Psychopaths are extremely manipulative, calculating people and nowhere does this come across more than when they are causing trouble in the workplace. How can we spot these types of people and what kind of tactics do they use?
Psychopaths in the workplace are often constantly scheming and causing division and rifts between people and they are especially renowned for using mis-communication or lack of communication as one of their main tactics of control and manipulation. They are experts at telling half truths or outright lies either to cover their own behaviour or undermine someone else.
Psychopaths are also relentlessly manipulative and scheming and are very adept at using their superficial charm to ingratiate themselves with upper level managers in order to protect themselves and make it less likely they will be disciplined and held to account for toxic behaviour. They are masters of telling people what they want to hear and can tug at the heartstrings of anyone.
In this article we will explore some of the general methods psychopaths use to manipulate and scheme in the workplace. We will also look to provide specific examples in each instance to illustrate how each tactic could be used.
Obviously each workplace is different in it’s procedures and policies but the same common themes, often centering around a manipulation of (or a lack of) communication, will keep coming up regardless of the context and at all levels of the workforce, whether low paying retail or high end corporate jobs.
Lack of Communication
One of the first patterns of toxic behaviour to look out for in the workplace is just outright lack of communication in a context and that creates problems and appears to be intentional. Of course some people can be naturally uncommunicative without being malevolent but again you are looking for an aspect of scheming and causing trouble for others or the company.
As well as telling outright lies and half truths, psychopaths are also adept at not telling people information they need to know in a way that either makes them look stupid, causes a problem with another person or department, or otherwise increases their control over the person.
Here are a couple of examples of this:
Example 1 – A psychopathic shop manager deliberately doesn’t communicate certain things he would like done the nexy day for the incoming duty manager. He could easily write these things he wants doing down in the shop diary and the duty manager would happily do them but he doesn’t. These things aren’t then done the next day and the shop manager is then falsely empowered in two ways:
- He can moan at the duty manager for not reading his mind and doing the things.
- He can paint himself as the “saviour” that is coming in and doing all these things, straightening out the shop, when it was only his deliberate lack of communication in the first place that prevented them being done.
In summary – not communicating they want something doing beforehand and then complaining after the fact when it hasn’t been done, despite the fact that the communication was something they could easily have taken into their own hands.
Here is another example centred around using lack of communication to cause friction:
Example 2 – A person returns to a company after a short break. He has several years experience in the line of work. The psychopathic manager immediately takes a dislike to the returning worker and sets about undermining him.
One of the first ways he does this is to NOT communicate to his new colleagues that he has plenty of experience (and therefore credibility) in the role. Because the others do not realize he has experience, they believe he is coming in fresh and “acting above his station” our out of turn for a new colleague, when in fact he isn’t as he has experience and credibility in the role.
This is an obvious thing the psychopathic manager should communicate but he doesn’t and this creates immediate friction and confusion which, even if resolved, sets the returning worker off on a bad foot.
Of course there are endless different scenarios and contexts in which this dynamic could play out, but hopefully we have made the general idea clear – psychopaths often deliberately don’t communicate things and withhold pertinent facts in a way that undermines or otherwise causes trouble for a certain person.
How are we to tell whether there is malevolence and intent there, or whether it is just an incompetent (but not evil) person who just doesn’t know how to do their job properly? As we have stressed before, with psychopaths it is about observing their behaviour over a long period of time to look for common traits and recurring themes.
Of course everyone can make a mistake and it is not a good idea to jump to quick conclusions about someone on the basis of one hiccup of something not being said or passed on. Rather you are looking for not just isolated mistakes from well meaning people but a repeated and consistent pattern of mis-communication or lack of communication over time which doesn’t make sense.
You are also looking for repeated bad consequences for a person or group of people. If a person repeatedly withholds certain information or does not communicate when it makes no sense not to, and this behaviour repeatedly causes needless trouble for a certain person in particular, then you have to start considering the possibility you are dealing with a toxic person in the workplace.
You are also looking for a combination of other traits in the person which suggests a manipulative, dishonest character and a lack of empathy and conscience. See Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and also our own Checklist page for some common psychopathic traits to look out for. See also our article on psychopathic managers.
Psychopaths are driven by negative motives and thrive on division, conflict and disharmony in the workplace. They are scheming characters to the core.
Projection of Blame and Responsibility
Another thing to look out for in psychopaths in the workplace is a relentless, and sometimes even outrageous, denial of projection and responsibility. In other words, a total refusal to accept any blame or responsibility for mistakes, even against all reasonable logic and facts. Nothing is ever their fault, even when it clearly is.
This is a huge red flag to watch out for. Psychopaths will create an undesirable scenario through their own laziness or incompetence, often putting their colleagues in a tough spot or leaving them with a problem, and then blame them for whatever happens as a consequence, despite the fact they created the situation in the first place.
The colleague will respond in the best way they can to deal with the problem the manager created, but the manager will pick holes in how the person acted, saying they should have dealt with it another way. The fact that the psychopath created the situation in the first place by not doing their job correctly is overlooked.
This is part of the “gas-lighting” for which psychopaths are renowned, where they chip away at a person’s sense of reality and perception and try to flip things the wrong way around. They will brazenly claim something isn’t their fault even when it is and if they keep doing this over time then a certain kind of person may succumb and start to believe their lies.
