Imagine you are a CEO and you need to hire a vice president to turn around a failing business unit. You are down to the last two.
There is Jane, who is charming and ambitious and drives the team hard. No fools are suffered, the dead wood is hacked, and the parking lot is full from dawn to dusk. Jane talks results, she promises big, and she expects oodles of money.
Then there is Jim. He is modest; it’s all about the team, engagement and building for the future. He is measured in his commitments, and he stands up and takes accountability for his team. He only fires someone after working hard to help them succeed.
As CEO, you have read the articles about emotional intelligence and the importance of empathy. But the chairman calls to tell you the board is restless. You need to slash costs and destroy the competition. It’s no time to be nice. You book Thursday after work for cocktails with Jane!
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Congratulations, you have just hired a psychopath.
About one in 200 women and one in 50 men are psychopaths. They are drawn to the money, power and status of being a corporate executive where the prevalence rises as high as one in 10.
Psychopaths use manipulation and intimidation to control others and satisfy selfish needs. They can be intelligent and highly charismatic but display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse or anxiety over their actions.
Hiring Jane is a bad mistake. The best people will leave, morale will plummet and results spiral. Jane will have a ready line-up of scapegoats for every failure and lie to cover her mistakes.
You may well be working for such a boss today. See if these characteristics remind you of anybody you know:
- Superficially charming: The charm is cold manipulation and is used with great effect on superiors.
- Your best friend one minute and a bully the next: If they are displeased, they will enjoy public humiliation. However, the real fun will be reserved for behind closed doors.
- Truth has no value: They will casually lie and cheat to achieve their ends.
- Self-obsessed narcissist: It really is all about them and feeding their self-importance. Taking the credit due to others is all part of the game.
- No genuine remorse: They are wired not to feel anything about another person’s emotional or physical pain.
So what should you do if you find yourself in this situation? You can’t coach them to change. If you don’t want to get a new job, try these strategies:
- Give their judgment of you the contempt it deserves. Bullies work by destroying self-regard. Their feedback has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their ego and pathology.
- Manipulate his self-interest. Be useful in a manner which modifies his behaviour and does not compromise your integrity. They won’t care if they hurt someone, but they will stop if it will endanger their bonus. Try ‘you need to get Greg on board if we are going to make this month’s numbers rather than ‘ridiculing Greg really hurt his feelings and was unfair.’
- Owe him no loyalty. Teams, like families, often condone and protect abusers. Find a senior leader you can talk to in confidence. “I need your help with this” is a good start. Nothing may happen immediately, but it will help a more realistic picture to form at senior levels.
- Stand up for yourself. Don’t become prey. You may want to fight or escape when attacked, but keep calm and push back.
- Write it down. Keep a paper trail of everything your psychopathic boss agrees to and a record of any abuse. You need a record to counter their lying and deceit.
- Strength in numbers. Don’t let them play divide and rule. They may love to flatter you one day and criticize you to your colleagues behind your back the next. Keep your relationships with your colleagues honest, and don’t conspire with a psychopath!
And if you are a CEO, do yourself a favour. Hire Jim.
Dana Wilson is a freelance writer based in Edmonton.
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