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Help! My boss is a psychopath

Power attracts psychopaths, and they will do anything to get it. You can do a test to see if your boss is a psychopath, but you might not like the answer...

Xanthe Mallett
Thursday 22 October 2015 11:51 BST
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (Rex Features)

If you know someone you suspect might be a psychopath, my advice is to get away from them. But sometimes it is simply not that easy, and research suggests around 1% of the population are psychopathic, although others suggest higher, at around 4%.

So what if you suspect, for example, your boss is a true psychopath? If you’re in a high-power profession that’s not even unlikely, as power attracts psychopaths, and they will do anything to get – and keep it.

One study suggests ‘high-power’ or ‘organisation psychopaths’ comprise around 1% of the workplace population; but the higher up the tree you go, the more you’ll find as psychopaths crave influence, control, and love to dominate others. These organisation psychopaths, as the definition implies, are people who score highly on the psychopathy checklist and work in organisations.

You can do a ‘fun’ test to see if your boss is a psychopath, but be warned, you may not like the answer.

This paper by Clive Roland Boddy on organisational psychopaths highlights some serious implications when these individuals are hired – for the company and other employees. Just as violent psychopaths are responsible for a higher proportion of violent crime, their organizational kin are thought to be liable for more than their share of organisation bad behaviour – including high staff turnover amongst other employees as power-hungry psychopaths bully, manipulate, and lie their way to positions of power and authority

Psychopaths, regardless of what form their anti-social behaviour disorder takes, have no conscience, and no empathy. But they are smooth talkers, adept at getting senior management on-side. They are also ‘doers’, often hired to do the jobs that others find distasteful – like sacking other people. Not a problem for a psychopath, as they have no morals holding them back.

I have met my fair share of organisation psychopaths, and when I have determined that is what I’m dealing with I have thought seriously about changing jobs. This is not a cowardly response, but is all about self-protection. Most of us wouldn't stoop to the lows a true psychopath would to win, so best to cut and run.

But if you can’t get away, you need techniques to avoid letting ‘psychopaths in suits’ (as they’re known) get the better of you.

Stay calm in their presence and practice ways of looking relaxed even if they put you under pressure. Taking your emotions out of the situation is a way of disempowering them, and they’re likely to move on to an easier target.

If you do have to engage with a true psychopath at work, do so on your terms. Just like any other learned skill, you can improve your ability to control your emotions under pressure by pretending you are a witness to the conversation – that it’s actually taking place between two other people. Taking an emotional step back will allow you to watch a scenario unfold impassively, to the frustration of your opponent. This works well in office scenarios, where the likelihood of the true psychopath resorting to violence is low, but be careful in interpersonal interactions as you don’t want the situation to escalate and become physical.

Psychopaths can be extremely predatory, so avoid being alone with them as they may try to use sexual or other physical intimidation, perhaps standing too close, or making suggestive comments. Always be proactive not reactive: plan what action to take if they do act this way, so they never get the chance to catch you off guard. They may also try to engage you in a conversation that will make you feel vulnerable, avoid talking about yourself and instead switch the conversation back around to them; ask if they feel OK, that they look a bit stressed. This will throw them off as it indicates you’ve noticed a weakness in them, which they won’t like.

You are their prey, so you have to be as cold with them as they are with you. For example, suppose a senior member of staff makes a practice of coming into your office, standing over you, perhaps, even shutting your door: they could be trying to use isolation and physical dominance to try to intimidate you (another psychopathic trait).

To diffuse a situation like this - relax totally in your chair when they stand over you, in fact getting lower – not in submission, but rather saying you are totally unfazed by the confrontation. Keep casting your eyes back to the computer screen, even carry on typing as you speak, showing they are of little importance to you.

It’s amazing how empowered you will feel when you get one over on a psychopath.

As a forensic anthropologist and criminologist I’m good at spotting and dealing with psychopaths, also because I share some of their traits – allowing me to remove my emotions from the situation. So being on the psychopathic continuum might actually offer me some protection because I have total self-belief in my ability to win.

But don’t mistake me for diminishing the damage true psychopaths’ cause. For many dealing with a true psychopath can be a deeply harmful experience. In addition to the emotional pain and anxiety they cause, if you stand up to them they may also do their best to destroy you – character assassination through lies and threats is a trademark. So don’t take one on lightly, as they all take far more than they give.

So when has their behaviour crossed the line and become illegal? Well, harassment – defined as ‘behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended’ – can be illegal under in the Equality Act [2010] in the UK (see the Government’s website for details on what to do if you’re being bullied) The relevant protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation (other forms of bullying behaviour could give rise to a claim to a tribunal but are not a breach of the Act). So if you feel you are being actively targeted, you might have legal redress through your employer, and if they fail to act then you could take legal action through an employment tribunal. It’s then up to your employer or the tribunal to determine if they anyone has acted in contravention of employment law.

But don’t hold your breath on a positive outcome for the victims of organisation psychopaths. I am aware of one instance when after many reports, inquiries, and statements being taken, and good people electing to leave rather than tolerate ongoing bullying and harassment, nothing really changed. The individual in question quietly moved on; set to cause havoc and mayhem at their new organisation, presumably. The victims were powerless to stop it, knowing the person would simply continue their reign of misery elsewhere.

That individual left a workplace culture of abuse and harassment in their wake; so even after they were long gone the damaging legacy lives on. And the victims never achieved justice or even public acknowledgement for their suffering.

Some employers are straight on to bad behaviour in the workplace as they know how damaging it can be. Other employers elect to keep it quiet and lose good staff rather than have a high-profile dismissal. Sadly this is not uncommon – one study by CareerBuilder found that of the 3,300 full-time American employees surveyed, almost 1/3 had been bullied at work, and 19% had left jobs because of it. And, worryingly, 45% of bullied workers said their boss was the main culprit – some of these offenders will be organisation psychopaths, and if people quit, so be it.

From the hard lessons I have learnt, of the emergency three responses, I would always go: 1) fight, but that’s just me, and it's not always a good choice as I’ve highlighted; 2) flight, get as far away as you can; 3) never just freeze as this shows weakness, which they will pounce on.

However, the best advice I can give is: Do all you can to avoid them in the first place, as true psychopaths destroy lives. And they’ll have fun in the process. Xanthe Mallett is forensic anthropologist, criminologist and television presenter, and a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Criminology at the University of New England, Australia

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