Do you work with a psychopath?! admin January 6, 2011

Do you work with a psychopath?!

Do you work with a psychopath? Well, your boss can get pretty stroppy at times and you’ve probably had doubts about that guy in accounts but a real certificate-carrying psycho?

We’ve all seen the films and we think we know what psychopaths are like. Fortunately, most of them are locked up in jail, aren’t they?

Uh-uh. New thinking on the subject suggests that is not the case, far from it.

Research shows a surprising amount are at large

Whilst nearly all research into psychopathic behaviour has historically been conducted on prison inmates, the world of psychiatry is now realising that these guys are the ones who have been caught! That there are plenty of others out there with exactly the same psychological profiles who have managed to adapt more successfully to the working world. They haven’t been caught, they hold down good jobs and look like you or me.

Plenty. Robert Hare, who wrote the standard pathological behaviour test and author of “Snakes in Suits”, believes the figure is about 1%. That is quite high. If you work for a high street bank, for example, that means there will be 1500 bona fide psycho’s in your organisation! I’d be careful if I were you! Other experts believe it is an even higher figure, some say as much as 4%, one in twenty-five people.

What do we mean by psychopathy?

So hold on, what exactly do we mean by a psychopath, then? Well, I guess they are not all serial killers, for a start. Even at 1%, that means I have met many in my life and I haven’t been serially killed yet.

But they certainly ain’t thinking about you, that’s for sure. Psychopathy is defined by having no conscience, no adherence to any moral code and no empathy or consideration of others’ feelings. They have no caring for accuracy or truth and they will say or do whatever is required for them to achieve their own personal agenda.

Hare and others in the field, such as Hervey Cleckley, author of “The Mask of Sanity”, also think they can be very good actors. Those who have adapted successfully to the workplace can often appear charming and charismatic. In fact, there is some evidence that such characteristics can be beneficial in career progression!


So what is the implication of this? And how do we identify one in our midst?

Well, if we take 1% as a reasonable figure – that actually implies that 99% are not like this, so in a way that is reassuring. The vast majority of people we meet do have empathy and do have some sense of a moral code.

But 1% is a high enough figure to mean that we will meet them. Several, in fact, during the course of our lives.

And it is difficult to recognise them. They don’t wear a psychopath’s hat! Poor Pinocchio could never get away with lying but successful psychopaths don’t have such an obvious tell-tale sign.

Hare suggests that if you have any suspicion then it is worth keeping an eye on them. Check with other people, check their history. There are two angles to work with: one is truth and the other is emotion and empathy.

Are they telling the truth? Paul Ekman’s book “Telling Lies” is the prime text on this subject. But look for vagueness, look for lack of coherence and check the facts. And ask them how they feel about things? If they tell a story, look for any words of emotion. Ask them what they think about other people and again look for words of sentiment. It’s not exact, I’m afraid, there is no simple Psychopath Detector Kit available from John Lewis. That’s how they get away with it.

How do you work with one?

So let’s say there’s someone in the office who you’ve had your eye on for a while and you’re fairly sure they tick all the boxes but you still have to work with them. What do you do?

It kind of reminds me of the Disney song, “Never smile at a crocodile” – well, you can but if they smile back, run! Crocs are the psychopaths of the animal kingdom, you certainly won’t get far appealing to their higher nature, they eat their own young, for goodness sake!

Most people, faced with a croc, would get as far away as possible as quickly as possible. That is the sensible strategy. But let’s say you are a zoo-keeper and you have to deal with it, and you dont want to resort to the “nuclear” option of tranquilising it. What would you do? You would probably:

  • Limit your actual dealings with it to the absolute minimum
  • Keep your distance when you are in the cage
  • Make sure you are well-trained
  • Make sure you are not alone
  • Make sure you have the nuclear option as a back-up
  • And keep it well fed. Crocs have their agenda: food. If it has a full stomach it won’t be interested in you.

Well, pretty similar principles apply if you find yourself having to work with a human “crocodile”!

Good luck!!