What if the boss is a psychopath?

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.
It is important to remember that a boss who, in a moment of stress or anxiety, lashes out at staff, but then makes genuine attempts to repair the relationship would not fit in this category.  The boss who normally displays genuine caring, authentic self-reflectiveness and humility and a valuing of diversity, but who, on occasion acts out of such human emotions as jealousy, anger or fear is not to be considered anti-social.  Only if there is a consistent pattern of anti-social behaviour, is it the time to let go of our naivety and seek out alternative courses of action.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

23 thoughts on “What if the boss is a psychopath?

  1. John,
    What an excellent post! I could go on and on…..
    I am so glad you dug into this compelling, difficult topic. Ever since I’ve seen these studies on psychopathology in bosses, I’ve been troubled. Troubled because it speaks to much larger questions of why. Are the overwhelming stressors at the so-called “C” suite levels triggering latent psychological trauma – or are they trauma- makers? What’s also troubling is that these behaviors are clearly being rewarded within the business context.
    Your focus on empathy is perfect – empathy is our measure of the degree of dysfunction and holds the promise of healing. Baron Cohen’s work is accessible and very useful – this is the kind of material I would like to see more leaders (and workers at every level reading).
    I think your warning against diagnosing and generalizing these personality disorders is very important. Our cultural use of descriptive labeling language is getting lazier and more exaggerated. When I hear people throw around statements like, “My boss is a real psychopath,” or “My co-worker is so OCD,” we do ourselves (and the object of our comments) a great disservice.
    Last, your reference to the business mindsets view of employees as “resources” is spot on. We’re graduating to “talent” but we’ve got a long way to go. It continues to amaze me that people are still commonly referred to as “direct reports, ” DR’s,” “superiors” and “subordinates.” It’s all reflective of the enduring hierarchial boxes most organizations are still reinforcing.
    Thanks again for big thinking,

    1. Thanks for adding in Louise. I, too, could go on and on. I struggled to keep this article as concise as possible, but only managed to keep it down to 2000 words. It beggars belief that there are still C-level bosses who openly behave as if they see the people who work in their organisations as resources to be deployed. The research around psychopathy in the population of ‘bosses’ is shocking and I wonder if the structures (and cultures) of many organisations attract and reward this kind of low empathy behaviour and attitude. I’m so glad that you picked up on my disclaimer about diagnosing, too. I pondered heavily on the language I was using, as I have a strong aversion to the kind of labelling and amateur diagnosing that goes on all around us, not just at work. It reduces people to a set of behavioural descriptions and humans are so much more than that. Once again, thanks for reading and building on. John

  2. Thought-provoking.

    I just finished reading many “boss as psychopath” articles and this was very helpful.

    So here’s the question that hasn’t really been answered, “what do you do when your boss is a psychopath?” Obviously, leave if you can. But what if core interests are involved? What if simply walking away isn’t a realistic option?

    For example, suppose the executive who bought the rights to a film version of Harry Potter was a psychopath, and as part of the contract JK Rowlands was a consultant. The executive, being a psychopath, undermines and disempowers Ms. Rowlands from the process, while at the same time makes drastic story changes that will negatively impact the brand (for example, he equates wizardy with anti-Christian sorcery, and works this into the film as a major storyline). As the project slowly goes over budget and behind schedule, the psychopath blames everyone but himself, including Ms. Rowlands. Now, let’s assume that light bulb turns on for Ms. Rowlands, and sees the picture clearly: the boss is a psychopath. He will glibly ruin the picture, destroy the Harry Potter brand, and drag Ms. Rowlands reputation through the mud, if left unchecked. But if she counters him, his reaction will be even worse. How should she deal with this executive. What tips are there?

    Is there any literature on how to interact with a psychopath who happens to be in a position, from which you cannot reasonably walk away?

