbone of a healthy work culture, yet these are precisely the kind of people that psychopaths like to target the most – your best staff!

It is also morally and ethically wrong to allow good people to be victimized, bullied, and pushed out of jobs because you have a skilled manipulator in your ranks who is continuing to go undetected as management don’t fully  understand the behavior of personality disordered people in the workplace.

This is why we continue to emphasize the point that despite short term apparent benefits, psychopaths are never good for a company long term. If tolerated and allowed to fester, they’ll do all they can to undermine, smear and take out your best workers, and the overall quality of your workforce will continue to decline as they seek to strengthen their own position by targeting and pushing out anyone they see as a threat.

Understanding That Psychopaths Cannot Be Changed

One of the crucial things to emphasize here, and something companies must take into account when dealing with any psychopaths they have in their midst, is that there is simply no way that has so far been found to change or cure them. In technical terms, the prognosis for psychopaths is very poor.

So right off the bat, companies must get rid of any notions of either being able to appease or punish the psychopath into changing their conduct. It simply will not happen.

Nothing has been demonstrated to successfully mould and change a psychopath into something more resembling a normal person. They are permanently stuck the way they are.

The destructive traits they have stay with them throughout their life and they continue causing harm to others. They are completely unresponsive to negative reinforcement (punishment), and only marginally responsive to positive reinforcement (rewards). See our article on whether psychopaths can be cured.

Paul Babiak also details brilliantly the dynamic by which they destroy a company from within, by firstly mimicking, then undermining and taking out, true high potential employees they see as a threat, undermining the skills base and talent pool of the company as the best workers either leave or are forced out by the psychopath’s constant scheming and politics.

The psychopath then slowly moves up in the company by taking out their competition, but this benefits only the psychopath and not usually the company, since they have no real talent of themselves and have got to where they are only through backbiting and taking the genuine talent out.

Psychopaths therefore act as a cancer on the company, driving out genuine talent whilst having little or none of their own.

They are also completely unfazed by any sense of fear of consequences for their actions. They are very impulsive people and so will do something risky or potentially harmful to others or themselves, just to see what happens as organizational psychologist Paul Babiak points out.

They do not have the normal restraints the rest of us do and so assuming they will respond to the same positive or negative incentives we do is a big mistake. They simply don’t care.

Once this realization is fully absorbed, then it drastically alters the response to take towards the psychopath. Any ideas of “if we give him this or that” or “if we keep punishing him”, it will elicit the desired change need to be thrown out the window. The psychopath will never change and needs to ideally be removed from the company altogether.

The Wrong Approach For Managing Workplace Psychopaths

We should firstly deal with what we consider to be the fundamentally wrong approach to dealing with psychopaths; approaches which simply worsen the damage a psychopath causes in a company. These are usually based again on an ignorance of the true nature of a psychopath.

The main pattern which is sometimes observed in companies is for upper management to enagage in constant ego battles and “tit for tat” behaviour with the psychopath, constantly berating and undermining them and engaging in “points scoring” with them. They know on some level he is a pain and decide to engage in petty games with him.

This is the wrong approach for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it will not change the psychopath’s underlying character, since nothing will.

Secondly, it is childish and immature behavior in itself and does not solve the problem but is just an ego trip on the part of the upper management.

But thirdly and most importantly, if the psychopath is in a position of power lower down in the organization, he will simply offload all his anger and frustration onto those below him. They will pass this behavior down the people below them, making their life under the psychopath even more miserable and irritating than it already is.

So not only does this approach not solve the problem, it actually makes the entire culture and atmosphere worse, particularly for those directly underneath the psychopath. This can have direct implications for employee satisfaction (see the linked study at the bottom for more on this) and also staff turnover if the situation continues.

Engaging in ego battles is not the way of properly dealing with a psychopath in a company; it is a short sighted and often self serving egotistical approach from upper management and does nothing to solve the underlying problem which is inherent in the psychopath’s character.

This poisonous culture prevalent in some companies where toxic characters are tolerated, but targeted and bullied, is held in place either by an ignorance of the nature of the psychopath or an immoral decision which ignores the fact they will just redirect the internal destructiveness and anger this targeting arouses in them towards others in the company.

Any seeming positives the psychopath might bring in being able to “do a dirty job” without having any emotional hangups is massively outweighed by the damage they cause to companies over time through backbiting and pushing out good employees they see as a threat, depleting the quality of the workforce over time.

Engaging in relentless ego battles with the psychopath is not the correct approach since they will just will just pass this behavior down to the people below them.

A Better Approach For Managing Workplace Psychopaths

A far better approach to managing psychopaths in the workplace is for upper management to simply be able to fully understand, identify and expose psychopaths in their workplace.

Psychopaths thrive on their true nature remaining concealed and hidden and a large part of what drives this is ignorance among even high level executives on the true nature of workplace psychopathy.

Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon, is the definitive resource on psychopaths in the workplace; see also the three linked studies they have published on corporate psychopathy.

