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.

Managing the Passive-Aggressive Employee

We all know passive-aggressive employees. They are consistently late—for meetings, with assignments, even for social engagements—and tend to procrastinate and “forget” to complete a task or deadline. They may even be so bold as to ask their manager to send them reminders to get something done. Now that is audacity! No matter what “tricks” are put in place to manage their passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., scheduling them to arrive 30 minutes early, telling them a deadline is due two weeks before the actual due date, etc.), any possible gains they make quickly erode and they revert to their former ways. In addition, passive-aggressive employees can be characterized as being closed to new ideas and stubbornly holding onto their own point of view, even in the presence of data to the contrary. They may play clueless instead of defending their point of view, but the closed-mindedness remains. These manipulative patterns of behavior can also pervade their personal lives. It is only when these individuals offer benefits that far outweigh their liabilities that managers, employees, and friends tolerate—and adjust to or excuse—the disrespectful or manipulative behavior.

Passive-aggressive employees always have a reasonable excuse for being tardy (when they offer one at all)—the traffic was heavy, they had a physical problem, the dog ate their assignment, their computer went down, and so on. When decisions are made in their absence because the decision could not wait, they often show emotions ranging from disappointment to sullenness or rage that their input was not solicited. Managers joke that these folks will be “late to their own funeral.” Although these laggards may be the target of our light-hearted joking, over time, their consistent and ongoing tardiness, stubbornness, and sense of entitlement can result in lost productivity, loss of team unity, lower team morale, frustration, and resentment from managers and coworkers. These employees may be agreeable, apologetic, and possibly remorseful when challenged about their behavior; however, when confronted, they can also become defensive and even seem to be insulted!

The only reason passive-aggressive employees advance in companies, and in life, is because they are smart, talented, or effectively manipulative. To succeed in the face of often fierce opposition is itself a talent! A hair stylist I know is routinely 30 to 60 minutes late for her clients, but they tolerate her tardiness because she does a good job. Her clients have adjusted their behavior as a means of dealing with her tardiness—but this only serves to reinforce the hair stylist’s passive-aggressive behavior!

Passive-aggressive employees often are unable to change their behavior because it is rooted in anger, deep hostility, and wariness. Their passive aggression represents an inability to express frustration or anger in constructive or direct ways, and a lack of maturity, disrespect, and concern for other people’s feelings. These employees have somehow missed a crucial part of socialization that has to do with the development of empathy, intimacy, and collaboration. Instead, they have successfully been able to get others to conform to their way of conducting themselves, and therefore have little incentive to change. Psychologically, these individuals have never learned to express their hostility in a direct and constructive manner. In fact, they may assert that nothing is wrong and that they are simply disorganized or absent-minded. They will rarely take serious responsibility for their shortcomings or the discomfort and frustration it causes others.

So what is a manager to do? Dealing with passive-aggressive employees is especially difficult because it is unlikely these employees will truly change their behavior. In larger companies, these are the employees who may have gotten “passed around” because of the frustration previous managers have had with them. But there are effective ways to manage passive-aggressive employees.

  1. Establish Individual Contributor Roles: Passive-aggressive employees are not good team players. In fact, they can negatively impact the function and morale of a team. To the extent possible, put passive-aggressive employees into an individual contributor role, in which the work they do is independent of others relying on them.
  2. Set Clear Boundaries: It is critical to set clear boundaries with passive-aggressive employees in terms of expectations, quantity, quality, and timeliness of work. Equally critical is for you to be consistent with your expectations and not waver in the face of seemingly good excuses. The less consistent you are with your expectations and the subsequent consequences, the more likely the negative behavior will continue.
  3. Schedule Regular Performance Meetings: With passive-aggressive employees, reviewing clear and documented assignments in regularly scheduled meetings (at least weekly) is critical to determining whether these employees are completing their assignments. During these meetings you can demonstrate both positive regard for work done as expected and specific feedback where modifications are necessary. Be vigilant against manipulation and in your resolve and expectations.
  4. Manage Emotions: Because passive-aggressive employees have not learned how to express anger or frustration appropriately, encourage them to discuss their feelings when things are not going well. You are not their therapist, of course, but giving them the opportunity to talk about what is really behind their behavior can help create a new paradigm for relating to issues that affect their performance.
  5. Manage Decisively: When old patterns of passive aggression emerge, act quickly and decisively to deal with them. Putting passive-aggressive employees on a performance improvement plan or redeploying them in the face of opposition are wise and sometimes necessary options. Similarly, when new and positive behaviors emerge, being quick to recognize them and reward individuals for their success will reinforce new patterns and ways to move forward.

