Beware the Charming Psychopath

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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.

Hard Conversations? Just Do It!

Recently, a client called me to ask for my counsel regarding an upcoming performance discussion with one of his subordinates. He told me about the individual’s declining performance, including several instances of the employee failing to deliver on agreed-upon projects. The employee was contrite and apologetic, but his performance had not improved. In addition, the employee had experienced some personal problems over the past year, for which my client had made several allowances. It was clear that my client had delayed the discussion for some time and could delay no more. The time had come for a direct and unambiguous performance discussion.

My client expressed significant apprehension about having the discussion and asked my advice on how to handle the meeting.  Violations of company policy or ethical standards are easier to address because they are cut and dried. However, discussions about performance issues are not always as clear-cut. Such issues tend to be more about the behaviors of employees, which are more difficult to discuss because they may cause employees to feel defensive, embarrassed, or nervous.

My experience is that when leaders have faced difficult personnel decisions, they never say, “I wish I would have waited longer before taking action.” Quite the contrary! They always say, “I wish I would have taken action sooner.” The effects of waiting to take some kind of corrective action include loss of time and productivity. More important, leaders who are slow to address performance issues risk demonstrating a lack of credibility and confidence to subordinates and colleagues.

Why do managers consistently delay the timing and directness of difficult performance conversations? The major reason they procrastinate is a lack of self-confidence. They are uncomfortable having potentially tense and contentious discussions in which they do not feel in control of the outcome. In addition, I see leaders delay having these discussions because they want so much to be liked and admired that they would rather be taken advantage of than risk hurting someone’s feelings. The greatest error leaders can make is to lose sight that such conversations need to be unemotional reviews of the facts of the individual’s performance, not emotional displays of feelings.

There are three things managers need to keep in mind before having difficult performance discussions with their employees:

1: Data. Come to the meeting prepared with clear data about the individual’s performance. To have a productive performance discussion, it is critical for managers to have provided clear expectations for work behavior and responsibilities (including quality, quantity, and timeliness of efforts), as well as to have documented instances when expected behaviors or deliverables were not met.

2: Focus. Have a clear agenda about what you are going to discuss, and stick to it. Because the meeting will be based on facts and not opinions, the tone of the meeting should be professional and any degree of emotion should be minimal. The manager can always respond to difficult retorts by the subordinate by staying calm and guiding the discussion back to the facts at hand.

3: Plan. Prior to the meeting, decide with clarity what changes are required, what the expected outcomes should be, and by when you expect to see improvements. In meetings of such importance, it is unfair and unprofessional to make it up as you go. If the manager does not have a plan, including the consequences for failing to meet expectations, the outcome of the meeting will be sub-optimal. A less-than-good outcome is not beneficial for either the individual or the organization.

The key to having difficult performance discussions is preparation, along with a commitment to keeping the conversations factual, focused, and outcome-oriented. My client took this advice to heart and went into the meeting prepared with the facts, an agenda that he followed, and an outcome in mind. He kept the meeting factual and non-emotional; and though the discussion was not an easy one, the client and his subordinate left the meeting with a clear and unambiguous plan. Furthermore, it was agreed that if the subordinate followed the plan, he would be successful, but that if he wasn’t able to follow the plan, he would be either reassigned or terminated. As is often the case, my client’s post-meeting evaluation was, “I should have had this meeting a long time ago!”

The next time you are faced with having a difficult conversation, make sure to plan ahead, have data to support your positions, keep the discussion focused, and go into the meeting with an idea of the desired outcome. Being prepared will make these interactions more productive, and you will waste less time and energy worrying beforehand.

Success and Self-Esteem

However one defines success, the greatest contributor to success in life is how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. Our motivations, relationships, work life, personal interests, body image, and even our religious beliefs are all derivatives of the way we see ourselves. In fact, self-esteem controls virtually every aspect of our lives. We may believe that we make decisions independently, but the underlying influence on the choices we make is to maintain the way we see ourselves. That is why making significant changes that require us to take on new challenges or opportunities in our lives can be so difficult—they force us to see ourselves as changeable.

Although the dynamics of self-esteem are not constant over time, they calibrate the range of behaviors we allow ourselves to entertain. For example:

  • If you are a pleaser, then behaving more independently is threatening.
  • If you are a perfectionist, then letting go of some of the details can cause anxiety.
  • If you are a workaholic, then leaving the workplace at a more reasonable time can produce apprehension.

