At one time or another, most of us have worked with the “boss from hell” — a trying individual who nitpicked; unfairly and relentlessly criticized; provided inconsistent, misleading, or no direction; or even lied or bullied. We found ways to cope with the crazy making and ultimately made our peace with the situation.
So now, when our friend says her boss is a psychopath, we think we know what she means.
But what if we really didn’t?
The Corporate Psychopath
We hear the term “psychopath” and think Jack the Ripper or another violent, homicidal criminal. We don’t connect psychopathy with, say, the ruthless Executive Director of our neighborhood nonprofit. This and that are two entirely different kinds of stuff, we tell ourselves. Perhaps. Or perhaps we’re horribly mistaken.
Contrary to popular opinion, most psychopaths aren’t rotting in jail or locked away in a mental institution. Truth be told, a psychopath could be hanging out in a corner office near you.
Robert D. Hare, PhD, author of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, and developer of the Psychopath Checklist (PCL-R) says violent psychopaths are just a tiny portion of the whole. In Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, written by Hare and Paul Babiak, these nonviolent psychopaths are called “corporate psychopaths.”
Louis Bloom, the news videographer in the movie Nightcrawler, is a perfect portrayal of the corporate psychopath. (Warning: Spoilers coming.)
In the beginning, Bloom seems like a mildly eccentric loner/loser, barely making do with the proceeds from his petty crimes. However, the fuller truth of Bloom soon emerges—behind his weirdly flat affect is a practiced and convincing liar who lacks empathy, displays criminal versatility, and ruthlessly uses people for his own gains without remorse and without a whit of consideration for what they might think about it.
Intelligent and articulate, Bloom employs a mixture of creepy, off-beat charm; manipulation; and deceit to draw his assistant Rick and mentor news director Nina into his narcissist schemes. By the time they realize what’s what it’s too late. Bloom’s accomplishment is particularly remarkable considering that Nina is no innocent herself. However, Bloom is always at least one step ahead and manages to victimize her regardless.
Behind the Psychopathic Mask
During my 20 plus years in the corporate world, I’ve worked with three executives who exhibited the behaviors of a psychopath. This article will focus on one I’ll call Lee (not her real name).
I’ve chosen to write about Lee for three reasons:
- Despite the work of respected scientists such as Hare, society in general tends to be dismissive of the existence of the corporate psychopath, and this is a dangerous denial to nurture. Lee is no Easter Bunny, and her destructive effect on coworkers, subordinates, and clients is 100% percent real.
- Targets or victims of workplace psychopaths often are made to feel they’re the problem when in fact they aren’t. At the risk of sounding strident, this is wrong. I hope my testimony can provide some comfort to anyone who’s been blamed and shamed by a corporate psychopath and/or his or her supporters.
- Lee was by far the most wicked and destructive leader I’ve ever encountered. The depth of her depravity was truly shocking, and my relationship with Lee was strictly professional. God only knows the stories her “friends” (psychopaths don’t really have friends) and family could tell.
Hare, who’s understandably protective of the instrument he’s developed, has made it clear the PCL-R should be used only for the purposes intended by trained professionals.
I respect Dr. Hare’s stance and didn’t draw my conclusions by surreptitiously stalking Lee, pen and checklist in hand. Instead, my conclusions followed months of near-daily observation of and interaction with this troubled woman.
In fact, empirical researchmay be the only way for a lay person to see behind the mask of the corporate psychopath. As Dr. Hare states in the movie Fishead, you can’t spot a psychopath by looking at him or even by engaging in casual conversation with him.
And yet spot him we must, because no one can protect us from these white-collar predators but us.
Up Close and Personal: My Encounter with a Corporate Psychopath*
(*Some details have been changed to protect the heinous.)
At our first meeting, I thought Lee was funny, interesting, and a bit of a rebel. I was attracted to that, because I’m a bit of a rebel, too.
We agreed to meet for lunch to discuss a potential work opportunity. I was early.
