It can be hard enough for many of us to get up and go to work every day, with the politics and drama that’s so often involved with workplaces nowadays. But a psychopathic boss will take the politics and infighting to a whole other level, and can literally make the life of another person a nightmare. How do we spot these toxic characters in the workplace?
Psychopaths unfortunately often show up at work as managers at all levels, since they by their nature crave power and control over others. When they do get into these positions of power, there will be a definite qualitative difference between how they manage and how a normal non psychopathic person manages.
We just need to be observant in spotting for abnormal traits and behaviors, an increase in conflict and division if they take over from someone else, and a general decline in the work environment and atmosphere. To the person in touch with their intuition, something will sooner or later start to seem “off” working under a psychopath, because it is.
Here some general traits of the psychopath to watch out for:
- Glibness and superficial charm
- Sense of arrogance and entitlement; consider themselves superior to others.
- They think the normal rules of humanity don’t apply to them.
- Extremely egotistical and self centred
- Lacking empathy, remorse or guilt for wrongdoing.
- Compulsive lying, deception and dishonesty
- Thrives on conflict and division. Loves playing people off against each other and creating trouble.
- Extremely manipulative personality.
Let’s have a look at how some of these character traits of the psychopath can show up in terms of general patterns when you are working for a psychopathic boss.
1. Nothing is Ever Their Fault, Even When it Clearly Is
We put this one first, because it is a golden rule for spotting a psychopath, narcissist or other toxic personality. You will find nothing is ever their fault; they never take ownership for any mistakes.
Blame is always projected onto someone else or excused and rationalized away with some clever answer. Psychopaths believe they are perfect in every way; it could never be them that made a mistake.
Projection is a psychological defence mechanism we all use to some extent. We are probably all guilty at some point of attributing things to others we don’t like about ourselves, like calling someone else rude when we have been rude.
However, most of us still accept some level of responsiblity some of the time when we realize we are the one with the character problem or we have done something wrong.
However, psychopaths are the most severe of all the character disorders; therefore their use of projection is extreme and will even seem ridiculous at times, as they disown responsiblity for things which are clearly their fault and never accept any blame or admit any faults.
Thus you will find reality being flipped on it’s head very often with a psychopathic boss. Situations and conversations will get twisted so nothing is ever their fault, even when it defies all logic and reason. Be ready for the gas-lighting here, as your completely valid observations will be shot down and twisted if they in any way cast blame onto the psychopath.
Here are some examples of extreme projection you will see with a psychopathic boss:
- As we said, nothing is ever their fault, even when it clearly is.
- Will accuse you of things that are actually true of them (eg. rudeness, selfishness, arrogance, unhelpfulness, laziness etc.)
- Will not take any criticism or blame whatsoever, yet very quick to criticize others.
- A pervasive “do as I say, not as I do” mindset from the manager. They do not follow the rules they themselves enforce.
- Will create dramas either on purpose or through their own laziness and then blame other people for them or invalidate their perfectly normal reactions to them.
- If you look closely, will often notice they are not brilliant workers, often missing a lot of things and making plenty of mistakes themselves, but always seem able to divert attention, distract and blame shift onto others.
- See our article on psychopaths and projection for more on this dynamic and where it comes from.
2. They Are Strictly About Power & Control
This is another defining feature of the psychopath, and one which will show up very quickly in a work environment. Psychopaths are strictly working in all aspects of life to gain power and control over others. This is often why they seek out managerial positions in the first place – it’s the perfect cover to gain this power.
By contrast, the psychopath has no interest in more evolved virtues like vocation, personal growth, harmony, quality of life and trust. They can put out a glib, superficial charm at times to seem like they are friendly and trustworthy, but really the psychopath is playing a power and control game the whole time.
This means their every move, no matter how it is is explained or rationalized, is actually aimed at either gaining power and control over others or keeping it, for the psychopathic manager. Nothing else is important to them, and this will show up when you contrast to normal managers who have some wider and deeper aspects to their identity.