    1. Hi Max, thanks for reading and commenting. I understand that when we are in the situation of having a boss who is anti-social, lacks empathy and caring or is “psychopathic”, we struggle to know what to do. At the end of my article, I list just four pointers to be mindful of, however, I am no expert in HR or legal matters, which is why my advice is to seek HR/legal assistance if you think you are in this situation. With regards your example of JK Rowling, I prefer not to give tips on hypothetical matters; it’s one step away from a polemic, I believe. Having said that, in reading your example I searched my mind for a situation from which I thought I could not reasonably walk away and I couldn’t think of one. In the end, I would say that my mental health and quality of life outweighs any other concerns. Although it may take me a while until the penny dropped, I could see that in the absence of effective legal or HR recourse, I would eventually leave a position in which I worked for a “psychopathic” boss.

  3. I worked under a psychopathic boss for about half a decade. Small company (about 15 staff) with a shockingly high turnover rate says it all.

    Of all the sub-categories (from what I’ve read) I’d fit him into the manipulator one.

    If I’d known sooner, what he was – until his tendencies effected me, i would’ve ran for the hills without looking back. Without going into detail, I only decided to leave after i discovered some fraudalent activity, which basically ripped the piss out of me. Basically it was a case of a sociopath being prepared trample on anybody (myself in this instance) in order to self-protect himself/the company. The workplace had become a toxic environment, and it was untenable for me to stay – i couldn’t look the boss in the eye without feeling sick. That’s the point when you realise it’s time to go, when you’ve lost trust & respect for the gaffer.

    In the wake of my departure, and the following has come to my attention through various sources, my otherwise good name, and previously immaculate employment has been forever tarnished. This is the action of a manipulative small company owner who will resort to any means of defending a high staff turnover rate (resignation rate). A vindictive psychopathic boss, in the event of you being forced to bite back – when you hit that breaking point, is the worst thing to have pursuing you for the rest of one’s professional life. A thorough work-history checker will not solely rely on the ‘good’ references, for an overall picture, and a manipulative former boss can be alot more than just a nuisance. In terms of being able to maintain one’s financial security, they’re deadly.

    Three years on I’m virtually unemployable now. I’m not any benefits, i just stick to hit & run/temporary assignments – surviving on the bare minimum. Such is my wariness of employers now and the genuine level of fear that comes with, I’m prepared to sell my assets (including the home) to set up a interest baring account that will enable me to survive financially in tough times where the cost of living is forever on the increase.

    1. That is a truly horrific story. I’m sorry that you have been subject to one of these people and I appreciate you adding your experiences here. Sadly, there are some who cannot fathom the awfulness of bosses like this and I believe it is a good thing that you recount your time with this person. Also sadly, there seems little recourse and it is those at the receiving end who end up worst, especially if the “psychopath” is the boss. I hope you are able to recover from this experience and also find others who have been in a similar boat. Knowing there are others out there can be a help.

    2. M.A., your story is so similar to mine, I just had to write. When the sociopath also happens to be the President of a small company, there are no controls. I have just walked away from the situation, which was difficult to do financially but essential to my well being. I don’t think my situation is quite as deparate as yours, but I do fear for it. It is shocking how much influence these people can have over other people’s lives, even after the relationship is severed.

      My strong advice to anyone else reading this who thinks they may be a victim of some one ASPD is to extracate yourself as soon as possible as and preferably as quietly/non-confrontationally as possible. There is virtually no possibility of a winning outcome for you, since a win for you in the eyes of someone with ASPD is a loss for them. Given above all else it is about control in their mind, this is not an acceptable outcome. And since there is no normality in terms on conscience, and also they are in a position of power over you, the chances of you winning this battle are minimal. It’s like fighting someone holding a gun with a peashooter! So just come to terms with your reality, accept that although it’s not fair it is also not your fault, it’s time to move on and get on with it.

      Btw there are two types of ASPD. A Psychopath tends to act irrationally. A Sociopath however tends to be highly rational. Most of the underlying symtoms are the same. We assume a psychopath is more dangerous, but as a victim of a sociopath I am not sure that is true. Sociopaths are unbelievably manipulative and also very, very difficult to spot. So while you may see the pattern clearly, it’s very difficult to get others to see it. Again, there’s nothing you can do and it’s not your fault, so walk away!

      Lastly, and this sounds strange, but I feel real sympathy for my now-ex boss. Imagine going through life and not feeling anything towards anyone? It would suck!

