A lot is written about psychopaths in personal relationships, with the damage they cause now well documented. But what about in workplaces? What happens when a company hires, and then tolerates (even promotes) a psychopath? Is the outcome ever positive for the company? Or do psychopaths only ever have a negative impact in organizations?
If a company tolerates a psychopath, it will see an increase in various forms of negativity, such as conflict, abuse, bullying and lying. It will also start to lose it’s best staff, as the psychopath relentlessly schemes to drive out people they see as a threat. Companies may also fail if a psychopath is given control of too many resources.
In other words, when a company tolerates a psychopath, it’s always a bad scene. These people can’t help but “toxify” any environment they’re put in. They’re relentlessly manipulative and deceitful, and so you’ll often find reality turned on it’s head where they are tolerated, continuing to “get ahead” and move up despite adding little value themselves, and your actual best workers leaving or getting fired because of their scheming.
When a company is just confused and ignorant to the real nature of psychopaths, and doesn’t know this person is the real trouble-maker, it’s bad enough. However, if the company management knows on some level this person is toxic, and continues to tolerate them anyway, it’s even worse, and these companies are the ones conscientious high performers are really advised to steer clear of.
However, regardless of context, let’s cover some of the toxic outcomes that are regularly seen whenever a company tolerates a psychopath in it’s ranks.
They Quickly Try To Cozy Up To Upper Management
With the psychopathic personality being power-fixated, they’ll be looking to solidify their position as quickly as possible in a company, and part of that will include “sucking up” to higher ups, trying to get into their good graces almost immediately.
They’ll be in the boss’s or CEO’s office very quickly and very regularly after starting, again putting up the perfect, friendly, likeable front act to charm and schmooze their way in with the higher ups.
They’re also very happy to jump the ladder with this, often charming their way in, not necessarily with their direct line manager or supervisor (sometimes they might), but two or three or more levels up, with real high “higher ups”. Psychopaths want power and prestige and status, so they will be looking to mix with the real “big shots”, not the lower level managers, who they’ll often contemptuously see as “small fry” and sometimes be in conflict with.
The whole idea behind this is again to manipulate the perception of the really powerful people in the company, which makes it harder for conscientious, well meaning people further down the company to then go to these people when they have concerns about the psychopath, and be taken seriously.
In other words, as soon as a company tolerates a psychopath, then very quickly, they’ll often be firmly ensconced within a company, having got “in” with the right people, and be much more difficult to remove.
Sometimes, it might just be an image of being “in” with the higher ups that the psychopath is portraying, with little substance, as in the video below. But often-times, in companies where the boundary lines are blurred, they will be able to charm their way in and exert more power and influence.
Psychopaths creating the image of power and influence
A very simple way to prevent this is to have a culture where appropriate and professional boundaries are maintained within and between all the different layers of management. No “in” groups, nepotism, or “cliqueyness”, and no giving out of information that should be confidential. And middle and upper management need to have strong integrity and professionalism, and not be taken in by the charming “schmootz” act the psychopath will put on.
They Start To Bully & Isolate Targets
As soon as a psychopath gets into ANY position of power over others, you can expect the worst aspects of their personality to start coming out.
This might entail more obvious bullying of people, like shouting, swearing and other more blatant abuse. But it’s often more sneaky and psychopaths like to inflict damage on others in more covert ways, not easily detectable and punishable by a company.
- Continually chipping away and eroding the confidence of one or more targets, through undermining, gas-lighting, invalidation, subtle mocking and so on.
- Constant criticism and fault finding. Nothing is ever right.
- Extreme and excessive over-management and micro-management (HUGE one to watch out for – psychopaths and power and control fixated, and want complete control and dominance over anyone they’re managing).
- Interrupting, cutting off and other dismissive and disrespectful behavior.
- Disrespectful meta-communication (words behind the words, tone of voice) to subtly undermine a target.
- Hypocrisy and double standards, telling others off for things they then go and do themselves.
- Obvious or subtle exclusion from group chatter or banter.
- Triangulation and playing people off against each other (very common – see section below).
- Malicious gossip and “he said she said” nonsense (psychopaths feed off this and can’t live without it). They also like spreading false narratives about other people.
