How to recognise and deal with a workplace sociopath
- 05 February, 2014 09:36
Image credit: Lionsgate Films
In 2000, well-known Hollywood actor Christian Bale played a fictional psychopathic killer working on Wall Street in the disturbing black comedy thriller, American Psycho.
The film – adapted from the highly controversial book by Bret Easton Ellis – focuses on Bale’s character Patrick Bateman and his investment banker colleagues in corporate America in the 1980s. The men are constantly preoccupied with everything from their physical appearance to the contents of their wallets.
Psychopaths like Patrick Bateman are, of course, exceedingly rare in business – even the type whose murderous rampages are simply figments of their imaginations.
But what’s perhaps far less rare is the modern day corporate sociopath, a single-minded, ruthless and anti-social manager or staff member who lies, lacks empathy, and will do just about anything to get what they want.
And it’s in the c-level world – particularly in industries such as finance where the dollar is king – where individuals with sociopathic and narcissistic personalities are very likely to exist, according to clinical psychologist Jennifer Francis.
And sociopaths and narcissists are often difficult to tell apart.
“Narcissists are generally not necessarily dangerous or aggressive whereas the sociopath or anti-social types will often enter into aggression and violence – they cross that line without a sense of remorse,” says Francis.
“It’s the kind of stuff that when it happens, it really takes your breath away. You think ‘they can’t possibly have done that, they can’t possibly have lied about that or did that thing in the face of the rules we have in our workplace',” Francis says.
“They lack that kind of social response that most people have that keeps us in line with what’s right and wrong.”
A key feature of a sociopath is their lack of embarrassment if they are caught lying or deliberately undermining colleagues. They have a complete disregard for what other people think and don’t believe they need to conform to society’s rules and expectations, says Francis.
“They don’t care about the individual, society or people as a group,” she says.
The modern sociopath
Unlike the white collar workplace of the 1980s which was depicted in American Psycho, sociopaths and narcissists also now have access to tools in their highly-connected offices to manipulate their colleagues.
Francis agrees that the rise of modern social media technologies such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have made it easier for sociopaths to exist and potentially thrive in the corporate environment.
“They know more about other people’s lives and this makes other people easier to use and exploit,” she says.
“They can communicate via electronic means rather than face-to-face. This means they can use their charm and manipulative skills deliberately and pre-planned, without getting into a face-to-face situation where they might come unstuck or get found out.”
Nevertheless, Bridget Gray, managing director at IT recruitment firm Harvey Nash, believes the corporate sociopath is a creature that we saw more of in the 1980s and 1990s when email and instant messaging were yet to be invented.
This was a time when cubicles and closed offices were the norm and staff operated in silos, only interacting in formal meetings or at the water cooler, says Gray.
“These circumstances made it difficult to identify someone who had a negative impact on the workplace and even more difficult to do anything about it.”
“From the 2000s, with open plan offices, Agile stand ups, town hall meetings, team building sessions, values, mission statements and connectivity and interaction enabled through cutting edge technology, it is much simpler to prevent the corporate sociopath from manifesting in the workplace,” Gray says.
Try telling this to one CIO who recalls a time when he worked at company with what he described as a “revolting culture”, which was set by the chairman and had been enacted through the previous CEO.
There was one particular c-level executive who was a self-interested, spiteful bully. The executive disagreed with this particular CIO, deliberately trying to undermine him with personal attacks and persecution over two years. At one point, the CEO got together with a few colleagues and named and started a particular IT project without the CIO’s knowledge.
“I could tell there was something wrong, but the individual would not make strong eye contact. There was a very unusual feeling interacting; no direct conflict, the conflict was always behind closed doors through third parties,” the CIO says.
“The guy was reasonably guarded but apparently open in executive meetings. He also displayed highly passive aggressive behaviour, which I find really hard to deal with.”
The CIO said he dealt with the situation by behaving professionally and making sure people in the organisation were very aware of the culture.
“A lot of this was bullying behaviour so along with the executive team, I kept talking about what this behaviour looks like and making this individual [the CEO] aware of the traits of this kind of behaviour.
“We ran some workshops with the executive team and got the executive team to sign a code of conduct. This was quite a number of years ago and it’s what you would now sign as the anti-bullying behaviour document within an organisation.”