      1. I’m being managed out by a psychopathic boss, he’s fabricating evidence and using his powers of manipulation over new staff, painting a picture that is so false it’s almost laughable, can’t understand how I failed to realise just how ruthless he is and nobody truly sees it leaving me on my own, he will ruin me financially, I’ll lose my home, but he will never ever make me into the person he is telling everyone I am. So he is a failure, whether he accepts it or not, I know that he is just one big failure who will inevitably end up with nothing. I’d rather be me than him even though right now it hurts so much.

  4. Spot on Article and very much appreciated. I am in the middle of a very similar situation and thought I was loosing my mind. I am a very educated and am told very intelligent but this boss/owner has got me so emotionally charged that I doubt everything I do. I’ve never experienced this before and just could not rationally accept it. In seeking counsel from other professionals I’m told it is his business and therefore has a right to do what he wants. Is that true? At my expense? I honestly don’t think so. I’m experiencing illness, fatigue, deppression, and become incapable of functioning through the day. I deplore going in every day and would rather be sick then to have to face another day of having to talk with this man.

    It seems so obvious the choice to make is to leave. I fought that for several months now convincing myself that I love the work and I love my co-workers but truth be told I’m beginning to despise the work and have very little of myself left to give to my co-workers. It’s time to move on. For sanity sake.

    Thank you – I no longer feel I am alone.

    1. I’m glad that reading this has assisted you to feel less isolated. I wish you all the best in taking your next steps. Unfair as it is on you, moving on is often the end result of a situation such as this.

  5. I continue to read as much as I can about corporate psychopaths and have a few new insights.

    Obviously, walk away if you can. Another is to make the walk look like it was the psychopath’s decision, i.e. negotiate an amicable firing if possible (I suspect that one of my co-workers did this: an award winning writer kept turning in drafts that read like a bad student paper until the pyschopath hired someone else to do his job).

    What about my situation: what if you can’t reasonably walk away? First, psychopathy is thought to be incurable, maybe genetic, so there’s no point in trying to counsel the pyschopath to see reason; he wants control. More helpfully, I read a characterization of psychopaths that they subsist on three types of people, the three P’s: pawns, patsies, and patrons. Pawns are the slaves whom they break and who do their bidding (pyschopaths desire nothing less than total control). Patsies are the ones whom they could not break, so they screw them over (most of us who comment here, after having dealt with psychopaths, are patsies, because we did not become pawns and were screwed over as a result). Patrons are the people who facilitate psychopaths, giving them jobs, budgets, etc. Psychopaths know which side their toast is buttered on, and they save all their charm and good behavior to woo patrons.

    The key then, if you feel you cannot walk away, seems to be the patron. These are the only people who exercise any real power over psychopaths. I assume it will be a harrowing road with many dangers, but most things that are truly worth fighting for probably are as well.

  6. I think just walking away is not always the best solution because it might seriously damage your self-respect thus it can make you sick.
    I once defeated two psychopaths, a mother and son, the mother is still my headmistress but the son has been excluded from my class because of constant bullying my students. It was a hard fight but I came out of it very strong getting to know a lot of new information about myself. Now I know that I am strong and I can trust myself. I can act in the righest way finding the best words in difficult situations and I am absolutely able to act in a brave way. I hadn’t known that before so I am very proud of myself. Whatever comes in my life, I can always remember this battle as one of the best things in my life and it makes me strong.
    Now I am waiting for the revenge but I am prepared for it, I will strike back as hard as she does, I have been preparing with a strategy. It takes a lot of thinking and energy but I am trying to enjoy it. It is not relaxing but I feel it is driven by my conscience and if I gave it up, I would die.
    Another advantage, never forget about the benefits no matter what you do, is that I have been studying psychopathy since then. Many thanks to Prof. Hare for his work.
    To sum it up, I think everyone bouncing into a psychopath boss should decide wether it is worth for her/him to stand up against the psychopath or to walk away. It depends on your psychological characteristic. If you feel, being threatened would not be your type of stuff, try to find alliances, there are a lot around a psychopath boss, talk to them making the situation clear, I mean who you are fighting against and try to pour courage into them. It works.
    Though it is much better to go to work if your boss is not a psychoath.