When Lee arrived, late enough to notice but not late enough to be unforgivable, she off-handedly apologized and said she’d been on “an urgent call” with “You know, someone important.”
On its face, the comment seemed innocuous, but the way Lee paused and stared at me afterwards wasn’t. In retrospect, it was almost as though she was waiting for my reaction to her implication (however subtle) that I wasn’t important.
The moment passed, and I brushed it aside. Truthfully, I didn’t know Lee well enough to be insulted. Her comment struck me as a tad lacking in politeness but nothing more.
Our meal was enjoyable enough. Lee and I discovered we had a few hobbies in common, and we seemed to share a similar worldview. A couple of flags were raised, but again, I ignored them.
For example, Lee was highly opinionated, bossy, and a bit pretentious. She also had a slightly unsettling way of smiling that was more of a grimace and lacked warmth.
Still, nobody’s perfect, right? We made plans to keep in touch. She claimed to be working on a few projects that I, as a freelancer, might find of interest.
Over the next few months, we met two more times. Each time I decided I liked Lee a little less.
I began to notice that she always had to get the last word, whether in face-to-face conversation or via email. She was also a very poor listener and had a penchant for treating minor differences of opinion like battle-worthy causes.
For instance, during one conversation, I mentioned that I favored the term “learning” instead of “training” (in reference to corporate education), because I think being sent to “training” has developed a negative connotation. Lee disagreed—disagreeably—then wouldn’t shut up about why, prompting me to say (somewhat surprised at her tenacity), “Look, it’s not worth fighting about.”
Still, I was conflicted. Perhaps I was being unfair or not seeing things clearly. Also, Lee could turn out to be a valuable work contact.
Reeling Me In
In hindsight, it’s all so clear. When self-interest is allowed to override good sense, nothing positive can result.
Despite my misgivings, when Lee invited me to bid on a project, I bit. After providing the application materials I waited for a response, which she promised would be coming soon. It didn’t.
Eventually I emailed her, only to have her cavalierly respond that she’d decided to contract with someone else. However, what really gave me pause was her admonishment that I “never fear, because there [are] always other projects in the works.” The note had an air of condescension that didn’t sit well with me.
I wrote back that she needn’t fear—I had several projects to keep me busy and had just picked up a new client, but thanks anyway.
Something didn’t feel right. Or, more to the point, I didn’t care for the way Lee made me feel. I decided I’d had enough of her.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
Several months passed, and I forgot about Lee. I didn’t contact her, and she didn’t contact me—until she did.
How can I explain what happened next? Suffice it to say that time had dulled my reservations, and a gap between freelance projects had ignited my anxiety about the future. Long story short, I ended up working with Lee after all.
And it was hell from the very beginning until the bitter (but by no means bittersweet) end.
Already a big fan of abnormal psychology, over the next few months, I’d begin to read everything I could about psychopathy, malignant narcissism, character disturbance, and antisocial personality disorder, because something was very wrong, and I needed help sorting it out.
Even so, I am one of the lucky ones. Eventually, I’d end my relationship with Lee for good, escaping before she could inflict the worst kind of damage to my psyche psychopathic bosses are known for.
My Pain Equals Your Gain
And the good news is I’ve learned lessons I’ll never forget. Plus (and I may as well go ahead and admit it)—psychopaths are fascinating SOBs.
The PCL-R contains a well-known checklist of twenty psychopathic behaviors, and I won’t repeat them here. Instead, I’ll describe the psychopathic traits Lee exhibited. These traits are what convinced me I was working alongside someone with a severe personality disorder (or three).
Lee’s Psychopathic Traits
Superficial Charm—Lee knew how to flatter and schmooze when it suited, but any affection she displayed was strictly for appearances. The same person she’d compliment to his face she’d insult behind his back.