- Psychopaths are also very good at manipulating and influencing others. If the overall quality of the workforce is not great to begin with, then they’ll very easily create an “in” group of sycophants and “useful idiots” to co-opt into their bullying campaigns against others.
- With Cluster B disordered individuals, you’ll also often find a “splitting” effect, where they seem to divide a division/department in two, with half thinking they’re brilliant, and the other half able to see who they are really are and seeing them as the real problem (different faces for different people).
- Gas-lighting – the constant, systematic invalidation and undermining of a person’s perception of reality – will be pervasive with a psychopath, especially on a weak target.
In everyday language, psychopaths are just horrible people and will do all of these abusive things and more once they’re ensconced in a workplace. It’ll often be somewhat apparent when they’re a colleague in the lower ranks, but then really come out if a company ever makes the mistake of promoting them to a managerial position.
An important clarification here is that psychopaths won’t always target everyone with this type of behavior. They tend to scan for the ones who are vulnerable to be bullied. This includes conscientious, well intentioned, but weak boundaried codependent personality types who are often among your best workers, but struggle to stand up for themselves. Or else workers who are somewhat isolated and don’t know many others in the company.
Some smart-as* middle-manager types often make excuses for the workplace psychopath, claiming that “he doesn’t have this problem with anyone but you” or “no one else reports him behaving like this” when responding to (legitimate) bullying complaints. Let’s put this nonsense to bed right away.
This is because psychopaths are often strategic and clever in who they target, picking on vulnerable people. They won’t pick on neuro-typicals with strong boundaries, who they know wouldn’t put up with their nonsense. In fact, they’ll often also scan for apathetic co-workers they can co-opt into their smear campaigns against one target.
Having different faces for different people also adds to the “gas-lighting” effect on one victim if that’s who they target, making them feel further alone in the abuse they’re suffering, because no one else seems to be getting targeted.
Bullying is bullying, whether it’s universal or more sneaky and selective. With a workplace psychopath, it’s often the latter. It’s important to be aware of this and not make excuses for them.
There Is An Increase In Conflict, Division & Abuse
Psychopaths thrive off conflict and abuse, and feed off the negative emotional reactions of others. Therefore they will NEVER harmonize an environment they are given charge of, or make it more peaceful. They’ll do the opposite, because they literally need to to “feed” themselves psychologically.
Therefore any department a psychopath is put in charge (or even one they work in at the lower levels) will see an increase in negative interpersonal characteristics, like conflict, abuse, bullying, “gas-lighting”, back-biting, malicious gossip, etc.
In general, you’re looking for a pattern where the psychopath is constantly setting people against each other, getting them to tell tales on each other, in a systematic way that increases negativity.
Here’s one well worn path (especially common in smaller workplaces like shops and smaller departments):
- Imagine there are 2 people, Person A and Person B, working under a psychopath/sociopath manager in a shop/department.
- The psychopath goes up to person A, and ask them “did person B do/say X” (or not do/say X).
- Person A answers as honesty as they can, thinking that’s the right thing to do. Sometimes the honest answer might reflect negatively on person B.
- The psychopath then goes to person B, and says “person A says you did/didn’t do/say X”.
- As a one-off, this may seem harmless, and even justified. However, the psychopath repeats steps 1-4 many, many times, amongst all the staff and in all directions, encouraging staff to “tell” on each other, and triangulating, instead of communicating directly with the person concerned about things that were (or were not) said/done.
- Over time, this breeds mistrust and resentment among the shop/department, as staff feel like other staff are “telling” on little things that were (or were not) said/done. They then feel justified in retaliating and telling on other colleagues.
- Over time, as this continues, the atmosphere grows more and more toxic, as rapport and trust breaks down between staff, and resentment grows. It becomes an environment where staff readily “throw each other under the bus”, and the psychopaths is the one who sets up and continues to feed this through relentless triangulation.
- In my experience, rarely do the workers caught up in all of this step back from the situation and see it’s the psychopath manager who’s driving all this through relentless triangulation and “he said/she said” gossip. They might know there’s something wrong, and that the atmosphere is getting more and more toxic, but not quite be able to identify why.
- This acts as a good distraction and diversion tactic from the psychopath manager, who by setting the staff against each other, diverts attention away from themselves are the real troublemaker.