  7. Yes, some excellent comments here.
    Working with these psychopaths do leave you wondering if you are going mad. You loose confidence and doubt yourself. My friend says ‘leave before it destroys you”. The best thing you can do is leave. I am desperately trying to leave and presto you have to put it as a referee and of course it writes some lie and twists of events to put doubt onto your capabilities. I get called up to ‘please explain’ albeit looking professional about it all. Oh boy, that DID play with my mind. But it’s time to go. Just gotta find a way to get out. Bow out gracefully – go peacefully and don’t fight as YOU are not the problem. It is the psychopath. Thank God we have our eyes open at least and then I worry about the next victim – the ones you leave behind that it will then work on devouring.

    1. Thanks for that. Gracefully is a good word to use. In really hard situations, it seems the best we can do is to find a way out on our terms and to do it in such a way that we feel good about ourselves. The ‘psychopath’ isn’t thinking about us, so we have to.

  8. Dear John, I loved reading this post and its obviously helpful to people, mainly I think because most people know in their hearts that some people in the workplace are truly toxic but they don’t fully comprehend the devastating effects that can transpire from these people.
    I was brought up with psychopaths yet only fully began to understand them after reading Thomas Sheridans Puzzling People and, pertinently, Snakes in Suits. (Cant remember the author)
    Psychopaths rise to the top of corporate structures, not like cream due to Quality, but because they are ruthless, driven and devoid of the effects of conscience.
    The key point I wanted to add to the discussion here is the fact that psychopaths are rarely like Hannibal Lector, altho these too exist. Psychopaths are known for their seductive charm, for being entertaining and for appearing to be constantly at the top of their game. These traits are also the ones lauded in the How to get ahead in the Workplace books, and the sort of partner we are told we would love.
    I can’t explain it better than they do in Snakes in Suits, a total must-read. The victims are seduced, and they love it, they will then do anything the seducer asks of them. The seducer moves quickly thru their resources and onto the next victim, either keeping the previous on a string or casting them loose with no explanation or warning. Victims find themselves questioning what is happening and what happened, questioning the reality of events and encounters and sometimes their own memory and sanity, in the face of the unabashed lying and reinvention of the seasoned psychopath.
    Once the psychopath moves on the victim is totally dropped, emotionally bereaved, full of doubt and often self recrimination.
    Crucially, because the psychopath acts as a mirror of whatever the victim most wants to see, the time in front of the mirror can be the best and most fulfilling of the victims life, and the loss of the false reflection can be totally devastating, leaving the victim craving the psychopaths return. Even victims left to sort out the losses of money, livelihood, relationships and self esteem may still pine for the seducer they remember, as they were the only one to make the victim feel ‘that good’.
    So psychopaths are the drug dealers, momentarily providing the sensations of love, security, wellbeing and satisfaction, but demanding ever higher prices for a lessor and lessor high, finally moving on when the resources are exhausted.
    We need to learn to recognise them early, preferably from a distance, and get as far from them as possible.
    They are like vampires, and fear the light of day or discovery above all else, but be careful how you shine the light of truth on them because they are vengeful beyond bounds and will find ways to destroy you, that you cannot imagine or therefore protect yourself from.
    Only when this aspect of psychopathy is well known will society be able to protect its members from their predation.
    Channel 4 recently showed a programme about Psychopaths. I considered it skewed and propagandist, especially as it was bigging up psychopathic traits like fearlessness, which served to big up psychopaths. Psychopaths don’t ‘feel’ like regular people, so it is as if they were Aspergers, tho they are not, so fearlessness is a no brainer.
    True courage on the other hand is doing what you fear regardless of the feelings of fear, simply because it is the right thing to do.
    Good luck!
    Truth and Unity are the sunlight that will detox the bacteria and poison in our midst!

    1. Thank you for your considered and thoughtful comments. The more that people tell their story, the more that people may be able to recognise themselves in the kinds of situations you describe and perhaps to begin to, as you say, detox.

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