Sunday, 13 January 2013

When The Boss Is A Psychopath

A colleague who works in an administrative position within a mental health agency, recently told me about a crushing defeat she’d suffered while pursuing a dream some years ago.

She’d always wanted to work in the creative side of advertising and had been told by a number of industry peers that she had true talent for the job and was urged to apply for a position with a large advertising firm.  My colleague was thrilled when she got the job, and was put into the print media department under a manager who was praised for the results his team produced.  She truly thought she’d landed her dream job and would be mentoring under a seasoned veteran who would teach her the skills she needed to advance in the field.  Little did she know that her dream would soon become a nightmare of bullying, abuse, and intimidation.

“I would go to him [her manager] to ask advice and was told to go figure it out myself or find another job.” she said, “I ended up working 10 - 12 hours a day, not only doing my job, but his as well.”

And when she produced excellent work; “... he would take it from my desk and present it to upper management, claiming it was his.” and when she confronted him on it, he responded with threats to fire her and the intimidation and bullying increased.

“It was a huge blow to my self-esteem.” she confessed, stating she felt at the time that she wasn’t good enough to live up to her manager’s demanding standards, and feeling lost in a corporate world she didn’t understand; No matter how hard she worked, she never got credit for a job well done, while her manager basked in the praise from upper management for producing excellent work.

“You couldn’t win.” I told her, and went on to list some characteristics her manager may have had;

  • Grandiose - believing he was smarter and more talented than anyone else
  • Lack of skills relating to the job while taking credit for the work of others
  • Lack of positive leadership skills
  • “Managing” his staff through threats, bullying, and intimidation
  • Blaming others for his own failings
  • The ability to feign emotions while in the presence of superiors, but being callous otherwise
“EXACTLY!” she exclaimed.

The reason my colleague couldn’t win with that manager was that she was dealing with psychopathy.  In popular vernacular, her manager was a psychopath.

Though there is no sanctioning psychiatric or psychological body for a diagnosis of psychopathy, our criminal justice system uses screening tools to assess for psychopathy.  Dr Robert Hare, the world’s leading authority on psychopathy, created a checklist of signs to identify someone as a psychopath;

Factor 1: Personality "Aggressive narcissism"
  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Conning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
  • Callousness; lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
Factor 2: Case history "Socially deviant lifestyle".
  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Poor behavioral control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Early behavior problems
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Traits not correlated with either factor
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Many short-term (marital) relationships
  • Criminal versatility
  • Acquired behavioural sociopathy/sociological conditioning (Item 21: a newly identified trait i.e., a person relying on sociological strategies and tricks to deceive)

When we think of a “psychopath”, we typically think of a violent criminal or serial killer.  Now it can be argued that all serial killers are psychopaths, but not all psychopaths are serial killers.  In fact, through his lifetime of research, Dr. Hare discovered that there is a higher percentage of psychopaths in the corporate world than there are in the criminal justice system, and even co-authored a book about it; Snakes in Suits - When Psychopaths go to Work

Psychopaths play by a different set of rules and they are very good at it.  They spend their time observing human emotions and behaviours and devising ways to use those to their advantage.  They are constantly “sizing up the prey” and many believe that everyone thinks like they do, so they maintain a “get them before they get me” belief system.

I’m sure many of us have experienced what my colleague did; working for a boss who was a psychopath.  Though my colleague was relieved to hear that it was her boss' psychopathy and no fault of her own, her lost dream remains lost.

If you find yourself working for someone who meets the criteria for psychopathy, find another job as fast as you can.  The lesson here is - You can’t win.

Aaron D. McClelland, RPC -

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