Here are some ways this craving for power can show up:
- Will often micro-manage their workers down to a ridiculous degree, creating an oppressive atmosphere where staff feel their every little move is being watched and monitored.
- Poor treatment and belittlement of others will be common and come naturally to the psychopath.
- Will often make ridiculous and unrealistic demands on their workers. To use another excellent analogy from the Unslaved Podcast, they’ll metaphorically have you cutting the grass with a pair of scissors.
- Never satisfied. Always finding something else wrong or something else to complain about, no matter how well you do.
- Praise and encouragement for good work will be very scarce and often absent altogether. Will very rarely hear any gratitude or “good job, good effort” from the psychopathic manager.
- No interest in vocational aspects or personal growth, though they may use these words as a cover sometimes. Their actions are all about power, control and their own ego.
- Never truly builds up or supports the growth of others. Controls by holding others down. Has no interest in seeing others develop.
- Justifies all this controlling and egotistical behavior by hiding behind “rules” or “just doing my job”. Always has an excuse.
- Will often ingratiate themselves with higher management, schoomzing and charming their way in with seniors as a way of protecting themselves from censure.
Despite all the excuses the psychopath will have for their behavior, just remember to step back from the scenario and remember a time when you worked under a good manager who was also a human being. There are plenty of managers who do an equally good or much better job than the psychopath without all these bizarre controlling tendencies.
The psychopath often does “get the job done” in a narrow sense, but only in a way which also serves their fragile ego and keeps them in strict control. Hence they often create an oppressive atmosphere in the process which is not fun to work under and staff turnover and dissatisfaction often increase as a result.
3. You Start To Feel Isolated From Your Work Colleagues
“It’s called the smear campaign and it started even before your breakup or the blowup in a work situation…What they’re doing is provoking reactions from you and then sneaking around the sharing those reactions with people to slowly show this person is going “crazy”….
That smear campaign is about turning people against you, even your own friends, so you have no support after it’s done”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
You may not have any proof or a smoking gun, but you start to feel you are being spoken about behind your back, or that several people are being played off against each other. You have acted exactly the same towards others, yet there is a cooling of the reaction towards you. You feel something is off.
Chances are, if you are a high quality worker and person, and your boss is a psychopath, they are working from day one to undermine you in the eyes of others. This means they are gossiping, backstabbing and setting you up to fail right from the start.
They do this in a number of ways; here are the more common ones:
- Telling outright lies about someone, spreading false rumors.
- Exaggerating and blowing up small issues into big ones. Making a big deal out of nothing.
- Painting false narratives about you to other members of staff eg. He’s unhelpful, moody. Either totally made up or blowing one tiny incident or interaction up and generalizing off it.
- Provoking reactions from you and then gossiping to other colleagues about these reactions, tying to paint you out to be the one causing trouble when they are.
- Not communicating that they want things done beforehand and then complaining after the fact when it hasn’t been done.
Again, the key here is not to get down in the mud with the psychopathic boss, but simply to document everything you do come across in terms of evidence of malicious gossip, troublemaking, smearing, lying and other unprofessional conduct.
Try to find allies who agree with you that this person behaves inappropriately and get them to document as well if you can. Assess the upper management and culture of the company to determine whether it is worth reporting or simply moving on to look for another job.
Is this just the case of one isolated troublemaker in an otherwise mostly good company? Or is this more the case of a psychopathic organization which is infested with these toxic personality types at all levels? In the latter case it is best to simply exit as quickly as possible, though you can still document all concerns and drop them on HR on the way out.
“What you don’t want to do is gossip about the psychopath because they’re better at that than you are. They’re already stabbing you in the back…way ahead of you. They’re going to play this game way better than you so you’re best off trying to play a clean game rather than trying to beat them at their own game”.
Dr Ramani Durvasula – see here
4. They Start Digging Into Your Boundaries More & More
“The psychopath is strictly will to power….They are working strictly on the enslavement of your mind”
Unslaved Podcast – see here
More generally, the psychopath will start digging into your boundaries more and more in a way which leaves you irritated. Initially, situations may have arisen out of their own laziness; as times goes on many psychopathic managers will create situations on purpose then gas-light their way out of it just for fun.
