Organisational Psychopaths: The Enemy Within

Saturday, October 1, 2005 - 08:11

By Helen Burns

Picture this: you are a team leader running a day-long workshop with a group of managers from across the organisation. The workshop is going well, everyone is contributing and you are making progress.

After the lunch break your senior manager arrives unannounced, stands in front of the group and says: "This isn't going well at all; I'm going to take over now."

A minor event? Possibly, if it's a one-off situation. However if this event occurred alongside a number of situations where you were being publicly, and almost certainly privately, undermined, then chances are you may well be working with an organisational psychopath.

The question then becomes: how do you survive?

Psychopaths make up 1 per cent of the population. It is no surprise then that they turn up in organisations. In fact, work by American-based organisational psychologists Dr Robert Hare and Dr Paul Babiak suggest that the increasing pace, volatility and hyper-competitive nature of modern business actually attracts psychopaths.

Psychopaths are diagnosed according to strict clinical criteria. Psychopathy can be regarded as a spectrum of character traits that are generally criminal or antisocial. Classic psychopathic traits include: narcissism; lack of remorse; lack of empathy; ability to manipulate others; and an inability to accept responsibility. In the workplace, psychopaths are generally identified by their charm, intelligence, ability to switch allegiance as people become more or less useful, aggression, energy, creativity and ambition.

Ironically many of these traits are regarded as necessary for a good leader. Hence the ability of the organisational psychopath to hide and even thrive in the corporate environment. Organisations need to be aware of organisational psychopaths; alongside the positive qualities of charm and intelligence come some very destructive behaviour traits.

As Gardiner Morse, writing in the Harvard Business Review (2004) points out, organisational psychopaths are cunning, manipulative, untrustworthy, unethical, parasitic and utterly remorseless. There's nothing they won't do and no one they won't exploit to get what they want. They have a devastating effect on their staff's morale and productivity but the worst thing is that the psychopath's boss will remain clueless. 

Organisational psychopaths are masters at "kissing up and kicking down", which makes them particularly dangerous to organisations. "Psychopaths are social predators and like all predators they are looking for feeding grounds - wherever you get power, prestige and money you will find them," says Dr Hare, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. 

Research shows that organisational psychopathy shows up more in management ranks than elsewhere in companies. Organisations need to be concerned because the same characteristics that can propel a psychopath into a management role can also lead to embezzlement or corporate fraud.

Dr Andrea Quinn, at Queensland University 's Centre for Organisational Psychology, says the presence of organisational psychopaths in the workplace is a worrying issue. She places the discussion of organisational psychopaths within the broader issue of mental health in the workplace amid growing interest in some areas of human resource management. It is important to note, however, that it essentially represents one extreme on the continuum of what makes people tick.

Organisations need to be exceedingly careful about how they manage mental health issues, Dr Quinn says, "particularly from a legal and ethical standpoint."

"For example, the incorrect use of a tool, such as a psychological assessment for organisational psychopaths, could be problematic when it has no identifiable links to job tasks," she says.

To prevent organisational psychopaths reaching positions of influence - where the human and organisational cost is likely to be higher - robust and well-informed selection processes need to be in place, Dr Quinn argues. If you want to get the best out of your senior staff, consider what you do want in a leader of people, such as empathy and authentic communication. Build it into your strategy as a condition of career advancement, and ensure the processes are objective and defensible - an organisational psychopath may also be a masterful sycophant!

Consider the advice and guidance of an organisational psychologist to complement your HR practices. While screening may weed out some people, Dr Quinn believes that the best way to ensure that organisational psychopaths do not establish a foothold in an organisation is to build a workplace culture of respect and valuing of people. Such culture, she says, needs to be led from the top and supported by policies and practices that sustain a healthy work environment.

"Organisations need to proof their workplaces against the creeping brutalisation that characterises the behaviour of organisational psychopaths," Dr Quinn says. "Proofing can be done at both the individual and organisational level." At the organisational level, Dr Quinn believes companies should have:

  • Robust team processes and effective team leaders;
  • Key Performance Indicators clearly tied to outcomes, and especially KPIs relating to leadership of people;
  • Policies and procedures about what constitutes bullying behaviour;
  • Training about identifying and responding to bullying behaviour in a staff induction program;
  • Effective modelling of appropriate leadership and management behaviour by senior management;
  • Clear policies and procedures around entitlements and career progression; and
  • Exit interviews to uncover any patterns in why people resign.

