Is Your Boss A Psycho?

Tuesday 17 February 2015
Leaders with personality disorders are more common than you might think. Here's why you should never underestimate the damage they can cause

For many, the word “psycho” calls to mind an image of Norman Bates, clad in his dead mother’s gown and wielding a kitchen knife. But psychopaths aren’t necessarily serial killers or criminals; they are found in all walks of life. They can even be overachievers with high-flying careers. In fact, research suggests that one in 25 business leaders could be a psychopath.

It’s not that surprising that psychopaths' bullying in the workplace is likely to go undetected. Organisations will often actively reward psychopathic characteristics in a corporate environment: being ruthless, results-driven, using charisma to get the most out of staff and colleagues, to name but a few.

“Just look at modern working environments: what are the priorities?” asks Dr Cheryl Travers, chartered psychologist and lecturer at Loughborough University. “Beating the competition, hitting ambitious targets, hard selling, finding out what rivals are doing and sometimes stealing their ideas. Those who are ruthless and resilient to others’ opinions and immune to the fear of failure are more likely to climb to the top.”

Warning Signs

So how can you tell the difference between a driven leader and a genuine psychopath? “Look for those that consistently take credit for others’ ideas,” says Travers. ‘Those who are incredibly charming to one’s face, then stab you in the back with no apparent remorse. They may lie to serve their purposes, and can be very manipulative. They also tend to set impossible deadlines and make employees feel like they can never work hard or efficiently enough.”

Psychopaths also, it turns out, come in many guises. “There are many different flavours of psychopathy,” explains Professor Craig Jackson, senior lecturer in occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University, and an expert on deviance and psychopathology in the workplace. “There are some that you’ll never encounter in the workplace, like schizoid disorder. These people are incredibly withdrawn and isolated, so they don’t tend to have successful careers. Likewise, those with antisocial disorders don’t tend to flourish in a work environment. The real ones you have to worry about are the narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.”

Narcissism isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it is healthy to take some pride in your appearance and normal to enjoy praise. But, for a select few, it becomes a consuming obsession. Narcissistic personality disorder is characterised by a strong need for admiration alongside a lack of empathy for others. It used to be known as megalomania and is estimated to affect around 1% of the world’s population. Borderline personality disorder (BPD), however, is characterised by impulsive behaviour, variable moods and intensity. “Those with BPD can display poor impulse control,” says Travers. “So watch out for bosses that are unable to plan long-term.”

One senior manager within a management development consultancy, who prefers to remain anonymous, worked for a psychopath for years, and found that superficial charm was often a gateway to bullying in the workplace. “She had a way of making me open up to her by sharing information with me, saying things like, ‘I haven’t told anyone this’, or ‘confidentially, this person…’ and then, before I knew it, I would be manipulated into doing or saying something I didn’t want to,” she reveals. “I don’t even think she knew she was doing it.”

Working with a psychopath can be a dilapidating, life-swallowing, pursuit.

But if you think there might be a psychopath in your organisation, don’t jump ship just yet. “Having a boss with a personality disorder is not always bad for you as a worker,” says Jackson. “Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK work for a manager with some kind of disordered personality, whether diagnosed or not.”

Moreover, the very definition of a psychopath has evolved over time. Fifty years ago, people could be institutionalised for having an ‘eccentric’ personality disorder – wearing a funny hat or odd shoes, for example. But 10 years ago, this so-called disorder was phased out of medical parlance. “Personality disorders come and go depending on societal rules and norms,” explains Jackson. “Imagine refusing to wear shoes to work, or setting up a protest camp in Parliament Square a century ago? These days, it’s practically considered ‘normal’.”

The next big thing on the psychopathy spectrum, posits Jackson, is something he likes to call “histrionic disorder”. This is a personality always in crisis: a late train, a sock lost, a phone call missed – these all become huge dramas that must be endlessly discussed. “Histrionics are attention-seeking and like to talk about their problems,” says Jackson. “And it’s being brought about by societal change. Just look at Twitter. Each day millions of people are rewarded for moaning about traumas with more ‘followers’ and retweets. The hashtag ‘FML’ is everywhere [look it up – it’s unprintable spelled out].

“We are breeding a workplace that views everything as a disaster.”

There are many factors that contribute to creating a psychopath, most of which take place throughout childhood. And while it is impossible to “un-psycho” a manager, there are organisational and societal changes that could help prevent these individuals from thriving. “This is why I’m not a fan of The Apprentice,” says Jackson. “I guarantee that the majority of the contestants will be narcissistic or have some kind of personality disorder. These are the kind of nut-jobs that make great TV: they scheme and connive and put people down. The problem is that they also become role models. People think that is how you should behave in the workplace, which is profoundly negative.”

And despite personality disorders manifesting as bullying behaviour or harassment, many organisations choose to turn a blind eye. “Companies make allowances, don’t they?” says Jackson. “They go, ‘that’s just Geoff’s way’.”

If you work for a psychopath, you don’t have to keep silent. It is only by speaking out that problem characters can be removed from organisations. “It was people being afraid to speak out that meant Jimmy Savile got away with his behaviour for so long,” warns Jackson. “We may have medicalised the condition, but ultimately, many of these people are just wrong ’uns – plain and simple.”

How To Out-psych A Psycho

Psychopathy is not genetic – it is developmental. But one habits are formed, they are almost impossible to break. There are no known cures for personality disorders, no pills that can be popped. So how can you best handle a psycho manager?

Be Good

“If you are an expert at what you do, it makes it hard for you to be criticised,” says Dr Cheryl Travers. “Do your homework and prepare for every interaction if you can.”

Avoid Attacks

“Never tell a psychopath they are wrong, either in private or in person,” warns a management consultant who does not wish to be named. “They will punish you. Never trust them.”

Tap In

Try to find out as soon as you can what motivates them, be it money, beauty, status, power or knowledge, says the anonymous management consultant: “Make sure every interaction you have with them taps into these values and motivators.”

Pay Attention

“Learn the games these people play so you can predict their next move,” Travers adds. “Becomes your own amateur psychologist!”

Respond Wisely

Professor Craig Jackson says that the most important thing is that you change your reactions to their behaviour. “You are not the one at fault, they are,” he says. “It’s not personal: this individual doesn’t see you as human but as a tool. Never get emotional in front of them. Breaking down won’t help.”

Find Peace

“Make sure you have someone to vent to outside of work and find ways of getting a break on days when they’ve affected you particularly badly,” says Travers. “A good, brisk walk often helps.”