When Psychopaths Go to Work

May 11, 2007

As a follow up to the previous posting, Dr. Ira Wolfe offers his thoughts on Psychopathy in the Workplace based in part on his experience with personality assessments conducted through his business Success Performance Solutions. Thank you Ira for your contribution. 

When Psychopaths Go to Work 

We may never know the final diagnosis that drove Cho Seung-Hui to his mass murder spree at Virginia Tech but one thing is for sure: our desire to know "What on earth is wrong with that guy?" will continue. 

Fortunately most of us will never have to face what the students and faculty did on April 16, 2007. What many of us have and will experience are our interactions with an equally destructive and dangerous group that lurks behind many resumes and executive desks. Specifically I’m writing about psychopaths who are walking and working among us every day.

Many of you will likely have the same reaction as I did when I picked up a copy of a new book, "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work": you’re thinking serial killers and stalkers or picturing Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger, and Dr. No. Reality however paints a far different picture. Psychopathic behavior is not illegal. It is not in fact even classified as a mental illness. Psychopathy is a personality disorder and hiring managers today often confuse its symptoms with success attributes.

Psychopaths live and work freely among us. In fact in today’s dog-eat-dog world where greed is good and the survivor of the fittest earns the most riches, psychopathic behavior is innocently recognized as talent. For example, how many rising stars have you known who are driven, ambitious, resilient, charming, articulate, intelligent, and charismatic? Their mere presence disarms the most skeptical while their supporters fawn and idolize them. Now remove a moral conscience and the incapability of empathy, guilt or loyalty to anyone but themselves and viola – you have a psychopath. What interviewers see is not always what they get.

In search for high-potential top talent, hiring managers see what they want to see: candidates exuding "leadership" skills such as taking charge, making decision, and getting others to do what you want. They see innovation and risk taking, ignoring how far this individual is willing to push the envelope. What they miss is the psychopath who has deftly re-articulated his dysfunctional inclinations of coercion, domination and manipulation into a socially acceptable package that lasts long enough to get through the interview.   Authors Dr. Paul Babiak and Dr. Robert D Hare in their "Snakes in Suits" book write, "Failing to look closely beneath the outer trappings of stereotypical leadership to the inner working of personality can sometimes lead to a regrettable hiring decision."

Individuals with personality disorders often times have a limited perspective and inflexible approach toward life. Admittedly this my-way-or-the-highway attitude is mostly annoying, not terminal. But wrap an excessive need for admiration and a sense of superiority around inflexibility and narrow-mindedness and you have the narcissist, one of ten personality disorders recognized by psychologists. In layman’s terms you have the high maintenance primadonna who feels the sun rises and sets at his or her whim.

Not to be ignored in the workplace we also have the all too common drama queens – overly dramatic, emotional and theatrical. Given a situation and an opportunity and you’ll be the unwilling participant in a melodrama. If these individuals can’t get your attention, they steal it. But unlike the narcissist who demands recognition for his/her superiority, the drama queen – officially diagnosed as histrionic personality disorder – just requires your undivided support and attention. Their behavior can be construed as passionately loyal and supportive by management but emotionally draining to all those who work beside him or her.

With this new found information, you’re probably recalling a few psychopaths in your current or previous work lives. This begs the question: what can you do to prevent hiring more of them or learn to manage them better?

First of all, learn to recognize the signs of psychopathy but I caution – a little knowledge in this field can be dangerous. That is – don’t rush to judgment. Managers are not qualified at diagnosing personality disorders – this is not and should not be the expectation. Asking and expecting managers to "fix" individuals with personality disorders is not only unrealistic but well beyond their expertise. Employees and managers however can identify behaviors and tendencies that might cross ethical and social codes. Those abuses are what they need to report and deal with.

Instead the role of the manager is to focus on documenting unacceptable and disruptive behavior. Disruptive performance must be met head-on establishing zero-tolerance for repeated abuses or complaints. If it continues, professional assistance (EAP – employee assistance program) can be offered but is not required. 

When all else fails, termination is the final option. While human resources may claim their hands are tied in dealing with personality disorders and mental illness, conduct in the workplace that violates an employer’s policies may be disciplined even if the individual may be "disabled". Documentation is what makes or breaks any challenges.

Finally, at no point should "psychopathy" or another other personality trait or disorder be listed as the cause for discipline or dismissal. The focus for all employees and managers needs to remain on how behavior – good and bad- impacts performance, not on the personality itself. For example, focusing on narrow-mindedness and inflexibility may be subject to your frame of reference and is directed at an individual’s personality. Failure to collaborate on the team alternatively is based on a performance standard which keeps the discussion between manager and employee on work.

For more information about personality disorders in the workplace, I recommend picking up a copy of “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.