Given how troublesome and toxic psychopaths can be in the workplace, what steps can companies and corporations take to more effectively screen for and filter out psychopaths in their midst?
There are most definitely some steps companies can take to screen for psychopaths and other toxic characters. Psychopaths almost never move up in the workplace primarily through merit or skills, but through manipulation, lying, fake charm, backstabbing, scheming and other deceptive tactics. This is why it is important to observe the basic character traits and behaviours of people in the workplace, to spot for more toxic personality types.
This is a crucial bottom line issue for businesses and one which most definitely needs more attention. Too often companies get locked into a narrow mindset of appearence and first impressions: “Well, he seems to be charming, he seems to be doing or saying all the right things”. Or else they get locked in the equally narrow mindset of pure numbers “Well his department or shop seems to be doing very well, so what’s the problem?”.
The problem with psychopaths in the workplace is not so much the what as the how and the why. Psychopaths are inherently dishonest people and almost never achieve their goals through honest means. If they want to progress through a company they are happy to do so by manipulating, controlling, dominating and betraying others.
This is what companies need to shift their focus to – not that a person is moving up in the company but how they are doing it. Psychopaths can do very well for themselves in life but it is usually off the back of other people being mistreated, screwed over and pushed out. They can seem to be doing their job very effectively, but other people are suffering at their hands. Psychopaths see life as a zero sum game and so for them to win, someone else has to lose as far as they are concerned.
If companies begin to widen their area of focus from just numbers to more intangible factors like employee satisfaction and also staff turnover rates, you can see the more hidden and less immediately obvious damage psychopaths cause.
By pushing good workers they see as a threat out of companies and making the lives of any people they manage a misery, psychopaths are causing a lot of damage in companies where they have been allowed into positions of power and responsibility. This ultimately will start to hurt a company and so is an issue which needs attention, from both a bottom line as well as a moral perspective.
Organizational psychologist Paul Babiak discussing how psychopaths parasitically undermine companies. See here for the full documentary from which this clip is taken
Psychopaths Mimic The High Potential Employees
The first and most crucial thing to understand is that psychopaths are rarely, if ever, skillful and valuable employees in their own right. They rarely reach the positions they do purely on merit and talent. Rather, they reach the level they do through manipulation and screwing others over.
They are often able to conceal this through constantly charming and cosying up to the people they need to, but more careful observers will often notice that workplace psychopaths are actually rarely very good at their jobs. They are often disorganized, shallow, miss important things, and unable to plan ahead properly or see the bigger picture.
They are also constantly bitching and scheming against others, often creating conflict and division between others to distract from themselves. Again in these cases it is important to watch for unexplained staff turnover in certain departments or shops. This is often made tougher in that departing employees of course may not reveal their real reasons for leaving and just want to move on without making a fuss.
We cannot rule out that some psychopaths are very “on the ball” intellectually at certain aspects of their job and do display a certain amount of skill. Even in these cases though it is usually their excessive desire for control which makes them good in these areas and they are often a nightmare to work for in retail jobs for example, where they have an obsession with procedures and pounce on every little thing that isn’t done to their liking.
However the vast majority of psychopaths are not high potential employees; rather they mimic and copy the real high potential employees, the ones who really are talented, on the ball and conscientious. This emphasizes the parasitic nature of the psychopath; they are not good people but they often feed off good people and will hide within groups of high potential employees.
Psychologist Paul Babiak describes how this dynamic works in the excellent documentary embedded above from around thw 25 minute mark. Psychopaths tend to hide within groups of high performing employees in companies, since this often draws more resources and prestige towards them by proxy.
The Psychopaths Begins To Take the High Performers Out
Over time they begin to realize though that these high performers are actually threats, since they have real talent and skills while he doesn’t. He is just acting and parasitically feeding off their success. So he begins one by one to take these high performers out, by manipulation, back biting, scheming, painting them in a bad light to higher ups, and so on.
These high quality individuals either leave or are fired through being set up and isolated and ostracized by the psychopath, and the company begins to lose it’s best talent. The psychopath meanwhile is often charming and manipulating his way up the ranks, removing along the way all those he sees as a threat and undermining the skills base of the company in the process.
If this process is allowed to continue, the company itself begins to suffer. They are losing the people that really were good and talented whilst an untalented but manipulative psychopath is moving into greater positions of power. Eventually their lack of real talent will begin to show through and it will become obvious they have got to where they have by manipulating and scheming against others.
Remember that whilst psychopaths have a ruthlessness and lack of conscience that can make them expedient to companies in a sense, they also have many traits which definitely do NOT make them suitable to be in control of resources or money, such as impulsiveness, grandiosity, lack of fear, lack of ability to plan properly and so. You do not want these types of people able to make decisions which could make or break a corporation.