Case in point. Lee once told me (with no prompting whatsoever) that she hoped the company didn’t hire Dan (not his real name) a former employee interviewing for a current opening, because he was “goofy,” and she “hated his loud laugh.” When Dan later came on board, however, Lee made a big deal about telling him how pleased she was. Like Lee’s earlier comments about Dan’s laugh, this statement was completely unprovoked. No one asked Lee what she thought about Dan. She took it upon herself to proactively approach Dan and then lie in his face.
Inflated Sense of Self (i.e., Narcissist)—I, I, I, me, I, me, I. From Lee’s mouth, these pronouns were a litany. No question, Lee’s favorite subject was herself—what she believed, what she wanted, and what important and wonderful things she’d done. Unless she was wooing someone in preparation for a con, alternate opinions were of no interest to Lee whatsoever, and she’d frequently interrupt others as they were speaking.
For example, Lee, who is white, once inserted herself into a conversation another woman and I were having about color (we are both African Americans and were recollecting certain childhood experiences) to expound on her theories of U.S. race relations.
Frankly, I thought Lee’s theories were dumb, shallow, and bordering on the insulting, so I said, “Well, as a person of color, I have a different opinion.” Without skipping a beat, Lee grandly stated “And you’re entitled to it!” … then kept talking about what she believed.
Mildly disgusted, I promptly tuned Lee out. No longer the center of attention, she quit talking and left the room.
Another time Lee spent nearly an hour (an hour!) during a team meeting talking about everything except work, including the “news” that her boyfriend would soon be moving in and how she felt about it. Later, when another team member began telling a story about a past work project, Lee rudely cut her off by declaring “We get it!”
Entitled in the Extreme—Lee assumed everyone would do her bidding on command. What’s worse, her sense of importance meant that most of the time she couldn’t be bothered to ask for assistance. Instead, she’d articulate a need and expect others to eagerly volunteer to meet it. Anyone who failed to pick up on the hint would later be treated as though he’d disobeyed a direct order. This strategy had the additional benefit of shielding Lee from anything that went wrong, as she could always claim she’d never given the directive.
Ridiculously and Inappropriately Competitive—Lee always had to be right and was fond of saying “I like to win.” She wasn’t exaggerating. Lee was the best example of “amoral” I’ve ever met, and she routinely broke the rules to appear superior.
Sneaky, Deceitful, and Manipulative—Lee was not to be trusted. She’d lie (more on that later), twist facts, withhold information, break confidences, and gossip at the drop of a hat. And, as one would expect from any good psychopath, she was fond of mind games and gas lighting.
As our relationship deteriorated, Lee began “losing” documents I forwarded for her approval. This proved to be a minor inconvenience to me, but a waste of time, materials, and money for the company as well as a mark against Lee herself, who came off looking disorganized and careless. However, none of that mattered, because it amused Lee to inconvenience me. This is a good example of how psychopaths do foolish things for their own pleasure without appreciating the big picture.
Controlling—Lee was a monster micromanager who regularly dictated what should be done as well as how and when to do it. Whether you had two years of work experience or twenty and regardless of your position, Lee wouldn’t hesitate to order you around. However, her subordinates got the worst of it, as Lee insisted on routinely denying them the least bit of autonomy while claiming to be a gracious and supportive boss. She demanded frequent status updates in multiple mediums and was an outrageous and petty fault finder. Furthermore, employees were expected to copy Lee on all email messages and were barred from contacting most other decision makers directly. Lee insisted on being the chief conduit of all information. (All the better to stop everyone from piecing together all of Lee’s lies, no doubt.)
Domineering—Like you’d expect of a true psychopath, Lee treated people as objects to be used for her gratification. Anyone who protested would be nagged or bullied into submission. If badgering or intimidation failed, Lee would attempt to soil the individual’s reputation or remove him or her from the organization. Lee always had to be the center of attention. She over-talked clients and, of course, her employees.
Fluent Liar—Some psychopaths lie with conviction and are good at it; others lie calmly and without hesitation but are nonetheless quite bad at it. I’ve worked with both. What’s important to note when evaluating someone’s character is not merely how convincingly she lies, but how often and for what purpose.
