Corporate Psychopaths

Dr Darryl Cross
May 25, 2021

The Office Politics that can Leave you Totally Destroyed

Most of us have been conditioned to believe that psychopaths end up in jail because they are violent or aggressive and definitely anti-social and criminal in some way.

However, we need to be re-educated.

What if they came disguised in suits? What if they camouflaged themselves using humour and charm? What if they were sufficiently functional to be able to work, but behind the scenes created havoc, devastation and destroyed people's lives?

How do you Identify the Corporate Psychopath?

Initially, it seems all pleasant and friendly; almost too good to be true. Your boss or your colleague (and sometimes your direct report or subordinate) seem the perfect superior or employee. At the selection interview for example, they impressed as very confident, full of self-esteem with no doubts or hesitations. In the workplace, they present as congenial, maybe funny, a good communicator, perhaps even charismatic.

However, after a while, some things just begin not to add up. There may be the interaction or meeting that leaves you feeling unnerved or uncomfortable like a game has been played somehow or an agenda played out and you can feel the arrow in your back. Perhaps more blatantly, there is a devious act where you're clearly stabbed in the back which not only catches you off-guard, but emotionally and psychologically wounds you or possibly crushes you.

For example, if something goes right then the psychopath takes the credit; they will ensure that everyone in the meeting or department knows that it was because of them that the group was successful. If something goes wrong, they are quick to blame and that someone may well be you. If you hand up a really good report, they'll pass it off as their own. In a one-on-one meeting or in a group meeting, you'll notice that they lie; you heard them say one thing at some point and then completely contradict it at another time. You may also hear things about yourself or about others that are simply not true. It's called character assassination and it's the work of the psychopath.

It's not until much later though, and often after they've climbed their way into positions of power, that the telltale symptoms of broken promises, occasional fraud and an inability to retain good staff expose their destructive impact.

If this all starts to ring true, you may be dealing with a corporate psychopath or what has also been termed "psychopaths in suits.

"In the ABC Science On-line program which aired on 5th February, 2015, forensic psychologist, Dr John Clarke detailed the other ways that you'll recognise psychopaths as follows:

  • lack any remorse of guilt for their behaviour
  • callous
  • manipulative
  • egotistical
  • self-centred individuals
  • devious (ie., so good at saying what you want to hear to your face while at the same time knifing you on the back)
  • Superficially charming

The play titled "The Operator" by David Williamson also focuses squarely on this kind of deviant person in the workplace. The play depicts clearly that psychopaths will do anything to move up the corporate ladder which always means that they charm their supervisors while undermining, isolating and discrediting any competitors, threats or others who they just pick on as victims.

However, the main indicator that we're dealing with a psychopath, is their complete lack of empathy or feeling for another person or understanding another's situation. It's the big tell-tale sign. Empathy as it happens, is the one ability that is crucial to our society's survival. An absence of empathy in our community would mean a total breakdown in our way of living; a kind of animal society where no one cared or supported anyone else.

The assertion is that every large company has its share of psychopaths in that 0.5% of females are psychopaths and 2% of males. So whether you like it or not, you may well have one in your work environment.

How Did the Psychopath Get Like This?

It's not entirely clear whether it is in the genes or whether it is due to their up-bringing. Maybe it's due to both.

However, it is clear, in my opinion that early childhood development must play a roll. As the Jesuits say, "Give me a child until he is seven and I'll show you the person." In other words, it's in those first few years of childhood that children learn to share, to understand that others like their brothers and sisters or cousins or other children at child-care all have feelings and emotions. They also learn to identify their own feelings and to get in touch with same.

The psychopath may well have missed out on such training or possibly been in such a difficult childhood or lacked any role models so that he or she simply cut off their feelings as a way of not having to cope with the pain and hurt that surrounded them.

What is clear though according to Dr John Clarke, is that by adulthood, psychopaths are physically incapable of feeling others' pain or distress.

The Psychopath has a Neurological Deficit

It's important to understand that the psychopath's brain malfunctions in a way. In other words, the psychopath has a differently wired brain.

The Psychopath's limbic system which reflects emotional responses does not operate in the same way as a so-called normal individual who expresses empathy. A 2001 study in the USA for example showed that the psychopath has very little limbic system response to emotional input or information.

The psychologist and author Kevin Dutton in his book "The Wisdom of Psychopaths," says that the specific area of the limbic brain that responds to emotion is the amygdala which he says is the feeling centre of the brain. In an MRI test for example, he reports that with emotional dilemmas, in normal people, the amygdala "lights up like a pin-ball machine," whereas in psychopaths, there is little if any activity in the amygdala. The emotional content therefore slips by the psychopath and they don't register the emotions of others.

This therefore allows the psychopath to manipulate and control other people because without any feeling or empathy for the other person, they act in very logical, analytical, rational and clinical ways.

Why Are We Seeing More of this Psychopathic Behaviour now?

It is true that the psychopath is disproportionately represented in office environments. Why so?

In developed nations, there has been a huge shift away from manufacturing jobs to service sector roles. However, it is far easier to quantify what someone has produced in manufacturing, and how many widgets they have made than it is to determine how well someone performs in the social sector which is more subjective. The office environment then is where it is difficult to measure a person’s contribution.

In service industries, instead of objective measures, your relationship with your boss becomes critical to your appraisal; basically it’s whether they like you or not. Hence, social skills and office politics become paramount.