Low self-esteem causes us to unconsciously perpetuate problematic behavior. It is important to realize the past really is prologue to the future, and the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior!

In the work environment, people with low self-esteem get stuck in jobs that reinforce their sense of inferiority. Pleasers often have bosses who are dominant. Perfectionists try to satisfy bosses for whom their work is never quite good enough. Workaholics often have demanding bosses with impossibly high expectations. Dependent employees stay with controlling bosses. In the workplace, the bosses with whom we stay usually reinforce the behaviors and beliefs that maintain the familiar level of self-esteem to which we are accustomed. Self-esteem can be the anchor to which people are tethered or the engine that propels their success.

Of course, changing your level of self-esteem at work matters the most in situations such as being dissatisfied with your job, believing you can aspire to more, having strained relationships outside of work, or no longer tolerating a boss you hate. Developing healthy self-esteem puts you, not others, in the driver’s seat of your life! Those with healthy self-esteem are able to make decisions that are based on positive self-interest, instead of simply reacting to the demands of others.

People with healthy self-esteem exhibit the following types of behaviors:

  • Act in accordance with what they think or believe without excessively worrying about the consequences.
  • Trust their own judgment to make decisions about their lives.
  • Consider themselves to be equal to others, and not wasting energy on comparisons.
  • Experience intimacy without being either dependent or exploitive.
  • Voice differences and finding solutions, without belittling or disrespecting themselves or others.
  • Focus on living in the present, without worrying about the past or the future.
  • Appreciate the value they bring to a situation and that they can be as valuable as the next person in their own unique way.
  • See mistakes, setbacks, and failure as normal parts of living, from which they learn and move on.
  • Are willing to take calculated risks without letting fear of failure stifle them.

Research has shown that increasing self-esteem is not an impossible task. The main thing that differentiates people with high self-esteem from those with low self-esteem is the development of mastery. Mastery is having proficiency and knowledge in certain skills or areas of expertise. With mastery, you increase your ability to manage the situations that confront you. It begins by taking baby steps outside of your comfort zone:

  1. Identify a skill or aptitude at which you would like to become proficient.
  2. Set a goal to increase your mastery of that skill by a small but noticeable amount within a specified time frame.
  3. Set aside a small amount of time each day to practice improving your mastery of the skill.
  4. When you reach the end of the established time frame, recognize the degree of mastery you have acquired. These moments are when you begin to increase your self-esteem and gain confidence in taking greater risk.

Never underestimate the power of one small change. It can ultimately precipitate a domino effect of removing obstacles in your life. Don’t be afraid to step out. As you gain in skill and confidence, you must make the move to a more active mode of experimentation. This could mean taking on more responsibility, initiating a project unfamiliar to you, or doing work that exposes you to the criticisms of peers or even the public. You will find that your worst fears will be unrealized and that the mastery you felt after acquiring one skill generalizes to experiencing success in new areas. Do not allow yourself to be content with a sense of inferiority or victimization that causes you to settle for less than the happiness you deserve! Improving your self-esteem is up to you, and only you can do it. Well, what are you waiting for?

The Perils of Perfectionism

Some individuals seek to receive accolades by describing themselves as a perfectionist. This can be a form of “back door bragging,” especially if they disingenuously refer to perfectionism as a curse (e.g., “I can’t help it if I want things to be perfect!”). After all, a person would not want to be identified as the opposite of perfect. Perfectionists explain that their desire to have things just right is the reason they take longer, work harder, or miss deadlines. In addition, they are known to claim they would rather not do a task at all if they cannot do it perfectly. Perfectionists see the world in black and white or dichotomous terms. Being perfectionistic becomes a badge of honor that differentiates them from the rest of the world. However, by requiring perfection of themselves at all times, they become victims of their own irrational thinking that perfection is even possible.

A common but misguided thought in business is that perfection is not only beneficial but critical to success. We have spell-check to make certain our documents are error-free. We are told that “God is in the details.” In sports, the adage is that “practice makes perfect.” Although emphasis on perfection is very important in certain areas, it can be an impediment in others. If you are a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist, there is no argument about wanting a physician or scientist to have a very high degree of precision. This would also be true for areas associated with safety, such as a zero-defect tolerance for problems with automobile airbags. In most professional areas, however, seeking perfection often leads to a diminishing return—the cost in time and money.