Dr Quinn says individuals can devise ways to verify their perceptions with hard data.

"Look at what you have that disconfirms or invalidates what is being said or done by the organisational psychopath," she says.

How do you build a case in your favour? "Checking your perceptions with others only offers the illusion of consensus, so take control. Collect peer reviews, performance evaluations, customer thanks ... include evaluation in your regular work activities," Dr Quinn says.

"Don't be afraid to build a bank of evidence that paints a different picture of you. Use it at your performance review and other opportunities. At the very least you will sow seeds of doubt in the minds of those with influence. And let's face it - if things get too awful, you'll have some great stuff for your next job application."

Dr Quinn says that damage to the organisation and its people can be done far in advance of any clear evidence being noticed.

"The risk to the business is that good people who are working with the organisational psychopath will leave before senior management becomes aware of a problem," she says.

"Valuable clients may also have been lost and those who have left may not speak well of the organisation. The business case is self-evident."

So how does a manager identify an organisational psychopath? Dr Quinn admits that organisational psychopaths may be hard to detect because of their strong self-belief and charm.

"They may cultivate relationships with those who can expedite their status transitions.

"This means that bosses may find it doubly challenging to admit that the person who so lavishly supports them and seemingly agrees with them, is in fact a problem for people and productivity," she says.

"Managers need to see past the charm and focus on objective indicators. For example, a team or section led by an organisational psychopath is likely to have low morale, high absenteeism, and higher than average resignations.

"There may be an observable change in behaviour of the team members when the organisational psychopath is absent (such as more joking and improved mood).

"Look for 'blame-shifting' in the suspected manager. Blame-shifting occurs when a person consistently blames other people or factors for poor or even average performance. It's not that the person fears failure necessarily, but that they are unable to see themselves as part of the problem."

Dr Quinn agrees that the only way to manage an organisational psychopath is to use solid evidence. If a manager suspects the presence of such a person, they need to "triangulate the data".

"This means gathering evidence from a range of sources, for example: quality performance appraisal processes against well-formulated KPIs; using HR information to identify areas with high staff turnover; and 360-degree feedback so that good people management is seen to matter.

"An organisational psychopath often 'kisses up and kicks down' so information needs to be gathered about the way in which the manager treats their staff and colleagues."

How to protect yourself and your company

For an individual 

Trust your instincts: Gardiner Morse (2004) notes that organisational psychopaths are surprisingly difficult to spot. This is because they are chameleons and have mastered the art of cunning to act both perfectly normal to the point of charming whilst wreaking havoc with people's lives and workplaces.

Your instincts, however, will tell you straight away that you are in danger. That uneasy feeling you have when the person is around is your body's way of telling you to beware. Take protective action: If you are working with an organisational psychopath chances are your performance is being promoted as sub-standard.

What proof do you have to the contrary? Who knows about your good performance? It will come down to a situation of their word against yours. Start saving emails that praise your work. Take someone with you to meetings with the organisational psychopath.

Document their actions and comments. Build support: Who will support you when it's the organisational psychopath's word against yours in regards to your work performance? Start building your support now.

For organisational leaders

Create a safe and easy communication channel for rank-and-file employees to express concerns about colleagues. An ombudsman or an anonymous telephone tip-off line could be useful. Rank-and-file employees are usually the first people to notice the antisocial traits of a psychopath. This is because regular employees are of little use to a psychopath, the mask of charm will often come off. Hence employees are usually alerted to the ruthless ambition of a psychopath before management.

Crosscheck impressions of high performers with colleagues who work closely with them. Psychopaths are exceedingly good at telling people what they want to hear, however, it may be quite different to what they tell others. Check to make sure stories match up. Be self-aware.

Know your strengths and weaknesses and most importantly, know how to manage your weaknesses. An organisational psychopath can pick up on your weaknesses and exploit them mercilessly. Morse (2004) suggests the use of a coach to identify when someone is seeking advantage by playing on weaknesses.