“A really psychopathic boss can make for a really toxic culture where there’s lots of backstabbing and subterfuge and lying and deceit and people throwing each other under the bus. So it can be a really toxic workplace when it’s someone at the top……Certainly, we’ve seen in the last few years more and more reports of the real dangers of abusive workplaces and what people have endured in those settings”.
Dr Ramani Durvasula
This is just one more reason why a company should NEVER put a psychopath in any kind of managerial position. Tolerating them in the company at all is bad enough, but promoting them to a position where they have power over others is pretty much asking for trouble.
The Quality Of The Workforce Starts To Decline
This is when the parasitic and cancerous nature of the psychopathic personality starts to become apparent. If a company tolerates a psychopath for any serious length of time, especially in a managerial position, then it will find the overall quality of it’s workforce continuing to decline.
This happens for a number of reasons:
- Good people and good workers with healthy boundaries and strong principles won’t tolerate a psychopath’s nonsense, and if they see this person is being tolerated in a company (especially in a managerial position), they just leave and move on to a better work environment which doesn’t tolerate or promote these trouble-maker types.
- Alternatively, they may ask for a transfer to a new department, which means that although the company still keeps them, that department loses a good worker.
- Alternatively, your best workers often get set up, smeared, isolated and pathologized by the psychopath, and put in positions where they either leave or are fired because their reputation has been so damaged by the psychopath’s scheming, or they get unfairly blamed for a disaster the psychopath set up on purpose.
Psychopaths will often target high quality people who they know can see through them, but also those with some kind of boundary issue. One way they do this is through provocative and reaction seeking behavior, which they then feed into a smear campaign against a certain target.
Here’s a well worn way they play this out:
- A disordered individual (psychopath/narcissist) provokes a target.
- The target deals with the issue calmly, thinking the conflict is resolved.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, many, many times.
- Eventually, the target reacts less calmly, sick of the provocations.
- The disordered individual victimizes themselves from their reaction: “Oh wow, you’re so crazy/sensitive/impatient/cranky/moody/difficult/awkward)!”
- They also go sneaking around to others in the workplace gossiping about your provoked reaction, trying to paint out to others (including middle and senior management) that you are “going crazy” or some other smear. They try to gradually erode your reputation among colleagues and management in the workplace.
See our full article which covers workplace smear campaigns in more detail.
How Psychopaths Ruin Companies From Within
“Psychopaths smear their accuser/target.
If that’s you, they ruin your credibility, often starting the smear campaign long before you even realize what they’ve done to you. When everything blows up, you have no support.”
This is why a company must be on the lookout not just for obvious, but more sneaky and covert forms of trouble-making behavior, since this is what psychopaths often resort to.
Some more indirect red flags to watch out for:
- Increasing reports of conflict within a certain department/shop/area/division (however, be VERY careful with this, since the person most often being blamed for this may not the real problem, but a scapegoat that the psychopath has successfully turned people against. Psychopaths are masters at inverting reality and deflecting blame away from themselves onto a scapegoat. You sometimes have to look deeper to find the real source of a problem).
- High rates of transfers requested from a certain department/area/division.
- Constant communication and information issues. You seem to NOT be getting told all the relevant facts to make a fully informed decision about a person/situation. Things seem to be keep being omitted from feedback in a way that misleads you (lying by omission).
- High level of resignations/dismissals in a certain area/dept, especially from staff previously considered to be good staff and high performers (may need to re-evaluate some of these events – were these people really to blame for things, or were they “set up” by someone else?).
- Regulatory/budget/cost issues emanating from a certain part of the company when they weren’t before.
The Company Fails (Extreme Circumstances)
If a company is ever silly enough to put a full blown psychopath in charge of a really mission-critical part of it’s organization, then say goodbye! This doesn’t happen all the time – psychopaths sometimes get “found out” before they get that far – but can still happen if the people promoting them aren’t discerning and observant enough.
You’ll often quickly find the psychopath drops the ball in that department/division, and performance will start to slide. These people add little or no real value themselves, but know how to “talk the talk” and feed off the efforts of true high performers. But they can’t hide this parasitic nature forever.
