What if the boss is a psychopath?
December 9, 2011
In the last few weeks, I have come across two fascinating pieces, both of which stimulated some thinking about organisational life. One was about empathy, the other about psychopathy in bosses. I have drawn on these two in the writing of this article and I hope that you will find some value here.
In my past, I have worked with a few clients who had been clinically diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the more accurate term for psychopaths, and I know how challenging it can be and the fragmentation people like this create around them. While I stress that I am not qualified to make a clinical diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder, and I would strenuously caution anyone else who is not qualified against doing so, there are some hallmark behaviours which can only be ignored for so long.
Scientists believe that about 1% of the general population would fit a diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). Studies show that as many as 4% of bosses would fit this classification. When we think of the word psychopathic, we tend to think of mass murderers and serial rapists, however, a psychopath may not necessarily be the Hannibal Lecter of our nightmares. The thing that most clearly identifies this kind of person for me is a lack of empathy for others.
Professor Simon Baron Cohen discusses empathy and says it has two components: cognitive and affective. The cognitive component is the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings; the affective component is the drive to respond appropriately to another person’s thoughts and feelings. Professor Baron Cohen indicates that if you have one without the other, that wouldn’t be empathy. The psycopath might be able to do the first part, they might be able to recognise their victim has pain, but they might not have the appropriate emotional response of wanting to alleviate their distress. He goes on to say that empathy is on a spectrum. Philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the point along the spectrum at which you start treating a person as an object is when you become capable of cruelty.
As Professor Baron Cohen suggests, calling humans ‘resources’ seems to be somewhere down the left hand (lower) side of the bell curve of empathy. We have inherited, from the Victorians and Industrial Revolutionaries, a notion that people are resources to be deployed in the pursuit of profit. The moment when you shift from seeing people from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective is when you switch off your empathy. I-You is where you recognise the person’s subjectivity. I-It is where you treat someone as a piece of furniture. Zero empathy is not good for the person, nor for the people around the person.
Professor Baron Cohen goes on to say that empathy is the most valuable of human resources. After much reflection, I would say that in the realm of business life, I would concur. Without it, I cannot see how organisations will thrive in the 21st century. With it, we have a basic foundation of resolving conflict and creating workplaces where people can find meaning, joy and genuine engagement at work. Without empathy and its expression, an organisation may survive, but the risk is that it is found wanting by those it wishes to engage and becomes irrelevant. A key point about empathy is that you cannot fake it, and those who work for a psychopathic boss know that.
Once again, while I caution against diagnosing the boss as a psychopath, here some of the things you would typically see in a low empathy manager.
- It is never their fault. Their default mode is to deflect conversations away from themselves. They minimise the effects of their improper actions and blame those on the receiving end (“They shouldn’t have spoken to me in that way.”).
- You are never right and you can never win. Add in the fact that they are the boss and any challenge you make to what you feel is unfair, a personal attack or unethical will be met with more undermining. They know that they are the boss and believe that they can do anything they like and they know it. When, on the odd occasion, someone calls them to account, they are clever enough to divert attention away from themselves and blame others for failures and mistakes.
- They run the business like it’s their personal fiefdom. They take the approach that you can either fit in or **** off. If you don’t like it, there is the door. Sadly, I have spoken to too many people who are living proof of the adage, “People join good organisations, but they leave bad managers.” In the current climate, however, people will be more reluctant to leave even an anti-social boss, lest they find themselves one of the growing number of unemployed.
- They sabotage, undermine and disempower as a matter of course and they lack remorse. They defend their anti-social actions and comments as being “for the good of the business”, but there is no such thing as a benevolent psychopath. If they are running the business as their personal fiefdom, that which is different from them is perceived and acted upon as a threat.
- They hold a skewed picture of the business. Lower self-awareness and a distorted view of self can lead them to maintain the fallacy that everything is just fine. They will maintain the illusion that it’s one big happy family, that everyone comes in and does their job and nobody complains. The ones that do complain are probably viewed as ‘difficult’ and the boss will do what they can to undermine and disempower. The tension between the boss and these recalcitrant workers is palpable and because the boss is a seasoned manipulator, they will deftly skew others’ picture of this person.