To the bully, this document was “water off a ducks back, totally useless”, the CIO says.
In hindsight, the CIO felt that more open confrontation with the sociopath, questioning why he was behaving certain ways, would have been a better way to deal with the situation.
“If that were to happen to me today, I would have been more open about talking to that individual one-on-one and in front of others and question things in executive meetings.”
The sociopath eventually left the company, choosing to resign supposedly for other reasons, the CIO says.
Dealing with the nasty one
Anxiety created by people in the corporate environment is one of the biggest workplace stressors, says Francis.
“The worst case scenario is if you have a boss who has anti-social or narcissistic personality traits,” she says. “The next worst scenario is a close colleague. People come out of that with post-traumatic symptoms – it ends up being almost like an abusive relationship.”
Finding a way to best deal with a sociopath depends on the individual’s situation, she says.
“If they have a boss who is very horrible, the best way to solve that is to find another job and get away from that person; that's probably the simplest.”
Managers should also be wise enough to recognise and take action against the sociopath, but Francis agrees that this doesn’t always happen.
“Sometimes I think organisations are very nervous about getting rid of those people because they wonder what they’re capable of asking, ‘would they take us to the Fair Work [Ombudsman] or fabricate something?’” Francis says.
“In some ways that’s a fairly natural reaction because those sociopaths make other people very uncomfortable and you don’t know what they are capable of because they aren’t bound by the regular [rules of society]. They’ll try to go around them instead of through them,” she says.
Working around the sociopath
“Sad to say, the workplace sociopath is alive and well in some workplaces in New Zealand,” says Robin Johansen, independent consultant and former CIO at engineering consultancy, Beca. “The more senior they are, the less likely it is that they will be dealt with, in my experience.”
Still, Johansen agrees with Bridget Gray at Harvey Nash, that the modern workplace and practices make it harder for the sociopath to thrive, but it does not eliminate the possibility.
“Without any professional training in psychology, observation also teaches me that rehabilitation of the workplace sociopath is unlikely so if you find yourself working with one, it is necessary to decide whether you will work around them or find other employment.”
Dr Tony Fernando, a psychiatrist and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, says many sociopaths are very charming.
“They can be very convincing in making you invest in their dubious schemes.”
He agrees social media provides sociopaths with more information about people but this information is also accessible to everyone. While some sociopaths are crude interpersonally, many of them in fact are total charmers and very savvy, he says.
"If you meet someone for the first time and he is totally into you, “be very careful”, Fernando says.
“Suddenly you are the centre of his universe, no one else matters; they know how to make you really feel good from day one. That is very nice and all, but be very slightly careful, you might be dealing with someone with sociopathic tendencies.
“They are smooth talkers, they are very manipulative, they would know how to make you feel good so they can get what they want from you.”
There are two rough groups of sociopaths, he says. The unsuccessful ones who end up in prison because they are not very smart, and the very successful ones such as a CEO who does not care about staff at all.
"All they care about is their image, which is usually measured in terms of money, looks and perception. They really don’t care about people’s welfare. If they see people as dispensable objects or stepping stones, you might be dealing with a sociopath.”
They are self-centred and it's everyone's fault when something goes wrong, he adds.
"But when things are successful, he claims the limelight and it is all due to him.”
Another rough gauge of a sociopath: If they are in an office setting, they only talk to people in power, people who 'matter' and totally ignore people at the bottom - such as cleaners, admin staff, and trainees - unless they need something from them, says Fernando.
His advice? If they are not doing something unethical, they cannot be reported, he says. If you suspect unethical behaviour, a chat with HR might help.
“Being a sociopath is not a crime in itself. All of us have streaks of different personality traits - including bits of narcissism, shyness, drama queen tendencies and even sociopathy," he says.
“It is a matter of the degree one has of these features and how much it impairs relationships. However, if one suspects pathologic sociopathy in a colleague - be careful with your interactions, do not open up too much with them as they can use your private information to their advantage. Personally, I can work with them but will keep them at a distance.
“Don’t expect too much in terms of them helping you, unless they’re using you for something.”
Additional reporting by Divina Paredes