They’ll also often drive out some of the best workers in that department, because that’s what they do to those they envy and see as a threat. Or your best people just quickly get sick of their behavior and leave for a better environment, as we covered above.
The sociopath might be able to blag and “BS” for a bit, but eventually they’ll p*ss off suppliers, customers and staff with their manipulative and deceitful behavior. If you catch what’s going on quickly enough and get rid of them, you might be able to save it, but not before sustaining a massive hit and probably losing some of your true best workers as well because the psychopath has set them up and got them fired or pushed out.
Because of their lack of impulse control, they’ll also take stupid risks, which will lead to disaster, especially in high level finance (think 2008/09 crash).
Psychopaths don’t think about consequences; they just do things off the cuff, to see what happens, and for the thrill. They also lie, push boundaries and break rules on a whim. Not good for things like regulatory compliance, accounting, fraud prevention, and cost control.
These are not people you want in charge of really important (or really, ANY) parts of a company, and if this happens for long enough, they will bring the whole house down.
“Most businesses are risk averse or at least try to manage risk. A psychopath will do something risky just to see what happens, making a decision that others would have taken a long time and a lot of data to come to, they’ll do it on a whim. And because they are fearless, it could even hurt them, but it doesn’t bother them”
Paul Babiak – psychologist
This is a really foundation moral and ethical point that underlines all the rest of the points. The bottom line is that when any company tolerates immoral and manipulative personalities like psychopaths, good people suffer. They get gas-lit, smeared, mistreated, pathologized, bullied and pushed out because of the psychopath’s relentless scheming and power fixation.
This is an important counter-balance to the type of management-speak you’ll commonly hear in workplaces now – “we do what’s best for business”, “nothing personal, just business”, “there’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you can justify it” (moral relativism is ideological poison, and produces toxic outcomes whenever and wherever it’s implemented).
Psychopaths love this kind of stuff, because they know they can easily hijack and subvert these principles to justify their behavior towards others. They have an uncanny knack of taking whatever is given to them and twisting or distorting it to suit their own ends, and gain more power over others. Morally relativistic ideologies are just playing right into their hands, and this is why ANY workplace which adopts this stance will start to turn toxic over time.
This kind of moral relativism all sounds really clever, but underneath all this jargon, people suffer under these work cultures that tolerate and even encourage psychopaths in their behavior. People’s dignity, self respect and self confidence get eroded. Good natured, well intentioned, conscientious workers get set up, smeared and pushed out while the psychopath walks off scot-free, grinning inwardly (and sometimes outwardly), that they “got away with it” one more time, all the while spouting out these platitudes like “it wasn’t personal”.
Therefore I don’t accept any of this wishy-washy morally relativistic management speak anymore, nor do I accept that psychopaths are “good for business”. Because I’ve seen with my own eyes that they are not. I’ve seen how toxic workplaces can grow when they tolerate these people, how their toxic mindset spreads like a cancer and infests an entire department or area or company, and also how pathological personalities seem to attract other pathological personalities.
Once you let a couple of these people into your workplace, and you leave them unchecked, before you know it, your company will often be infested with these people, and your entire company culture will be psychopathic. And then it’s too late to reverse.
It’s highly recommended instead to recognize psychopaths for the parasitic and cancerous presence they are in a workplace, understand their main methods of manipulation (the workplace psychopathy content on this blog covers that in detail), and get rid of them as soon as you identify them. These people are never good for a company long term, so it’s never advised to tolerate them once you spot them.
And for conscientious, perceptive workers frustrated by the number of psychopaths and other pathological personalities they encounter in the modern workplace, a simple mantra I’ve come to from my own experience is just to not be around these people, even if it means moving on:
Don’t tolerate psychopaths in companies, and don’t tolerate companies that tolerate psychopaths either. Organizations that tolerate pathological personalities are letting their truly good workers down.
Remember also that psychopathic personalities cannot truly flourish long term unless the environment they are in is also psychopathic, or at least apathetic. Therefore if you’re seeing these types of people fully ensconced in a company, having been there for a number of years, that reflects badly on the company more than anything else, and right away that’s a huge red flag that you need to move on. Good companies with healthy cultures don’t tolerate these people.
Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s “Snakes In Suits” is essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about psychopaths in the workplace. See our books section for a link.