Here are a couple of examples in which psychopaths could create a situation in the workplace, and then project blame and responsibility on others.
Example 3 – Alarm codes are due to be changed in a shop. All members of staff who hold keys should be informed of the changes, but the manager does not tell one key holder, who comes in to close the shop one evening but finds out he cannot set the alarm because he does not have the new code. He decides he does not want to bother other members of staff and has to leave the alarm unset.
The psychopathic manager finds out and criticizes the key holder for not setting the alarm! Whether the person could have got the information late at night off another staff member is irrelevant; it is the shop manager’s sole responsibility to communicate alarm code changes to all staff so the problem was plainly and squarely caused by him.
The psychopath however will project all blame onto the staff member for not ringing someone despite the fact that his lack of communication created this situation in the first place. It is never their fault for anything.
It can sometimes be difficult to pin down a psychopath’s motives, and their not telling the staff member the new codes may have been forgetfulness or a deliberate game they were playing with them to set up the scenario.
Psychopaths are constantly projecting blame and responsiblity and will twist things around point the finger at someone else even when something is clearly their fault
However all reasonable people will accept blame when it is due if a scenario originated with them. A psychopath will never do this and is straight away looking for someone to blame and to twist a situation so it is never his fault.
This behaviour can get outrageous and some psychopaths will project blame knowing full well that their laziness of ineptness created it:
Example 4 – A psychopathic manager fails to perform the required safe and till checks when closing his shop one night, despite this being clear company policy. As a result his deputy walks in the next morning with safe and till discrepancies, which he has to sort before he can progress with setting the shop up ready for a busy day.
Straight away his day is off to a bad start and he is late opening the shop. Later on the manager finds this out and berates the deputy for opening the shop late!
His own laziness in not taking 30 seconds to perform the required checks is twisted round to be the deputy’s fault.
Once again you will notice the extreme projection of blame and responsibility onto his deputy for a situation he himself has created through not following correct procedures the previous night. This kind of outrageous inversion of reality is very common in psychopaths and perhaps the biggest red flag of all to watch out for in the workplace.
Here is another example of projection of blame, with some manipulation and scheming thrown in there as well:
Example 5 – A psychopathic manager has to complete rotas to cover his shop on a week where he is off on holiday soon. He knows there are a lot of hours to cover and that relief staff are hard to find in this area but he still leaves the rotas until the last minute instead of sorting them well in advance when more cover options would be available.
He blags his way to a completed rota by placing his deputy in several super long shifts, back to back, illegally breaking the law on shift breaks and knowing this is not the deputy’s preference. The deputy sees the rotas and rightly objects. The manager should have sorted the rota sooner when more options were available.
The manager then calls the area manager and paints the deputy as a troublemaker who constantly complains about rotas. On the basis of half truths and misinformation, the area manager agrees and dumps the next set of rotas on the deputy.
The deputy is then left furious at how this situation has suddenly been turned around on him when it is the psychopathic manager’s laziness and lack of organization that has created this situation in the first place.
The deputy and the area manager have now been set at odds by the manipulative manager, who walks away with his hands up as if he is the one being wronged, “having to fix all these rotas”.
Of course there are infinite examples and infinite contexts and scenarios one could come up with depending on the line of work, but the general principles with psychopaths in the workplace remain the same.
The issue of communication will repeatedly come up – a repeated and systematic lack of communication (or miscommunication and half truths) to the point where it is quite clearly deliberate and designed to target and undermine a certain person is a huge red flag of a psychopathic character in the workplace.
General Traits to Look Out For
You are also looking for a certain set of character traits to indicate a psychopathic or sociopathic person at work. Here is a quick list:
- Repeated lying and lack of integrity in the person
- A scheming and two faced personality – constantly talking behind people’s back or nice to a person’s face then bitching behind their back. Sooner or later this kind of behaviour will get back to the target.
- Manipulation rather than direct, honest communcation seems to be the way they operate to achieve goals.
- Often like to play people off against one another and cause conflict and rifts.
- Obsessed with control, power and dominance over others. No interest in equality and harmony. Can produce a synthetic harmony – but only as long as everyone is under his control.
- Constant projection and denial – never accepts blame for anything.
- No vocational or creative aspects to their identity – completely and totally wrapped up in work or else alternates strictly between work and play with no higher purpose.
- See our article on Psychopathic Managers and our Checklist for more traits to watch out for
- See also our article on Psychopathic Companies for an ovewview of the types of organizations to avoid.
Of course as we have already emphasized it is very important to watch for most or all of these traits showing up in the person over time and not rush to hasty diagnoses just because someone has given you a bad day. It is definitely possible for people to embody some of these traits and be maybe dysfunctional but not psychopathic.
Psychopathy is a whole different ball game and goes much deeper than a person lacking in certain people or communcation skills or who is prone to be in a bad mood some days. Psychopaths operate with full intent and awareness of what they are doing and it is this destructive streak along with a complete lack of conscience, empathy and integrity that defines them above merely dysfunctional people.
For more on this, see the excellent 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 do into detail on the common behaviour patterns of psychopaths in a work environment and how to spot and defend against psychopaths in this setting.
There is an ongoing bitesize chronological story at the end of each chapter that perfectly describes how a psychopath manipulates in the workplace. Highly recommended reading.