Another line of thought that is more relevant to the business professional is captured best by the phrase, “Perfectionism is the enemy of the excellent.” In business, urgency typically does not allow for, or even require, perfect solutions. For example, university studies have found that perfectionistic professors have lower research productivity. Findings showed that a higher level of perfectionism was associated with a lower number of total publications as well as a lower number of first-authored publications.

Psychologically, perfectionism is rooted in insecurity and emanates from a deep-seated fear of failure, which is self-defeating. Some suggest that perfectionism is a form of self-abuse because achieving perfection is an impossible task. In its extreme, perfectionism can be seen in obsessive-compulsive behaviors, including constantly cleaning, checking, and double-checking to make sure everything is in its place. Perfectionists view their professional work as an extension of themselves and do not have clear boundaries between themselves and their career. As a result, they take setbacks and criticism personally, and can have difficulty with authentic self-disclosure on the off-chance they may reveal something akin to a flaw. Perfectionists do not acknowledge that humans are incapable of perfection.

Imagine looking for perfection when there is little or any of it to be found. This explains why perfectionists tend to be pessimistic. Their world is always a glass half-empty. Because of their need for exactness, they do not easily trust or work well with others. They can be critical and judgmental of the work of others. Secretly, they can take pleasure in the failure of others and use it to reinforce their own perfectionism. They can demonstrate excessive control needs, and, as managers, they tend to micromanage others.

Perfectionists epitomize the saying of people who “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The larger context escapes them because they get over-involved in the details. They see the hole in the doughnut, but miss the doughnut altogether. They often procrastinate starting work because of the enormity involved in making their work too exact or meticulous. They do not have internal monitors that keep them from reaching the point of diminishing return in completing their work. They can never settle for “good enough,” because all they can see is what is left undone. Even when they complete a work product, they are dissatisfied. They are constantly “moving the goalposts.” They can think that catastrophic things will occur in the event that they leave something out or make a mistake. In its extreme, perfectionism can be associated with illness, including depression and anorexia, and even suicide.

There is little about forms of perfectionism that is good for the individual or for the business. If you recognize these traits in yourself, here are ways for you to diminish your perfectionistic tendencies (and let yourself enjoy life more).

Join the Human Race

Acknowledge that humans are flawed and the rest of the world seems to live well enough with more lenient standards. Nobody is perfect. Engage in more positive self-talk:

  • All I can do is my best.
  • People will like me even if I make a mistake.
  • People will respect me completing work in a timely manner, rather than taking forever trying to do it perfectly.

This will help you combat the stringent set of internal negative demands you often hear.

Put Things in Perspective

Unless you really are a brain surgeon or rocket scientist, there is little negative consequence for a “good enough” outcome. Before embarking on a task, spend a few minutes thinking about the value of the task and the degree of work actually required. Ask yourself what level of imperfection you can tolerate. Calibrate your work effort to your new, more reasonable standard.

Practice Saying No

When you are requested to do something outside of your work domain, consider turning the work down. Determine what the real consequences are for saying “no.” It will not be as severe as you imagined.

Practice Grace

If you are managing others, become intentional about allowing them to complete work in their own way, without excessive oversight from you. Compliment their work product and you will probably find that they want to please you and take delight in your praise.

Reward Yourself

When you do something that demonstrates that you have reduced your level of perfectionism on a project, engage in something you really enjoy doing, such as being with friends, a nice meal, or some recreational activity. The good feeling of the reward can encourage you to manage your perfectionistic tendencies.

The path to managing perfectionism is not an easy one. It requires practice, patience, and being kind to yourself. The ultimate benefit derived from overcoming perfectionism is that you will have a happier and an even more successful life.

Surviving the Narcissistic Boss

Stories abound about “the boss from hell,” that executive whose behavior causes havoc in the workplace through a persistent pattern of being entitled, unbending, dominant, arrogant, callous, or even brutal in his or her relationships with others. People working for such tyrants are always “walking on eggshells” to avoid triggering their wrath and often feel beaten down. Rather than focusing on what is best for the business, subordinates are often left trying to guess what will please these self-absorbed bullies.