In fact, it was by studying Lee’s lies that I began to understand the depth of her pathology. Lee could write a three-line note that contained as many lies plus a few half-truths thrown in for good measure.
Lee lied to clients, government officials, subordinates, and peers. She lied while staring you in the face and behind your back. She lied while claiming to be of high moral character. (Lee once told me she took pride in holding herself to the “highest ethical standard”—a statement without even a trace of truth). Lee lied about her intentions, and she lied without breaking a sweat. She lied and then demanded you act on her lies. If you called her on a lie, she’d lie again. Eventually, the lies to cover the lies would become so ridiculous only a complete moron would believe any of it, but that neither embarrassed nor visibly alarmed Lee.
In hindsight, I’m totally convinced that during those early encounters with Lee she lied to me about her hobbies as a means of artificially creating commonalities between us.
Blame Shifter—Psychopaths won’t accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong. They’ll blame their subordinates, their boss, their peers, God, the universe, or the weather if need be. Lee’s favorite fall guy was fate. She’d shrug her shoulders as if to say, “What are you going to do?” as a response to events she’d clearly set in motion.
For example, my last day on the job, Lee expressed her regret things hadn’t worked out and then sorrowfully lamented, “I know you haven’t always been happy working with me.”
First, there’s no way in hell Lee was sorry to see me go. (In fact, my former teammate told me Lee came to her the next day and gleefully declared, “I’m so happy she’s gone!”). Second, that’s pretty passive language for a controlling, manipulative she-devil who actively abused her authority at every turn, wouldn’t you say?
Gossip—Lee was nosy as shit, and it’s no wonder. Gossip is valuable currency for corporate psychopaths, who use secrets and “inside info” to manipulate events to their liking or for recruiting minions. Half-truths are also handy for peppering lies. If you work with someone you suspect is a psychopath (or other disturbed personality), don’t tell him anything about your personal life, because it’s all fodder for his schemes.
Boundary Blurrer—Psychopaths have serious boundary issues and will invade others’ psychological and physical space without hesitation. To loosely quote Candice DeLong, former FBI profiler, psychopaths think your stuff is their stuff that they just haven’t acquired yet.
Lee had a very annoying habit of reaching out to touch my jewelry, clothing, and accessories, ostensibly in admiration as she paid me a compliment. She was trespassing on my personal space, and I eventually broke her of that habit by evading answers to questions about where I bought such and such and more obviously recoiling when she inappropriately advanced.
Ruthlessly Selfish (Lacking Empathy)—Lack of empathy is a hallmark psychopathic trait. Lack of empathy means the psychopath neither understands nor cares to understand how it feels to be you (or anyone else for matter) unless those feelings can be used to manipulate.
Lee’s lack of empathy manifested itself in ways small (waiting until the last possible moment to choose a meeting time, regardless of how the delay impacted others’ schedules), medium (consistently downplaying her bad behavior and its effects on others’), and large (infantilizing her staff by denying them the tiniest modicum of autonomy with absolutely no concern if her actions caused humiliation or other harm).
Highly Critical of Others but Hypersensitive to Criticisms from Others—Lee received any difference as opinion as a personal insult. You either agreed with Lee or steeled yourself for an argument or a bout of incessant haranguing until you changed your tune or quit talking.
At the same time, Lee was very critical of others. In all the months of working with her, she vetoed every single suggestion for improvement I made, always finding a reason why my ideas weren’t as good as those she’d already implemented. Eventually I stopped offering suggestions. Of course she criticized that as well.
Cruel—Some psychopaths are bona fide sadists and enjoy inflicting pain, both emotional and physical. For other psychopaths, however, cruelty is a natural byproduct of their lack of empathy, and they neither enjoy it nor are bothered by it. (Again, think about Bloom in Nightcrawler.)