They enjoy toying with the boundaries of others, seeing how much they can get away with in terms of creating drama and then twisting things around so it gets blamed on the other person. It can be a way or relieving the constant boredom a psychopath or sociopath often feels.
Here are some ways a psychopathic manager can continue to test your boundaries over time:
- Increasing instances of outrageous blame shifting and gas-lighting, where the psychopath shifts blame onto you for something they’re responsible for. They seem to take a smirking pleasure in doing this more and more.
- Will start phoning, texting or emailing you on days off, gradually intruding more and more into your life and personal space.
- Over time this can create a “prison” mindset, where you are constantly thinking about work even when you are not in work. When are they next going to ring? When is the next drama going to erupt?
- You start counting down the days until you are next in, even on weeks off or vacations. Work starts to intrude into your thoughts all the time.
- All of this combines to create psychological and physiological symptoms, which often manifest in your body being in a constant state of agitation and high alert, which we will cover in the next section just below.
5. Your Body Never Lies
Related to this, as the boundary violations really start to escalate, your body will become so irritated that it will become clear something isn’t right. You should not ignore this; it is your body telling you something is off and you need to do something.
Here are some of the things which can start to manifest in the body as the psychopathic boss’s abuse and boundary violations really start to ramp up:
- Anxiety – more immediate and intense or a chronic, low level background anxiety
- Horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach or solar plexus
- General tiredness and fatigue
- That “Sunday evening” dread gets worse as you think about the prospect of another week working under this person.
- Palpitations and “jumping” whenever the phone rings – “what’s wrong now?” or “what’s the drama now?” are common mindsets to get caught up in.
Some psychologists like to talk about the unconcious and subconscious as where most of this baggage is stored, but remember these terms are just metaphors for the fact that trauma and unpleasant emotions in general are actually physiologically stored in the body if they are not dealt with properly in the present moment.
This is why mindfulness meditation is so useful, since it brings to mind and body back in tune with each other, so you can more readily see when something is off in your body. Toxic relationships can get you so inside your head (ruminating, overthinking, intellectualizing) that you lose touch with your body and need to reconnect with it. Mindfulness is the way to do this.
Be Careful Before Deciding Your Boss is a Psychopath
You cannot determine to what extent someone might be psychopathic simply by looking at them, even talking with this person for 5, 10 or 20 minutes. Sometimes it may take 6 months or a year. The problem……. is that we continue to evaluate people the way they appear to us”
Dr Robert Hare
It is important to be very careful before deciding if your boss is a psychopath. Just because your boss is a little awkward of abrasive at times, it doesn’t mean they are a psychopath. Similarly, not all micromanagers are psychopaths, but almost all psychopaths are micro-managers, since they are so obsessed with having absolute power and control over others.
Therefore it is important not to make a snap diagnosis based on one single trait or “smoking gun”. Rather, with the psychopath you are looking for a clustering of multiple traits over time, and a consistent pattern of manipulative and deceptive behavior that they see nothing wrong with.
Once you have observed this over a prolonged period of time, then it is time to start thinking about labelling the person as a psychopath. But you often cannot tell whether a person is a psychopath until after several weeks or even months, up to a year. See our article on how easy it is to spot a psychopath.
Admittedly, a complication here is that psychopaths are so adept at inverting reality and gas-lighting others that they often get people to a point where they have stopped trusting their initial gut instinct that there was something seriously wrong with this person.
We start to believe that the psychopath’s twisted reality, where they can do whatever they like and nothing is ever their fault, is normal. So it can work both ways. We can be too quick to diagnose, but we can also ignore our intuition and voice of reason and allow their unacceptable behavior to go on for far too long before we do something about it.
This is why it is important to seek external opinions on this whenever you are in doubt. This could mean consulting co-workers you trust (be very careful on this, especially in political work environments), or even getting the help of a therapist for a few sessions to validate your views on what you are witnessing from this person.
See our articles on workplace psychopathy for more article on spotting and dealing with toxic characters in the workplace.