Beware the Charming Psychopath

high functioning sociopath

Once again, Bob told our manager that he would be willing to take on the largest and highest-profile project in the business. Pleased with the eagerness of our coworker to volunteer, our manager smiled and gave him a thumbs-up at his initiative. But the rest of us on Bob’s team shuddered inside. When our coworker committed to the project, he was essentially committing the rest of us, because he was not about to lift a finger to get the project to completion. We knew that working with Bob meant we would be cajoled, conned, manipulated, shamed, and otherwise maneuvered into doing tasks none of us had signed up for. We also knew that, upon successful completion of the project, Bob would take all the credit.

At first glance, an outsider would wonder why we did not have the chutzpah to stand up to Bob, walk away, tell our manager, or choose to take any number of other actions that would circumvent the inevitable problems ahead. In hindsight, we would have those same thoughts. How is it that a coworker, and an equal on the organizational chart, can get away with doing so little work and still get so much credit?

Psychopaths in the Workplace

Employees with personality traits like Bob’s are known as “high-functioning psychopaths.” Although Bob’s behavior is characterized by traits of psychopathy, they are not to the degree of individuals who are institutionalized perpetrators of crime and punishment. Instead, high-functioning psychopaths are driven individuals whose success is often at the expense of others and who display the following types of behaviors:

  • Consistent and persistent manipulation of others, especially those who get in their way.
  • Masterful deception (exaggerating or outright lying) to get their way.
  • Crafty deflections (distractions or half-truths) when confronted about their behavior.

With regard to accountability, charming psychopaths can be so slippery that pinning them down is like “nailing jello to a wall.” You often sense that something is wrong, but you just can’t put your finger on what it is. The truth is that employees like Bob can be extremely charming and personable at the same time they are being ruthless and vindictive. Charming psychopaths are particularly good at managing up, and those higher in the ranks of the organization somehow miss seeing the underlying—and undermining—behaviors.

Psychopathic Behavior

Unlike many personality disorders that are rooted in anxiety, the psychopath has difficulty feeling at all. They crave power and control over people. The hallmark of the psychopath is an inability to experience remorse or empathy. Often, they themselves have no feelings at all. In this regard, the only relationships the psychopath is able to sustain are those that narcissistically serve his/her own interests. These relationships involve a truly sadomasochistic dynamic, in which the recipient of the psychopath’s behavior tolerates the abuse and manipulation that the psychopath dishes out. However, even these relationships tend to be short-lived.

In contrast to the anxiety normal humans feel under pressure, psychopaths become fearless and more focused on their target or goal. The psychopath has an uncanny ability to read people and exploit their vulnerabilities. Hence, in the workplace, the psychopath is able to identify the most vulnerable of coworkers and exploit them to his/her end. They are guiltless, callous, self-centered, and can be superficially charming. Because of their unbridled confidence, they can be very attractive, initially, with their charm and stories of success. They can have the very characteristics that can appeal to executives in management, who can confuse their superficial charm as charismatic leadership. In fact, it is not unusual to see high-functioning psychopaths in the highest levels of an organization. Their focus and ability to get things done, even nefariously, can serve them well.

How Corporate Psychopaths Work

In our example of Bob volunteering himself and, by default, his coworkers to take on a very important, high-profile project, we see Bob’s craft at work at a high level. Although Bob may attend an initial meeting aimed at organizing the project, do not expect him to leave that meeting with any meaningful responsibilities, if any at all. As a master of deflection, he may say things like, “Mary would be great to handle those details,” or “Those issues fall right into John’s skillset.” In these unwanted, unsolicited, and unauthorized delegations of duty are implied compliments to his coworkers, making them difficult to oppose, especially publicly. Initially, Bob’s employees were taken off-guard by his charm until later, when it was too late and they realized they had been duped. When requested to take on any responsibilities himself, Bob will have any number of reasonable-sounding excuses to decline. However, he will want to be at the progress meetings with the manager and may even facilitate those meetings to make certain he appears to be in charge and receives the credit.

Behind the scenes, Bob is constantly “stirring the pot” and creating dissension among team members, knowing that his lack of involvement will be overlooked in the midst of the dramas and conflicts he instigates. By creating confusion, Bob provides himself assurance that, if the project should fail, he has the team’s dysfunction to blame.

Three Ways to Deal

How do you deal with this kind of personality in the workplace? Keep in mind that the chances of psychopaths changing their behavior is nil! Corporate psychopaths have an entrenched personality style that allows them to incredibly adept at maneuvering and counter-maneuvering for self-serving purposes. So when you encounter high-functioning psychopaths, keep these tips in mind.

1. Distance Yourself

You do not want to be another body left in their destructive wake. As soon as you are able to identify any high-functioning psychopath (the sooner the better), work to distance yourself. You do not want to be on the same team or affiliated with them on any project. Decline opportunities to work together as politely as possible. If the psychopath is your manager, very quickly find another part of the organization in which to work—or another job!

2. Watch Your Back

Workplace psychopaths can be ruthless and have no trouble bending the truth or outright lying. Which is why confronting them comes with great risk. Remember, they are at their best at times when normal people are anxious and fearful. Confronting them will not lead to any changes in their behavior; and once confronted, they will actively set out to destroy you to coworkers, your manager, or anyone else who will listen to them.

3. Depersonalize

The greatest weapon that a psychopath has is to manipulate you in a way that makes you doubt the way you think about yourself, rendering you more vulnerable to his/her maneuvering. Remember that psychopaths’ behavior is about them, not about you, and do not take their compliments to heart any more than you take their condemnation to heart. You are no better or worse than when you first met them, and you are hopefully more aware. Do not lose a sense of who you are in working with them.

The bottom line is two-fold: first, you cannot change the behavior of high-functioning psychopaths; and second, you do not want to change your own behavior in response to theirs. Be aware, be on guard, and be yourself.