Every boss has his or her moments when grumpiness or a negative attitude takes hold, causing them to lash out. Our superiors are human, after all, and they are entitled to bad days just like anyone else.
But have you ever worked for someone who seemed to constantly run hot and cold: charming and funny one second, then vicious and manipulative the next? If a power-wielding bully dominates your workplace, you could very likely be working for a psychopath.
You probably spend a great majority of your life at the office, and if just one psychopath inhabits your workplace, it can mean a very confusing and uncomfortable situation. People that work for psychopaths are subject to more bullying and stress, and the organizations that employ them are riddled with conflict, high turnover, reduced productivity, and absenteeism.
If psychopaths are so toxic, why do companies hire them in the first place?
Psychopaths woo with their persuasive charm, charisma, intelligence, and risk-taking nature. On paper these qualities paint the profile of an ideal CEO.
While these bombastic personalities can lurk in any office environment, psychopaths are particularly drawn to high-powered, fast-paced careers such as lawyers, salespeople, journalists, media personalities, police officers, and business executives. In fact, recent studies find the rate of psychopathy among corporate professionals is 1 in 5 or 21 percent.
While the social ruthlessness of psychopaths may help them quickly ascend the corporate ladder, their reign can be very demoralizing for staff that end up terrified to face their boss every day.
So how do you know if you’re working for or with a psychopath? What are the signs and symptoms to watch out for?
1. They are charming.
Psychopaths are known to be extremely charming upon first impression. When they meet someone for the first time they come off as friendly and charismatic, the exact type of person that everyone likes to be around. While initially you have may been excited to work for such a strong leader, over time you’ve seen their charm wear off. They now make you constantly feel as if you’ve done something wrong. You may be stuck in a cycle of self-doubt and insecurity, feeling like you need to get back on your boss’s good side.
2. They are control freaks.
If you feel like your every move is being tracked and micromanaged, it probably is. Psychopathic bosses do everything they can to keep others in an inferior, weak position, often stripping employees of any decision-making power. For example, your boss may tie your hands by requesting you get direct approval from him to move forward on the tiniest aspects of projects, or risk his rage and punishment.
3. They are narcissists.
Contrary to popular belief, psychopaths are not devoid of emotion — rather, self-serving emotions (not prosocial ones) drive them. They feign concern for others, appearing helpful and compassionate, only to exploit you later. Self-absorbed and arrogant, a psychopathic boss believes undoubtedly that they are the team’s critical linchpin — all others are disposable. This is seen when they callously trash friendships or working relationships, and fire people without any good reason.
4. They are masters of deception.
Psychopaths operate from a warped moral code and experience little to no guilt or remorse over telling lies. These bosses are skilled at avoiding accountability and have a Teflon-like capability to deflect blame. They lie, omit information, rephrase the truth, and misrepresent facts. They take credit for ideas that they did not come up with.
5. They avoid responsibility.
Psychopaths have an overblown sense of entitlement. They often cast themselves in the role of victims, clearing themselves of any liability. They never take responsibility for wrongdoing and can easily shift the blame to others and keep their reputation unsullied. Because psychopaths are adept at manufacturing evidence that points the finger at someone else, they make excellent attorneys.
6. They take extreme risks.
These people move at lightspeed without any consideration for the consequences. Research shows that high-risk behaviors more intensely trigger reward areas in the brains of psychopaths than in the normal population, meaning the thrill of danger far outweighs practical considerations and safety. While this impulse helps psychopaths perform under pressure and makes them particularly suited for high-stress jobs, it comes at the cost of making unwise investments, and taking illegal shortcuts to get their way.
If you find that your boss does resemble many of these signs and symptoms of psychopathology, it may be time for you to assess your situation. If it isn’t possible for you to change jobs (or move to a different department in your current job), educate yourself on psychopathy so you can anticipate your boss’s manipulative behavior.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. Her clients include CEOs and C-level executives at top Fortune 500 companies such as Google and HP, as well as media personalities, startup founders, and entrepreneurs across industries. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. Get free tools to grow your career confidence at melodywilding.com.