I believe Lee is a sadist and enjoys hurting people, because I witnessed her commit cruel acts without remorse. When Lee wanted something, she demanded it without caring what it might cost someone, and if she couldn’t con or lie someone into action, she’d shove him into it.
Why Does the Label Matter? (Or, Maybe Lee’s Not a Psychopath, Just a Really Mean Person)
I’m not a physician, and it’s possible an actual physician if given the opportunity (psychopaths are notoriously resistant to treatment), would diagnosis Lee as having some other disorder or no disorder at all. (If the latter, I’d challenge that quack to work two weeks with Lee without wanting to strangle her.)
It could be argued that, depending on the circumstances, any one of us could display a trait or two on this list, and you’d be right. However, I’d argue that unless you’re a psychopath, the display won’t characterize your behavior as a whole.
Not so with Lee. Her lying, controlling, manipulative, deceptive behavior was of such consistency and intensity that it defined her. Lee didn’t sometimes lie; she was a pathological liar. She wasn’t sometimes manipulative, she was a master manipulator. Behind Lee’s mask of politeness lurked a ruthless, untrustworthy snake of a human being who cared for others only in so far as they were willing to serve her needs without complaint.
And this much is undoubtedly true: no one in the office enjoyed working with Lee. At best she was tolerated. At worst she was despised. Her unpleasant and rigid personality frustrated all who spent any significant length of time in her company.
For my part, I often felt trapped within the constraints of a “polite” society that tolerates antisocial behavior so long as it remains masked in gentility.
Working with Lee caused me to lose my temper and at times, my religion. If you can imagine what it would be like to be managed by a malevolent and dark spirit with the emotional development of a child but the power, influence, and intellect of an adult, then you have a clue—but only a clue—of what it was like to work with Lee.
There’s a reason psychopathic bosses are likened to vampires—they’ll suck your energy, time, talents, and will until there’s nothing left if you allow it.
Why Are We So Vulnerable to the Corporate Psychopath?
Put another way, how in the world do these people climb the corporate ladder and stay there?
The answer to this question is at once simple and complicated, perhaps as complicated as the human race.
First, the simple answer. Psychopaths are gifted at deception.
In The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping with the One-Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, Eleanor Payson writes: “The primary reason this disorder is so illusive to identify … is that the NPD individual is often extraordinarily capable of maintaining an impression of competence and, sometimes, social charm as well.”
Second, most of us take people at face value. Paul Babiak calls it “believing people are real.”
And most people are real—more or less. In any case, they aren’t psychopathic.
More importantly, because we believe people are real, it doesn’t occur to us they could be lying about who (and what) they really are.
Third, there’s something about the way we’re born or bred that keeps us from wanting to believe anyone we count as a lover, friend, coworker, or boss could possibly be deranged.
In an interview with Fast Company, Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, put it this way:
“People see sociopathy in their personal lives, and they don't have a clue that it has a label or that others have encountered it. It makes them feel crazy or alone. It goes against our intuition that a small percentage of people can be so different from the rest of us—and so evil. Good people don't want to believe it."
Targets of office psychopaths often find even their relatives and closest friends don’t believe things could possibly be as bad as the target claims.
The fourth reason may lie in Babiak’s response to the question, "How can you tell if your boss is a psychopath?" He says:
“It's not easy. They have traits similar to ideal leaders. You would expect an ideal leader to be narcissistic, self-centered, dominant, very assertive, maybe to the point of being aggressive. Those things can easily be mistaken for the aggression and bullying that a psychopath would demonstrate. The ability to get people to follow you is a leadership trait, but being charismatic to the point of manipulating people is a psychopathic trait. They can sometimes be confused.”
So long as we deem it acceptable—even desirable—for leaders to exhibit psychopathic traits, we’ll remain susceptible to the real deal.
And it’s a real shame, because the corporate psychopath may not be a killer of men, but she’s definitely a killer of organizations—one wicked act at a time.