Once the nature and true negative effects of having these characters in the workplace is more widely understood, there will likely be more incentive to properly deal with them instead of allowing them to fester and undermine a company.

One crucial thing to realize is that psychopaths are incessant troublemakers in the workplace and are constantly up to something or trying to undermine or scheme against someone.

Their manipulative tactics most commonly revolve around communication, or a lack of it – miscommunication, lack of communication or incomplete communication, as we covered above.

This can take a number of different forms, but may include not communicating key information, communicating only some bits of information but not others, or giving false or misleading feedback to upper management about employees, in a way that undermines certain people or otherwise causes trouble for people within the organization.

There are many different contexts this kind of manipulation can take – see our article on examples of psychopathy in the workplace for some potential scenarios – but it is a key tactic to watch out for. It is important all upper management in companies wishing to tackle this issue receive extensive training on this and other tactics of deceit and manipulation psychopaths commonly use.

Too often they get away with these games because most people are naturally trusting and tend to take people at their word, evaluating people as they appear to us.

Psychopaths are masters of disguise and coming across as normal and charming; however over time and with proper training, it does become possible to spot when people are engaging in manipulation and things they have said are not adding up.

With psychopaths it is also very important to be able to take a step back and look for more intangible changes in a company or department. With psychopaths, by definition you have to look past the surface or appearance and make some more indirect deductions which you can then look into more deeply.

What we mean by this is asking some simple questions and stepping back and taking a broader look at things, even you may not initially be able to draw a line directly from that to a specific troublemaker based on evidence you currently have.

It may be useful to ask questions like this:

  • Have any problems which have arisen have only done so since a certain person entered a company or department, even if there is no negative feedback or even positive feedback about them so far? Did the problems start when they arrived?
  • Do you have someone in your ranks who seems to “split” opinion down the middle? With some people really liking them, while others strongly dislike them. See the video above. Psychopaths can be very glib and charming and influence others very easily.
  • Have you also lost workers who were previously considered valued employees before a certain person arrived?
  • Did these people either give no reasons or very vague reasons for their departure? Was there some acrimony surrounding the departure despite them having a very good reputation up until that point?
  • If these good workers left due to problems, did these problems only begin when a particular person joined the company? Did the good workers have an excellent reputation and feedback up until that point?
  • In general, have you lost a lot of good, solid, valued staff recently, particularly in one department or shop or area? Do you feel the overall quality and skills base of your workforce has declined?
  • Have there been complaints about a certain manager in the company around typical traits of the psychopath, such as micromanaging and overmanaging, making big issues out of things which don’t need to be an issue, backstabbing and two facedness, belittlement, undermining, relentless slimyness and politics and so on.
  • Allied to these things, you must encourage thorough documentation of all inappropriate conduct from anyone who works with someone you suspect to be a psychopathic troublemaker.

None of these factors by themselves may be a smoking gun but several in combination may well be, and is something to look out for. They may not be proof, but they are indications you need to look into the issue more deeply.

One cannot go on just what others have said, since psychopaths are masters of manipulating how others are seen in the eyes of management and can very adeptly isolate and undermine someone who is actually a high quality worker and a threat to the psychopath.

You have to consider the fact that psychopaths are happy to set people up if they see them as a threat and paint them in a bad light to upper management in an attempt to drive them out the company. They have no problems doing this since they don’t have the same feelings of empathy, remorse and guilt that normal people do. It’s just part of the game for them.

Psychopaths Causing Trouble At Work – Short Case Study

Modifying Your Workplace Conduct Policies to Account For Psychopaths

As we have detailed in the article, psychopaths can be very cunning and sneaky in the way that they work against others and cause trouble in the workplace.

This is where writing very precise, thorough and well defined behaviors into the company’s misconduct and disciplinary policies can be useful, to leave a psychopath no wriggle room to cause trouble in ways which are not clearly defined and so they can wriggle off from responsibility for if caught.

See our draft of a conduct policy for protecting against psychopaths in the workplace for some suggestions of very precise rules of conduct and unacceptable behaviors which can be written into company policy to account for some of the more common manipulative tactics psychopaths often engage in.

With an awareness of psychopathic traits and carefully written rules, you can use their arrogance and brazen “I can get away with anything” style confidence against them and trap them into an escalating disciplinary process as their arrogance means some of them won’t back down. Others will simply move on to new workplaces where they can get away with things more easily.

Either way you don’t have to tolerate a psychopath in your company; with enough awareness and clearly defined rules you can use their toxic nature against them to get them out of the company and create a better atmosphere for everyone else.

For mid and upper level management who are interested in learning more about this, Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon is the definitive resource on psychopaths in the workplace, providing a definitive breakdown of the traits, signs and tactics of the workplace psychopath. Highly recommended reading.

See also these studies involving Hare and Babiak on the effects of corporate psychopathy.

Corporate Psychopathy Study 1 (2010)

Corporate Psychopathy Study 2 (2012)

Corporate Psychopathy Study 3 (2013)

See also our articles on Screening For Workplace Psychopaths and Examples of How Psychopaths Manipulate in the Workplace.

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