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?

Working with a Reluctant Boss

It is a strange yet frequent phenomenon to find individuals in management whose performance suggests they don’t want to be in a managerial role. Their behaviors indicate they aren’t comfortable supervising, or even interacting with, subordinates. Setting a vision for the team and providing direction do not seem to be part of these managers’ DNA. Often, the track to raises or advancement at a company is only through the process of managing others. Professionals advance to positions of authority because of their expertise and performance as an individual contributor, despite never wanting to be in management. Consequently, when they are in a new management position, they tend to flounder.

In my consulting, I have seen this pattern (called the “Peter principle”) demonstrated by entrepreneurs as well, especially franchise owners, who have been capable of running one store or unit because they could control and keep track of all of the variables. They may not have been very effective managing people at the unit level, but it was not as evident or important because they did everything themselves and their singular unit was still successful. However, once they opened a second or third unit, their hesitance to manage became evident and they struggled because of a reluctance to engage, delegate, or become more involved within more complex organizational and operational structures.

I have identified a hesitant manager as a reluctant boss. Employees of reluctant bosses complain that their managers

  • rarely give direction;
  • have great difficulty making decisions;
  • are unclear about clarifying company policies, roles, and responsibilities;
  • change their minds and back down in the face of conflict; and
  • have great difficulty holding subordinates accountable.

Employees are often confused by their manager’s changing direction and, at times, feel paralyzed and uncertain about the direction in which they should proceed. Although reluctant managers may be very intelligent, their personalities get in the way of their effectiveness and the ultimate success of their team.

In one-on-one conversations, reluctant bosses will seem to engage and even to have a clear idea of their goals for the team and organization. They appear amenable to suggestions and agree with input from others. Employees leaving these one-on-one meetings may feel that they have some direction at last, only to find their manager makes a 180-degree change shortly thereafter, especially when dealing with employees who challenge them. In addition, when reluctant bosses are told of problems that need to be handled, they may verbally commit to fixing them, only to let them fester. Such behaviors may well be passive-aggressive efforts to resist interaction with others, avoid direct confrontation, and delay in making or committing to decisions.

Reluctant bosses typically suffer from the same problem—a severe lack of confidence. They lack confidence in their ability to make the right decision (as if there is only one right decision) and end up continuously faltering in their management role. As a result, they tend to overcomplicate simple decisions and worry excessively about what others may think. They are “hands-off” managers for fear of upsetting others and would rather do things themselves than have conflict or hold others accountable. When interpersonal conflict is involved, these managers can have irrational beliefs about what might happen if they do hold others accountable. As weak-willed managers, they are highly susceptible to manipulation because they have not created a work environment where there are consequences for poor conduct by employees or customers.

When making decisions, these managers can suffer from LILO (i.e., last in, last out), a condition in which a manager will agree with whomever they spoke with last, but only until the next person comes along. They can be people-pleasers to a pathological extent. But by trying to please everyone, they please no one!

Most of the time, reluctant bosses have some awareness of how their inability to take action or be decisive ultimately causes greater disruption in their organizations. But they lack the inner courage to change their behavior. Confronting reluctant bosses only drives them further away, increases the anxiety they already have, and decreases the likelihood that they will make firm decisions or take action.

When you are unfortunate enough to have such a boss, how do you work to help them and the enterprise to be successful? Ultimately, you may have to serve as both their backbone and spokesperson. Keep in mind that what they need are support and encouragement, not criticism. Here are some tips for working with reluctant bosses in one-on-one situations:

Vision: Ask them what they would like the future of their business to look like. Make sure you are actively listening and not passing judgment. They probably have some idea in their minds of what success looks like. Once they have articulated a clear and focused vision, help them communicate that vision to people throughout the organization and publicly support their view of the future.

Decision-Making: Help them identify the decisions they do not like to make. These typically will be the day-to-day operating decisions. Partner with them and express your willingness to spearhead the implementation of difficult decisions. Doing so will likely involve partnering with other members of the team.

Management: Because of their distaste for conflict, they need reassurance and help with being realistic about the actual consequences of having difficult conversations. It is not that they are unaware of the need to have these conversations, they just don’t know how to discuss tough issues.

All of these suggestions require the employee to take a risk and begin acting more like the manager’s colleague instead of his or her subordinate. However, you may find these managers welcome your assistance and begin leaning on you to help steer and focus the organization. By combining their intelligence and understanding of the business with your ability to execute, you may have a very good team.