I have been reading a truly fascinating book called “Taming Toxic People – the science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work and at home”, by David Gillespie. It was one of those books that I couldn’t put down and I kept it in my bag so that whenever I had a few minutes to spare I could get through more. I often think that one of the major causes of job stress is dealing with the behaviour of others, potentially a workplace psychopath, and if you work in a large organisation I have no doubt you will recognise some behaviours.
You can buy the book here.
One of the reasons I bought the work was to help me understand workplace psychopaths we come across that can leave you scratching your head trying to work out what on earth just happened. They can leave you questioning yourself and your own sanity.
What is a psychopath?
A psychopath isn’t necessarily what you might first think of based on movies and TV. They do not need to be serial killers or criminals.
Psychopaths appear in the everyday population. It is very likely that you have met a psychopath. You may have a psychopath in your circle of friends, at your workplace, or in your family.
There are some common characteristics of psychopaths. Typically, they don’t fear negative consequences as much as people who have empathy. They are much less concerned about punishment than the rest of us. According to Gillespie, the common characteristics of psychopaths are:
- They are charming – their focus is what they can get from the person they are talking to rather than the possibility of rejection
- They are impulsive – rewards are larger than punishments and they see little point in delaying gratification
- They need stimulation – they are easily bored and they get a greater reward from risk than the rest of us
- They have a grandiose sense of self worth – they don’t remember negative experiences but they do remember positive ones
- They totally lack empathy – they lack remorse or guilt, are emotionally shallow, callous, and fail to accept responsibility for their own actions
In addition, they are fluent liars, emotionally manipulative, parasitic, fearless, highly controlling, vindictive and aggressive and intimidating.
Sounding familiar? Are any alarm bells ringing for you?
Psychopathy and profession
Interestingly, Gillespie has identified professions that are most likely to attract psychopaths. In descending order, they are:
- Media (TV/radio)
- Police officer
- Civil servant
Each of these professions rewards people who take risks, and involves exercising power over others.
The professions with the least numbers of psychopaths are:
- Care aide
- Charity worker
- Creative artist
These professions are typically focused on catering to the needs of others.
The Workplace Psychopath
Psychopaths have a set of strategies they use in the workplace. Based on psychological research, Gillespie says that psychopaths divide the workplace into four groups:
- Patrons – people who have real power and influence and the ability to protect the psychopath from police and patsies
- Pawns – people without any power or influence but who can be manipulated by the psychopath to support their aims
- Police – staff in control functions like HR, audit, compliance and security who might get in the way
- Patsies – once a patron or pawn is no longer any use to the psychopath, they turn off the charm and these people become discarded patsies. This usually only happens to a patron when the psychopath takes their job or to pawns when someone is needed to take the blame for something the psychopath has done.
Gillespie points out that when a psychopath is present in a workplace, it typically divides into two groups – the patrons and pawns who support the psychopath, and the police and patsies who despise the psychopath but are powerless to do anything because of the patrons protecting them.
Have you recognised any psychopaths in your workplace yet? They no doubt exist.
Is your boss a psychopath? What can you do?
If you can’t leave your work place, you need to know how to survive a workplace psychopath. I will summarise the ten ‘rules’ established by Gillespie to help you deal with a workplace psychopath.
Rule #1 – Accept reality
Understand and accept that you are the victim of a psychopath. Don’t try to make sense of their behaviour because it doesn’t make sense to a normal person. Don’t ever think you can change their behaviour.
Rule #2 – Remember this is temporary
Remaining in your job with a psychopath is not a long-term strategy. You need to think of it as a temporary survival strategy until you can find something else away from the psychopath.
Rule #3 – Be polite
You are not respected by the psychopath, and are considered a possession worth keeping around for as long as you deliver value. They believe they are superior to you (and everyone beneath them), and they want everyone’s adoration. The psychopath is much happier to have you around and less likely to attack you if you acknowledge them as superior, and follow polite conversation.
Rule #4 – Maintain privacy
Keep conversations business focused. Don’t disclose personal information about yourself or others, even when the psychopath tries to pump you for information. They will inevitably use it against you or against others. Lock down your social media.
Rule #5 – Be honest
The psychopath may encourage you to do something that you wouldn’t normally do so that they have dirt on you to use against you later. Always remain squeaky clean. That includes not participating in gossip and avoiding backstabbing.
Rule #6 – Fact-check everything they say
A psychopath will always lie to you. Don’t accept what they say to you as truth until you have heard the same information from other reliable sources. Assume that the ‘facts’ being told to you by the psychopath are lies designed to manipulate you.
Rule #7 – Be compliant
Your psychopathic boss may ask you to do work that is beneath you or serves little purpose. Gillespie’s advice here is to respond with “emotionless compliance”. (This may be really hard, but remember rule #2).
Rule #8 – Be emotionless
Try and filter out all displays of emotion from the psychopath and focus only on what they say and do. Remain calm and don’t attempt to understand the reasons for their display of emotion, this includes when they ignore you as well as attempt to provoke you. Don’t let a display of remorse from the psychopath influence you – they are not sorry they hurt you, they just want you to drop it and move on.
Rule #9 – Work hard on your support network
You may not be able to confide in anyone at work, so it will be important to find support from others outside of work. Find a hobby or something to do outside of work that gives you a reason to keep getting up each day. Perhaps start a blog?
Rule #10 – Be prepared
Document requests from the psychopath, and clarify every instruction. Document abusive comments, pointless tasks assigned to you, and examples of micromanagement. Send yourself emails about this so that you times and dates recorded.
Sounds depressing, right? In a workplace it is almost inevitable that at some stage you will encounter a psychopath.
The only times you will be guaranteed to not encounter a workplace psychopath is if you work for yourself. One of the major advantages of working from home is that your exposure to psychopaths significantly reduces.
What next? An exit strategy …
If you are working with a psychopath you will need to consider an exit strategy – remember rule #2. Remaining with a workplace psychopath can never be a long-term strategy and you do need to start planning your move, or getting that new hobby or interest outside of work. Don’t quit your job straight away (unless of course you can manage financially without it).
Research opportunities and take action.
You are in charge of your life.
Don’t let a workplace psychopath bring you down.
I’d love to hear your opinions. Tell me about your experiences!