Have you ever asked yourself whether your boss might be a psychopath?
Not just bossy or demanding but actually a scientifically defined psychopath?
Not so long ago, I was asked to coach a senior executive who was the head of product development in marketing. Although he was the top performer in terms of what he produced, his staff turnover was higher than normal for the company. At our first session he smiled, shook my hand and tried to turn on his charms in an effort to manipulate me. He said he was not expecting to be coached by a beautiful woman and was really looking forward to the session. I felt uncomfortable and uneasy as if I was his prey. Even though I have worked with hundreds of psychopaths over the years this still takes me aback. My first thought was: “He’s a psychopath.”
When I asked him why he thought I had been asked to see him, he said: “Because I need to be nicer to my team.” He then looked me straight in the eye and said: “But we both know that my team are all stupid peasants but you’re beautiful and intelligent so this will be fun.” Definitely something a psychopath would say.
Oxford University Professor Kevin Dutton estimates that 1% of the UK population are psychopaths, which works out to over half a million people around the country. The majority of those psychopaths are not tucked away in prisons or secure units – they are at work. Of that half a million people, nearly 60% will hold positions of middle to upper management. Psychologist Paul Babiak goes as far as saying that 1 in 25 of business leaders could be psychopaths. Kevin Duttons research suggest that the sort of professions most likely to attract corporate psychopaths are those where it is highly pressured with a 24/7 working culture. This may be in the field of law, financial institutions, sales, television, media or marketing.
Robert Hare, the godfather of psychopath testing, put it quite succinctly when he said: “Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plough their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts and shattered expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.” Does that sound like your boss?
Mad, bad or in the brain
To put it simply, psychopaths are wired differently. A psychopath’s brain produces more dopamine, which means they need constant mental stimulation and they are constantly seeking thrills. The neural pathways that process signs of human distress either do not work or work completely differently than ‘normal’ brains. There is also less activity in the frontal lobes of the brain where decisions are made. When ‘normal’ people tell lies there is increased activity in this frontal part which suggests an experience of guilt or shame. But when a psychopath lies there is no such increase in frontal lobe activity. This means a psychopath can lie and show no visible signs of being involved in deception.
10 ways to tell whether your boss is a psychopath
- 1Charming beyond belief. Psychopaths can initially come across as being very sincere, confident, energetic, funny and salt of the earth kinds of people. Especially at interviews and with new key players. They will charm everyone with their wit and humour.
- 2Intelligence assassins. Some psychopaths will give the impression of knowing much more than they actually do and be very good at convincing others of this. The executive I coached was like this. When I asked him to talk me through a project that he had been involved with, he skirted around the subject. When I pushed him to explain the details, he became angry. I subsequently found out that he had taken the ideas from his colleague and passed them off as his own. This is an example of a disorganised psychopath. There are other psychopaths who are actually much more organised, extremely intelligent and eloquent. They will often use their intelligence as a weapon to intimidate and control up and down.
- 3Liars and cheaters. Psychopaths will lie about colleagues, qualifications and background. And will often take the good work others have done and present it as their own. Many psychopaths I have worked with lied about where they went to university, often stating that they went to Oxford or Cambridge and indeed received a first class degree. The reality was often that they did not have a degree at all.
- 4Devious and manipulative. Psychopaths will treat their seniors with great reverence and their equals or juniors with great disdain and contempt. This behaviour is often cleverly shielded from their seniors and key players. They will often use a person’s vulnerabilities against them in a way which can often be almost undetectable to others.
- 5Use of fear to control. Make no mistake, if your boss is a psychopath you will be frightened and intimidated in his or her presence. Psychopaths rule their teams by a constant climate of fear, by using aggression and often shaming others into line. Fear is the most effective way of gaining social control and dominating others.
- 6Excessively narcissistic. Psychopaths make every situation about them. The needs of others are only important when there is gain in some way for their careers. Because they are generally not interested in a conversation unless it is useful to them or about them, they will interrupt meetings and cut people off mid-sentence. Every interaction will mostly be about them and what is good for their career progression.
- 7Ruthless exploitation. The executive I worked with was a ruthless exploiter of other people. By referring to his team as “stupid peasants” he was able to psychologically control and dominate them to get what wanted. This is similar to dictators in totalitarian regimes where the opposition is often purged or killed. Other people often mean absolutely nothing to them, and are used as expendable buffers to career progression. You’re either useful to the psychopath or not. If you are not useful you will become invisible and promotion is therefore impossible.
- 8Detest being confronted. This is perhaps the one behaviour pattern that stands out more clearly among psychopaths than any other and was very pronounced in the exec I worked with. When one of his team confronted him about stealing her ideas he promptly got rid of her for underperformance. This is the behaviour that is the most dangerous because when I worked in prisons this was the leading cause of murder.
- 9Emotionally vacant. Psychopathic bosses intellectualise emotions. They will be able to display emotions but will not be able to feel and experience the full extent of the emotion. I mentioned earlier that psychopaths use fear to control. Research indicates the psychopathic brain does not process fear in the same way that most of us would process and experience fear. What this means is that psychopaths understand that you’re afraid but they cannot feel that fear. This makes psychopaths huge risk takers because they do not fear the consequences of their actions.
- 10Lack of empathy, guilt and shame. This is the most telling sign that your boss is a psychopath. They are adept at knowing what another person may be feeling and at detecting someone’s vulnerabilities. However, they lack the ability to feel what the other person may be feeling. This is why psychopaths are so ruthless at work. They will know what you may be feeling, but simply won’t give a damn.
What are your experiences of working with a Psychopathic Boss?
I am sure some of you will recognise the behaviours of a psychopathic boss. If any of the above behaviours are familiar to you, I would really like to hear what your experiences were by sharing below. My next blog will be about how to work with a Psychopathic boss.