Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sociopaths in Your Workplace

Yup, they look as normal as this guy.
Last year, I wrote a piece about psychopathic bosses, and a reader commented:

“I really don't think it helps the HR profession to publish articles about the boss being a crazy psychopath if we want to be taken more seriously by C-Suite executives...”

Well, as I told this reader, I didn’t write the article in hopes that some mythical member of the C-suite might read it and decide that (waddya know?) HR pros bring value to the organization after all


I wrote the article (albeit with a tiny bit of my tongue in my cheek) because the workplace contains many disturbed characters creating havoc on unsuspecting Joes and Janes who haven’t a clue that for some people, sabotage, mind games, backstabbing, lying, and cheating are a way of life. It’s fun

To these folks, “winning” (which sometimes means just ruining someone else’s day) is everything.

And, because it pisses me off royally that these office meanies get away with their bad behavior, in large part because the rest of us are taught (and believe) that "politeness” and “civility” are required in every social situation, I don’t mind being criticized every now and again for stating the truth
our organizations can be havens for seriously twisted folks who would just as soon use and abuse you and then toss you aside as tell you the time of day.

So call me what you will, today I’m going to tell you some of what I’ve learned about protecting yourself from these deme
nted individuals. But first, I owe a ton of gratitude to:

(By the way, here's a really interesting article about Bob Hare's quest to teach the world about psychopathology. At one point, Hare describes how his attempt to implement a treatment plan for psychopaths in a Canadian prison failed because management decided "We don't believe in the badness of people.") Oh, okay.

If abnormal psychology is your thing, or if your gut is telling you that someone in your organization is “off,” I highly recommend picking up one, two, or all of these books. And don’t let anyone tell you you’re crazy, either. To quote Dr. Stout:

"Whether you want to be or not, you are a constant observer of human behavior, and your unfiltered impressions, though alarming and seemingly outlandish, may well help you out if you let them."

Outward signs of the sociopath
Sociopaths have scary inner lives and weird ways of looking at things (such as believing that they’re better than just about everyone and entitled to special treatment), but (a) I’m not a doctor and (b) we can’t read our coworkers’ minds, so I’m not going there. Better to leave that discussion to the real experts who’ve studied these jokers in detail.

That said, thoughts (beliefs) do influence behavior, so here are s
ome things sociopaths do that show you who they are.


  • Lie all the damn time. Unlike compulsive liars who may lie about really stupid stuff and with no apparent gain, sociopaths lie with a purpose—as a means of impression management or to manipulate. And they do it without showing any outward signs of anxiety. It’s creepy to witness, let me tell you. 
  • Display covert and overt aggression. As the term implies, “covert” aggression tends to be on the down low, but again, if you follow your gut, you’ll know when someone is really fighting you under the guise of a pleasant, reasonable, and even caring exterior. 
  • Offer insincere flattery. Being the cynic that I am, I’m always suspicious of unwarranted flattery, it’s true. But sociopaths really do say all kinds of complimentary things for the sole purpose of getting you to feel some kind of way and doing whatever the hell it is they want you to do. 
  • Try and control everything. You’ll notice this in particular if your boss is the one with the um … problem. The term “monster micromanager” doesn’t do the sociopathic boss justice, but the issue isn’t just detailed instructions and breath on your neck. Sociopaths will go to great lengths to control access to information. (All the better to keep you snowed about their true motives.) 
  • Bring chaos and confusion to the scene. My mom used to tell me that the devil is the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve found that whenever there’s a bunch of confused crap swirling around someone (angry staff; disjointed processes; and tasks undone, done inconsistently, or done poorly, etc.), there’s a good chance a wicked so-and-so is behind it all. 
  • Are narcissistic. As the saying goes, not every narcissist is a sociopath, but every sociopath is a narcissist. How can you spot a narcissist? Everything she does and just about everything she says benefits her or brings attention to her in some way. Ick.
  • Display a serious lack of empathy. Again, when dealing with a sociopath we can’t know what he’s thinking, but this individual shows a marked lack of concern for how others are impacted by his actions. Yes, he might feign a little something, something, but to you it feels fake. And it is.
  • Make shameless ploys for pity. If you find yourself reluctantly feeling sorry for someone you KNOW is actually making OTHER people miserable, something sinister may be in the wind. A common ploy of sociopaths is to elicit sympathy, because sociopaths know that people with normal conscience are made vulnerable when they feel pity.

What to do?
Most experts agree that the best way to deal with a sociopath is to avoid him like the plague he is.

However, if total avoidance isn’t possible, do what you can to keep your distance—both physical and psychological. Don’t argue, don’t get into pointless discussions, and don’t get angry. When necessary, enforce your boundaries in a calm and non-confrontational manner. 

All the authors I referenced earlier offer first-rate advice for handling sociopaths (and other disturbed people), and if you have one of these nasty characters in your life, you’d do well to heed it.

Dr. Stout’s book, for example, contains “13 Rules for Dealing with Sociopaths in Everyday Life,” and I think they’re rather excellent.

My favorites? Rule 3 “ … Make the Rule of Threes your personal policy” (i.e., if a person lies three times, it’s not a misunderstanding or a “serious mistake”) and Rule 9, which states (among other things), “challenge your need to be polite in absolutely all situations…” Yeah, to heck with that. Offering unmerited politeness is how people get victimized.

It’s been my experience that far too many people don’t trust their instincts and are unwilling to call evil behavior what it is.

Suit yourself is what I say, but I prefer to live in the real world. At times it sucks, but what's the alternative?

Plus, no one ever dodged the nefarious attentions of a sociopath by pretending cruel and wicked people don’t exist. 

Good luck with that.

The good news
I've had my workplace peace disturbed more than once by someone who exhibited all the behaviors on the list, and I know firsthand that it's a lot to deal with it and at times can be very stressful. 

However, I do believe there are things we can do to protect ourselves from these predators. 

First, don't be afraid to call a spade a spade. You don't have to confront the individual, just know that he means no good for you. Second, don't be afraid to act on that knowledge. Lots of times we voluntarily give our power to those who would hurt us. Don't do that.

I also believe in a God of justice who sees all and will judge all. The God about whom Solomon wrote (Proverbs 6:16-19):

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him:

haughty eyes
a lying tongue
hands that shed innocent blood
a heart the devises wicked schemes
feet that are quick to rush into evil
a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community

'Nuff said.

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