A Change of Mindset Needed in Companies
Babiak mentions the need for corporations to set up some control mechanisms to allow them to differentiate the real high performers from the psychopathic frauds who are just mimicking them and parasitically feeding off them.
This might stop this toxic dynamic of reality being flipped on it’s head, where the real talent ends up leaving or being pushed out, whilst the frauds end up progressing in the company despite having no real talent of their own.
Often though it firstly requires a complete change in mindset from the higher management themselves. Too often higher ups in companies will know what a psychopathic employee is really like, but tolerate it and “look the other way” because they are seen to be doing a good job. They don’t like him but still see him as “good for business” and so allow them to stay.
There are two problems with this thinking process. Firstly, this assumption often isn’t even true in it’s own right. The psychopath isn’t a high performing employee; they only give the image of being so, by schmoozing and manipulating higher ups and presenting an image of success and efficiency that is often actually down to others and not the psychopath. Remember they are parasitic people.
Looking past the image and mask the psychopath is presenting, more careful observers will often see they have all the characteristics which make then undesirable in the workplace, like manipulativeness, impulsiveness, dishonesty, shallowness, disorganized and so on.
They have little or no skills to make them inherently successful and so they achieve a counterfeit success by feeding off the success of others, or else manipulating and undermining them. These are not the kind of people any company wants and so it is important for senior management to look past the surface charm and bullshit psychopaths are so good at taking people in with.
Secondly, this mindset is ignoring what the psychopath is doing and how they are treating others. If a psychopath is in a position of power, other people are likely suffering and being manipulated and ignoring this is a moral choice which suggests the culture of the company is also psychopathic as well as the employee themself.
This kind of short-sighted thinking and wilfull amorality in “looking the other way” eventually serves to undermine the company, since they will start to lose their best staff and the psychopath will move on up if unchecked. In this way psychopaths act as a cancer on the company and so allowing them to fester ultimately only benefits the psychopath and hurts everyone else longer term.
High quality workers will always reveal themselves through the positive values and traits they possess. Psychopaths by contrast thrive on negativity and division
Some Markers To Differentiate High Perfomers From Psychopaths
We have embedded a table below with some initial suggestions of markers to look out for in differentiating the authentic high quality workers a company wants in their ranks, versus the toxic psychopathic workers who undermine others and eventually the company itself through their behaviour.
Having a contrast between the high quality and the psychopathic traits is useful, since it is clearer to see what you do want in an employee by seeing it’s opposite – what you don’t want, and vice versa. Juxtaposing the two extremes of character is useful in being able to distinguish the two more easily in people you are evaluating.
Genuine High Performers vs Psychopaths in the Workplace
|Fundamentally an honest person||Fundamentally a dishonest person|
|Has integrity||Has no integrity|
|Treats others well, as they would like to be treated themself||Treats others poorly, constant backbiting.|
|Thrives on cordiality and harmony||Thrives on conflict and division|
|Raises their employees up, develops their skills and self esteem||Knocks their employees down and controls them|
|A win-win mindset - success can be shared||A 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 potential||Purely 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 ethic||Looks good by holding down, controlling and dominating others|
|Gets their head down and lets their skills speak for themself||Constant schmoozing and exaggeration of worth, or feeding off success of others.
|Progresses by showing their own talent||Progresses by undermining and holding others down|
|Does not often speak badly of others. Any criticism they do have is balanced and fair||Constantly speaking negatively about others. Painting biased and incomplete pictures of workers to higher management|
|General pattern - Positivity follows them||General pattern - Negativity, drama & politics follows them|
The list is not exhaustive and is just a starting point. We welcome any further suggestions in the comments or the contact form, since we consider this a really, really important issue that companies are not currently paying enough attention to.
Too often good people are forced out of companies because higher management allow themselves to be seduced and taken in by a psychopath’s charm and deception. As we mentioned this benefits only the psychopaths and harms the company itself since the overall quality of their workforce diminishes as the psychopath exerts more and more control and pushes those he sees as a threat out.
It is therefore vitally important for the company’s own sake that they are better able to screen for these toxic personality types and prevent them from progressing to a point where they can cause this kind of damage. In fact we argue that psychopaths should not be tolerated in a company at all, since they will always try to cause trouble for others, no matter what position they are in.
Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon, is the definitive book on psychopaths in the workplace, covering a multitude of the different manipulative tactics they use to undermine others and move up in the workplace. The book features very thorough diagnostic criteria, plus an engaging ongoing bitesize chronological story at the end of each chapter that perfectly describes how a psychopath manipulates in the workplace.
See also our Resources page for links to more books and videos on psychopathy.
See also links to more academic studies Hare and Babiak have published on the negative effects of psychopaths in the workplace: