“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
We have already covered some of the characteristics of psychopathic companies in another article, but what if your direct line manager is psychopathic? Are there any ways we can spot this and if necessary defend ourselves?
The best way to spot psychopaths in the workplace is to look for the same traits you would see in them in life in general. We already have a checklist page to help people do this. Nevertheless having to deal with a psychopath in the workplace carries with it some additional complications, especially if this person ultimately has some control over whether you keep your job or not.
Nevertheless there are some steps to take to firstly be able to spot a psychopath quickly and take action before they can do too much damage. We need to be observant enough to look for certain behaviours and traits which denote a toxic underlying personality in the person, and mark this person as someone to avoid working under if at all possible.
We also need to make a judgement call as to whether it is just an unlucky experience of one toxic manager in an otherwise decent company, or whether the problem is more deep rooted and the entire culture of the organization itself is psychopathic. This has obvious bearings on whether we ask for a transfer or get out of the company altogether.
In the worst companies you may find it is difficult to get away from them, simply because they are so prevalent. You may find you get moved away from one sociopathic manager, only to be put under another one simply because they are so widespread in the company! This is a clear red flag that you need to get out of the company altogether.
Psychopaths Gravitate Towards Positions of Power
We have covered this in more detail in our article on psychopathic companies, but essentially the first thing to emphasize is that psychopaths naturally gravitate towards positions of power in society, simply because they have a natural tendency to want to control and dominate others and tell them what to do with their lives.
They will therefore tend to hone in on positions where they can exercise their will to power over others. Politics tends to be one area where they congregate, but managerial positions in the workplace can also attract psychopathic types if the screening process does not adequately take character traits into account.
This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many decent, kinder natured people with a conscience shy away from managerial positions as they do not like dominating and telling others what to do so readily. In that sense they are the opposite to the psychopath in that are not so obsessed with power and domination over others but rather prefer blending in among the ranks and having a quiet life.
For this reason many high quality, moral people who may make good managers don’t apply because it is not their default position to want to manage or control others. Psychopathic types by contrast tend to go straight for these positions regardless of whether they have the correct abilities and character (in the widest sense of the term), because it is a chance for power and control over others.
In this way the managerial positions can become a little top heavy with toxic characters in some companies simply through a kind of self selection bias, where the very types of characters which can cause the greatest problems for the staff they control are the ones most likely to apply for these positions, and the personality types who would be more enjoyable to work under are less inclined to apply for these positions.
Of course we should emphasize here that in no way are all managers psychopaths. Some people apply for managerial positions simply to “get along” in life and provide better prospects for themselves and their family. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, so long as the person has some degree of morality and integrity and cares for how they move up the corporate ladder and not just that they do so.
Having ambition and wanting to progress in the workplace is definitely not a bad thing in and of itself and many of us will attest to having very good managers as well as very bad ones. The best managers tend to be the most emotionally intelligent ones, empathic and adept at reading and handling different people and situations skillfully but not manipulatively.
A Psychopath’s natural personality traits for control and power over others automatically draws them towards managerial positions in the workplace
However we should still not shy away from acknowledging the general principle that a psychopath’s natural desire for control, power, ego and dominance over others will automatically lead them to seek out positions of power over others in the workplace, and many job role screening processes are not adequately set up to catch and filter out these personality types as they are extremely adept at hiding and concealing themselves.
Therefore many psychopaths slip through the net and find their way into positions of power, in some cases simply because no one else puts themself forward for a position. This is when the real problems start for those under the psychopath and people need some kind of checklist to spot for toxic character traits in their managers, which we will turn to now.
Some Characteristics of a Psychopathic Manager
“Psychopaths are masters at manipulating and inverting reality, turning things on their head. They can very skilfully paint good people to be bad, and bad people (like them) to be good. They get an internal kick out of how easy it is to pull this game off, even manipulating senior management into their cons and politics”
We have listed below some things to watch out for that may indicate you have a psychopathic or otherwise toxic manager at work. Again it is very important not to rush in quick diagnoses and you must observe many of these things over a long period of time and seek outside feedback before coming to a conclusion.
However, you must also trust your own judgement and follow your own “gut” feel and intuition if something doesn’t feel right.
You must also make the judgement call as to whether you think it is a one off issue of just having a bad manager in an otherwise fairly good company, or whether the company itself has a more toxic culture in general and whether merely moving into a new branch, position or department will not solve the deeper underlying issues of dissatisfaction with the job. If it is the latter then you need to look for another employer.
Here are some common experiences and traits you will notice with a psychopathic manager:
- The manager is more inclined to control, power and domination than co-operation and harmony.
- Will often make issues out of nothing, or pounce on tiny little issues and turn them into big ones. A feeling they are bookmarking every single little mistake to use against you later on.
- Can turn nasty by eroding away any sense of freedom, autonomy or independence right down to micro details and tasks. Designed to wear you down.
- Manager has their identity and ego totally wrapped up in their work life, with no seeming outside interests, vocational tendencies or higher purposes. Not all workaholics are psychopaths but many psychopaths are workaholics with nothing else in their lives, or else they alternate strictly between work and play with no vocational purposes or causes.
- They tend not to deal with criticism or objections very well – a sign of their insecurity and ego-investment into their line of work. It bruises their fragile ego if someone suggests they may be wrong about something or question their knowledge of the job.
- In the case of workaholics, they tend to dogmatically impose their values on everyone else. Because they are wrapped up in work and have little or no life outside this, they expect and sometimes demand everyone else to be the same way. Working under them tends not to be so fun.
- They are often very quick to ingratiate themselves with higher level managers above them using a superficial charm and banter. They are very adept at getting themselves in with whoever they need to to protect themselves from being disciplined and punished down the line.
- Two-faceness – the manager talks about staff to other staff. This is totally unprofessional and an immediate red flag for integrity, even if you are not the one being spoken about yet (you think!).
- Demeaning comments and put-downs and devaluing and undermining of a person’s skills and experience, especially in front of others.
- “Gas-lighting” – A gradual chipping away at your beliefs and perception of reality. They will claim things were done or said when they weren’t or vice versa.
- Constant denial, projection and blame shifting. Nothing is ever their fault even when it clearly is and they always find a way to twist everything round and blame it on someone else.
- Relentless slimyness and “politicking” against others. Psychopaths are scheming characters and are constantly targeting someone. If you are a high quality person then sooner or later it will be you.
- Progressively more outrageous boundary violations in terms of denial, blame shifting and put downs. You feel your identity being eroded. See our article on this.
- Mean-kind cycles. Seemingly really helpful and supportive one day, then they suddenly flip and revert to put downs, insults, nit-picking or other undermining behaviour. Done repeatedly this is a tactic to wear down your self esteem and confidence.
- They tend to be very invasive, texting and calling you on your days off about silly things or things which can wait. This behaviour can start small and then escalate, with more and more disturbances. They start to encroach more on your personal life.
- After a while this can create a mindset where you are constantly checking your phone or email on days off, wondering when the next call or text is going to come through, and counting down the days until you are next in. You whole life tends to feel like a psychological “prison”; even when you are not in work you are still thinking about work and your boss.
- You feel isolated from your colleagues even though that is not your intention and you would actually like to get along with them. Psychopaths are expert at subtly turning a group against you and isolating you in a work setting.
- Related to this, one of their favorite ways to do this is to provoke reactions from you and then sneak around gossiping to other workers about your reactions, trying to paint you to be “crazy” to others. See this page for some more precisely defined methods of troublemaking that psychopaths often engage in at work.
- In general you notice you are just not happy in your job. In some cases it may just be that it no longer satisfies you but it may also be the manager and the people you are around. Devise ways to test for this. Have you enjoyed the job under previous managers? Did your problems begin under certain manager(s)? Or have you just outgrown the job? Or maybe is it a bit of both?
What to Do if You Suspect Your Manager is Psychopathic
If you have given yourself plenty of time to analyze and observe your boss, consulted some other resources and also the feedback of others, and have come to the conclusion that they are a psychopathic or otherwise toxic character, then what? Do you stay and try to confront or expose them, or leave?
This depends greatly on the situation and how much support you have in a personal and work sense at the time, but the general advice most people give when dealing with psychopaths is simply to escape and evade them. We reiterate this advice and stand by it as the best solution in most cases. Just get away from them as quickly and quietly as possible.
The reason we say this is that psychopaths are simply so ruthless and manipulative that it can be very difficult to go up against them. As we mentioned in the checklist above they are superbly adept at manipulating and “getting onside” both colleagues and higher level managers, so they can put themselves in a position where they are very well protected.
You have to also remember that psychopaths have no conscience or morality and so there is nothing off limits in terms of what they will do to challenge and undermine anyone who might try to expose them. They will happily lie, make outrageous denials and accusations and attempt to turn others against you so you would have to be ready for all these things.
You cannot judge a psychopath by your own values – just because you wouldn’t go to certain lengths doesn’t mean they won’t. You understand things such as morals and decency and integrity but they don’t know what any of these things are. You need to be aware of this if you plan to confront a psychopath.
This is why the best strategy for most people is simply to get away from them. That said, some people with a strong self image and convictions will be prepared to go up against the psychopath and expose their unprofessional or otherwise manipulative and destructive behaviour in the workplace.
If you do this though, you must make sure you have the support of some fellow colleagues and preferably some upper level managers above the psychopath as well. This can act as a counter to their manipulative tendencies as it is harder to try and dis-credit and undermine you if you have some backup from colleagues who agree with the evidence and views you are expressing.
Confronting the psychopath in this way may be an option for certain strong willed, self aware and well supported people, but in most cases this probably isn’t going to be the best option. As usual it is about judging the situation wisely depending on what resources and support you have at your disposal at the time.
Always Consider The Source of Criticism
Psychopathic managers are also always searching for ways to undermine and chip away at their target psychologically. This will include trying to hide some digs or undermining tactics behind what they claim is “feedback” or “constructive criticism”.
However, once you realize that someone has a psychopathic character, you can see that their motives are ultimately only ever destructive, not creative or constructive. It is their mission in life to destroy people and hold them down, not lift them up.
Once you see this, it becomes much easier to discard any “criticism” or “feedback” they give you, since you realize their true underlying motive is to devalue and undermine you at every opportunity, not to see you grow or develop. It is about power and control for the psychopath and nothing else.
Do not be afraid to take this position. It is a perfectly valid response when dealing with a psychopath to discard any criticism they have of you. Always consider the source when dealing with any criticism. No one has to take criticism from someone they don’t consider credible. Psychopaths are also hypocrites and often don’t follow the rules they impose on others.
The psychopath will try and flip this round and claim you don’t take criticism. It is their way of trying to manipulate you into conforming to what they want and submitting to their control. Once you better understand the nature of the psychopath, you will be better able to spot and resist this inversion of reality for which they are well known, and slowly work on your exit strategy to get away from them.
A fantastic resource on this topic is the book Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon. Psychopathy expert Robert Hare and organizational expert Paul Babiak team together in this excellent book on psychopaths in the workplace. In it they go 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.