In a work environment where it’s impossible to objectively measure individual contributions to work outcomes, it makes it much easier for psychopaths to succeed; the boss’ perception is crucial and the psychopath knows how to work a boss.

As more of us work in complex white-collar environments, success at work depends ever more on office politics. This seems unarguable. When gauging performance is straightforward –how many boxes of chocolates you can pack in a day, for instance –office politics is relatively unimportant. But where blame can be spread and credit stolen, and the bonus pool depends on staying in the boss' good graces, you need to know how to hustle and psychopaths therefore have a field day.

The "Triple-Treat" Psychopath

Oliver James in his book "Office Politics" goes further to explain that not only are their psychopaths in the workplace, but there is also a triad of deviants called the "Dark Triad."

This is a combination of not just one deviant personality, but three character types. Of course, there is the Psychopath, who has no conscience and shows no empathy; then there is the Machiavellian, to whom others are but pieces on a chessboard; and finally, there is the Narcissist, bursting with malignant self-love. James classifies people who are a mixture all three "triadic individuals".

If you thought that the psychopath was a problem at work, then the Dark Triad is something else. But that's another story...

What's Our Response to the Psychopath?

The most normal natural response for most of us though is to immediately question ourselves. Did I really stuff up that badly? Did I really miss that error? Was that mistake really my fault? Am I really so incompetent?

Further, we look for other external reasons to possibly explain the poor behaviour of the psychopath; maybe he just forgot to give me the praise for the report that he took credit for. We give them the benefit of the doubt.

This tendency for most of us to look at ourselves and to question ourselves is because we are about wanting to do a good job, wanting to get better, wanting to please and wanting to feel good about what we do. Yet, this is also our downfall; at least when there is a psychopath around.

Sadly, by the time you might actually complain, you may well be entirely discredited to a point that there's no support for you in the office or work situation.

What to Do?

In short, you either stay or you leave.

However, at the first sign of any of the traits listed above, you need to act and fast.

Talk to a trusted colleague and source their opinion. What do they think? Having others aware lightens your burden and gives you another perspective. See if there are repeated patterns of behaviour that might occur. Check to see if the list of traits given above start to ring true. If so, then talk to your boss providing you have a solid relationship with that person.

Remember though, that the psychopath will have done every thing to endear themselves to your boss or other superiors and have been charming, charismatic, maybe funny and humorous, but certainly friendly and pleasant. So, when you approach your boss or some other manager, do so in a rational manner presenting the facts and what you (and others) have observed rather than going in for a character assassination.

If however, you're more introverted and somewhat timid, perhaps you "don't want to create fuss," you don't "want to rock the boat" and you just want to get on with your work, then probably the best advice is get out of there –and quickly. Yes, maybe it isn't fair, and why should you leave a job you love just because of a complete and utter jerk called Simon Psychopath.

Because if you don't, you may never recover from the complete and utter devastation that they will reek in your life. If you're one of their victims, and you're in their sights so that they can score points and look good, then know that you'll never be able to defend against such odds because they will have done a complete job on you and completely undermined you in every direction. Make no mistake, these are calculating ruthless individuals.

How to be Pro-active and Begin to Bullet-proof Yourself.

Finally, irrespective of whether you have a corporate psychopath in your midst right now, chances are at some point, you will have. So, how can you get prepared?

  1. Self-awareness is the Foundation. It is important to know yourself and who you are. Are you a purist who insists on avoiding all office politics and largely keeps to yourself, then you are, in fact, setting yourself up as an easy target. On the other hand, are you "out there" or a "street fighter" who doesn’t hesitate to engage? As a first step, assess what style you think you might be; talk to people who know you and have been observing you –and be willing to hear some disappointing or confronting news. If your political style for example, doesn’t match your company’s or department's, then it's probably going to be an uphill battle unless you adjust. Be willing to grow and develop and make changes, gradual or subtle ones, if that’s what’s required in your organisation.
  2. Understand how your organisation works. You need to know where your organisation is on a continuum from minimally political to pathologically political. What's the culture around here? What’s the general climate? Who are the power brokers? How do decisions get made? Does it support the advancement of people of all ages and stages? Is it particularly difficult for women? If it’s a hostile or toxic environment, you can certainly try to adapt, or stay and fight, but you have to be aware of the consequences. You can try to change the system, often with great pain, but it’s much better if you can find a political culture where you’re capable of thriving with some degree of stretching, but not changing yourself fundamentally.
  3. Learn from the best. Find a mentor who can help steer you through the shoals of office politics. Look around for a senior in the organization who might match your personal values and attitudes and informally ask them if they wouldn't mind you using them as a mentor over a regular coffee for example. Most are only too glad to help.

Even if you don’t find a mentor, you can still get much of the information you need simply by watching. In a sense, every day should be a research project where you observe the people that seem to be doing very well and learn what sets them apart. Remember, that success leaves clues, so if you can see certain people succeeding, then figure out what they are saying and doing that is working for them. Be in meetings for instance, where they’re demonstrating what it takes. People aren’t terribly good about articulating what they do well politically, so you have to watch and observe.

Dr Darryl Cross is a clinical and organisational psychologist as well as a credentialed executive and career coach. He is also an author, international speaker and university lecturer. Dr Darryl assists people to find their strengths and reach their goals. Further information on Dr Darryl can be seen at www.DrDarryl.comand can be contacted at

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