If your manager lies as easily as he breathes, violates workplace boundaries with impunity, and makes you feel three inches tall, you may be managed by a genuine sociopath. Read on for strategies to survive and escape these damaging and dangerous individuals.
I used to have a personal theory that every workplace contains at least one person whose difficult personality makes work unpleasant for everyone around them. While I’ve come to learn this isn’t universally true, it is very common. Working alongside difficult people is bad enough, but being managed by individuals with personality problems can be crushing. Psychopaths (a.k.a. Sociopaths, or persons suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder) can do extensive damage to subordinates seemingly without personal consequences. Worse still, the very “symptoms” of the disorder seem to help them climb the corporate ladder. Recognizing and dealing with sociopaths at work is a necessary skill for your continued sanity and career survival.
“Psychopath” is a word that has a precise clinical definition, but is often misused and overused. While Hannibal Lecter set the bar for the over-the top, homicidal sociopath in Silence of the Lambs, these behaviors exist across a broad spectrum from acute to nearly undetectable. Even if you’re not qualified to diagnose the condition clinically, sociopaths can usually be identified after some time by their hallmark behaviors.
Don’t expect to spot the psychopath on first meeting. Sociopaths are charming and, as often as not, quite bright. In casual conversation they will not blow their cover. Yet if you’re being managed by a sociopath, you’ll quickly discover that he lies often and well. In fact his (and sociopaths are usually male) skill at lying might be so great that you may not even recognize outright lies until long after the conversation ends. Sociopaths converse in a way that seems to “bend reality” and make others question what they know to be true. In a meeting, count on the psychopath to deflect blame, denigrate others’ work, and steal credit they do not deserve.
The best defense against lies is to preserve the truth in a form outside the psychopath’s control. Keep (and perhaps even back up) all your emails. Take notes. Make sure there are others present for all discussions. Decline closed-door one-on-one meetings. Don’t be surprised when even the best wall of documentation fails against the sociopath’s charm and artful deceptions, but you can at minimum make his more blatant lies harder to maintain.
It is critical to remember that sociopaths don’t play by the same social rules that most people obey. In some sense, the sociopath believes that rights apply only to him and no one else. Therefore he feels no guilt or remorse for manipulating, abusing, or otherwise taking advantage of anyone and everyone…as long as he can get away with it. At the same time he can convincingly portray himself as a “team player” and feign care for others. In order to maintain control, the psychopath may try to get close to you both physically (demanding you sit next to him in the office) and emotionally (criticising your every word and act). Verbal threats, sexual harassment and the possibility of physical assault should not be discounted.
Protecting yourself from attack, both emotionally and physically, must remain a priority. Once again, daylight, witnesses, and documentation are your allies. As the sociopath attempts to draw you closer, resist and create distance. Separate yourself physically as much as possible and surround yourself with allies. Let phone calls ring over to voicemail. Don’t respond to emails immediately, and check email only at set times throughout the day. Be on alert for your emotional tone when dealing with your boss. If you feel yourself becoming either too accommodating or too hostile, either move to a more neutral stance, or if you cannot, cut the interaction short. Don’t take work calls at home if you can avoid it. Don’t give your boss an “in” to your private life.
Working with someone dedicated to destroying your self-worth can be exhausting. Just as you need to defend your physical safety and your time, knowing your own worth armors you against your sociopathic boss’s attacks. In the heat of a dressing-down, recall that whatever comes out of his mouth that isn’t an outright lie is merely his interpretation of the facts, and your viewpoint is probably a lot more realistic. Even if he has the power to fire you, your boss still can’t take away your self-worth without your permission. Maintaining contact with friends and family that help affirm your worth can also counterbalance your boss’s assaults.
The sociopath’s Achilles’ heel is that he has poor impulse control and is prone to go “too far” in his campaign to dominate the department. If you catch him red-handed in a clearly illegal or unethical act, with airtight documentation, you now have control. Use care when going over his head in the chain of command, as psychopaths have been known to corrupt and co-opt levels of management above them. You might find yourself fighting against a unified management front. However, every Human Resources (HR) department lives in fear of a lawsuit, so you’ll likely find a more sympathetic ear there. Parlaying your airtight case into your boss’s termination, a promotion for you, a transfer away from your boss, or a nice fat cash settlement may grant you the closure and vindication you desire.
Ultimately, no one deserves the abuse that sociopaths dish out. As bad as the job market may be, and as much as you’ve attempted to defend and protect yourself from your psychopathic boss, retreat may be the only reasonable move. At some point you have to ask yourself if the damage to your emotional and perhaps physical health is worth the paycheck. How much better would this world be if everyone refused to work with psychopathic bosses! In the end, your boss’s power to manipulate and abuse is only as strong as your resolve to stay in a damaging corporate relationship.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by