Why Employees Stay

It is not uncommon for businesses or organizations run by tyrant bosses to experience high turnover. Employees who are psychologically healthy recognize the toxic environment created by such tyrants and leave as soon as they can. Those employees who stay on, however, usually do so for one of the following reasons:

  • There is an expectation, or even a guarantee, that they will be well compensated for enduring the unhealthy behaviors of their boss.
  • They are psychologically unhealthy themselves, such that the abuse feels familiar to them, and their own self-image is so poor that the conduct of their narcissistic boss reinforces it.
  • They cannot get a job elsewhere, so they withdraw emotionally and continue to tolerate the unhealthy behavior.

Understanding Narcissistic Leaders

Narcissistic leaders have a bottomless need for power and admiration. Typically, they believe they deserve continuous special treatment, blame others for their problems, complain constantly of other people disappointing them, and bully and intimidate others. They are often grandiose, aggressive, and lack empathy. They rarely accept or acknowledge the damage they cause to others or to themselves. Consequently, they never see the need to change their behavior, and attempts to counsel or coach them are met with derision or contempt.

Paradoxically, narcissism and excessive self-promotion and entitlement are often linked to low self-esteem. For narcissists, the means of compensating for a profound sense of inadequacy is to present an inflated picture of their capabilities to emphasize their superiority. However, this defense mechanism of convincing themselves that they are valuable—to avoid feeling ashamed of their inevitable human flaws—always comes up short and the cycle of controlling and demeaning behavior continues. Because of such well-constructed defenses, it can be extremely difficult for others to perceive the underlying sense of inadequacy felt by narcissists.

An Upside to Narcissism?

Surprisingly, there is an upside to narcissism, which helps explain why companies may tolerate narcissistic leaders. In his research, psychologist Blaine Gaddis has found that narcissism is related to moving up in an organization, even though it is unrelated to leadership effectiveness. Narcissists are often good at taking initiative and achieving results in the short term. Narcissistic leaders believe they are more effective than those around them, and are aggressive, intimidating, and shamelessly persistent at self-promotion. Examples of successful narcissistic leaders include Ron Miller, former Disney CEO, and Steve Jobs, former Apple CEO. Both men were known as despots who were intolerant of others’ challenges and would even throw temper tantrums and be exceedingly punitive to get their way. These examples are the exceptions that prove the rule: unless the narcissistic leader is in total control and producing results (as Jobs did), his or her rise in an organization is often stalled once the abusive behaviors become more evident.

How to Respond to Narcissistic Bosses

With bosses who are clearly narcissistic, keep in mind that they are unlikely to change because of their tendency to view problems as being caused by everyone else. Your best path is to begin finding ways to exit their organization and move to another. In the event that you are unfortunate enough to be unable to leave their management, there are some things you can do to cope.

Leverage their vision: Narcissists strive to be in positions of status and power. Their whole goal in life is to receive the kind of accolades they believe they deserve. By taking time to understand what the narcissist wants to accomplish in the company, you can actually partner with them to achieve their objectives. Successes that you have helped achieve can serve to satisfy their need for adulation, while allowing you to maintain a position of trust. Over time, it could lead to you helping your boss shape his or her future in a way that furthers the needs of the organization, and even your own career.

Listen reflectively: Because narcissists require ongoing admiration and affirmation, reflecting back to them (i.e., mirroring) the positive contributions they have made to their organizations may keep them temporarily satisfied. Reflective listening needs to be truthful and related to actual accomplishments. Such a strategy will temporarily quell their anxiety and may allow you to do your work relatively free from drama. It is a strategy that needs to be repeated.

Avoid confrontation: Any direct challenge to the behaviors of narcissists will be met with denial, and possibly outrage. By confronting the narcissistic leader, you run the risk of being publicly minimized and shamed. If you must have a difficult discussion with them, have it privately and significantly temper your concerns in order not to threaten them.

Deflect praise: The narcissist is extremely competitive and becomes envious when those around him or her succeed. This is captured in what Gore Vidal once said: “Every time one of my friends succeeds, I die a little.” The narcissist is not able to enjoy the success of their subordinates because it takes the spotlight away from them. In the event that you receive praise and accolades for your work, be quick to include your boss as having been a supporter in the process.

Narcissistic tendencies and behaviors can run the gamut from harmless and mild to extreme and even malignant. The strategies discussed above are more likely to be successful with bosses who have extremely high levels of narcissism. If these strategies do not work because your boss’s narcissistic defenses are “off the charts,” you may want to look for another job.