- They often successfully feign care and concern for others. These types of bosses are clever. They know that strong people skills are the currency of good leadership these days. On the receiving end of such inauthentic caring, however, you can feel it. It’s just hard to put your finger on.
- They disguise their anti-social behaviour with sophisticated language and reasonable justification. They have a charm that they can turn on and off as the situation suits them. On their journey to a leadership position, they have found it useful along the way to learn the sophisticated kind of language used to cover up and obfuscate, so their anti-social behaviours are hard to pin down.
- They display an easy contempt for people they don’t like or agree with. They tend to have poor ability to inhibit angry outbursts. They shut people and conversations down that differ from their world view.
- They put people down on a personal level. They lack caring and display a blithe indifference to the fact that they manage human beings with feelings, lives and stories to tell.
A psychopathic boss’s casual use of interpersonal violence can be breath-taking. In some cases, it washes over us because it’s so outrageous that we can hardly believe that someone, the boss no less, would behave in this consistently disrespectful manner. It’s not until we walk away and we recover ourselves that we realise that the wrenching we felt in our gut was to do with them. I have spoken with people who have been victims of a boss such as this, and they consistently report that it took some time before it dawned on them how inappropriate their boss was behaving towards them. We also like to think that we don’t come into contact with people like this; after all a psychopath is a mass murderer, right? We also tend to associate the words and actions of a bully with the sort of thing that goes on in school playgrounds and can’t imagine that we, now grown adults, would be on the receiving end of it.
If someone is determined to go against the psychopathic boss, they may quickly find themselves on the wrong end of dismissal. Because the boss knows they are the boss, they will find some way to manage you out, perhaps by placing such unrealistic conditions on your employment that they are unattainable or by isolating the ‘miscreant’ by setting them up to fail in the eyes of their peers. This way, they have some evidence to point to why this person just had to go. Some people who cannot see their way through end up leaving, but these are probably the people that the psychopath calls trouble-makers and will feel vindicated upon their departure. They will maintain that it was better for the business that they went and will be happier with a more compliant or acquiescent replacement.
I generally take a holistic view of people and try to see past unsavoury behaviours in order to seek out the personal value systems that underlie them, by way of finding a starting point for strengths-based development work. In other words, I like to give the benefit of the doubt. This has not always stood me in good stead and on a few occasions, I have erred on the side of generosity; it is on these occasions that I have eventually had to relent in the face of repeated anti-social acts towards myself or others and given way to the reality that the person in question was indeed, deeply lacking in empathy and care for others. While it can be tempting to reduce someone to a few of their ‘bad’ behaviours, I would still encourage you to start with generosity: give the benefit of the doubt. Goodness knows that the world could do with greater understanding of our fellow humans. Very few of us are truly selfish ‘bad eggs’ and I still hold that it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt in the first instance. Furthermore, it can be incredibly frustrating to be misrepresented based on a few forgivable misdemeanours in the workplace and to not be given the opportunity to apologise, put things right and make genuine efforts to adjust behaviour.
As frustrating as it is to be in the firing line of a low empathy boss, there are some things that we can do:
- Trust your gut. A common thread for those with a psychopathic boss is that they feel like they can’t trust their instincts about what happens to them at work. This is one of the things that these creatures create in those around them. Like Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight”, you are probably not going mad.
- Talk with someone you trust about your experiences. Bounce your experiences off someone. Get things off your chest, it does you no good to store up your frustrations and stress. A trusted friend can also reflect back whether you are seeing things accurately of if you are making mountains out of molehills.
- If necessary, get some legal or HR guidance. Some common advice is to document everything. Check with a professional and get some guidance as to what you should be doing to protect yourself.
- Maintain habits that keep you grounded and connected to yourself. Get a massage, go for a walk in nature, play a musical instrument, meditate, whatever works for you.
As always, I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing how you have dealt with an anti-social boss at work.