Working with a corporate psychopath must be one of the most difficult challenges for any leader or team member to experience in their career. Trying to manage this kind of personality with kindness is not however, impossible. Michael Lloyd-White, previously a Chief Advisor to World Kindness USA, shares how it’s done…
By Michael Lloyd-White
Experts argue that we are three times more likely to find psychopathic behaviour higher up the corporate ladder than we would find in the general population.
According to renowned US-based Executive Coach and Author Victor Lipman, there are some disturbing links between Psychopathy and leadership. Understanding how to distinguish between an authentic leader in kindness and those who pursue absolute self-interest can be a challenge. Psychopaths are the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, whom are often very charming, presentable and articulate. Understandably, these traits all go a long way to help carve out a successful career in the private sector.
Working out how to spot a corporate psychopath, therefore, can be difficult. According to the book ‘Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work’ (Babiak P et al, 2007), Dr Babiak claims that “Several abilities – skills, actually – make it difficult to see psychopaths for who they are. First, they are motivated to, and have a talent for ‘reading people’ and sizing them up quickly. They identify a person’s likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots, and vulnerabilities. Second, many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people. Third, they are masters of impression management; their insight into the psyche of others combined with a superficial – but convincing – verbal fluency allows them to change their situation skilfully as it suits the situation and their game plan”.
Interestingly, NGOs are not immune as they have been outsourcing leadership positions to the corporate sector for some time. This results in a shift from benevolent to bottom-line culture, which begins to trickle down; creating a more competitive environment where psychopaths may thrive.
Here’s some tell-tale signs to watch for:
- Corporate psychopaths tend to dislike collaboration
- They avoid taking personal responsibility; often deflect seeking to either implicate others through half-truths or finger pointing
- They will always seek opportunities to self-promote or take sole credit for successes – whether they own the outcome or not
- They always have a fall-back position. They may play the victim if bad behaviour is called out and threaten anyone whom has the courage to call them to account
- When presented with contrary evidence, they ignore facts with emotional outbursts
- When they become threatened, they go on the attack either through rumour mongering, gossip or malicious emails on public platforms designed to discredit the perceived threat. They always avoid facts which may be damaging or introduce unrelated incidents – preferring to malign others behind closed doors.
- A psychopath will attempt to create cliques or ‘inner circles’ designed to exclude, thereby creating a sense of power by withholding knowledge and selectively distributing to play people against each other.
- Unfortunately, this cannot be achieved alone, so they seek out allies (ambitious-minded people) to gain influence to further their own agenda; and
- They may talk over others, cutting them off mid-sentence (a conversational narcissist) to regain the attention of the room and hold court, thereby intimidating others into silence. Often, they secure henchmen (true believers) who will jump to their defence (or attack) when called upon often because their success / living is subject to a misplaced loyalty.
While this all sounds rather Machiavellian and ‘Game of Thrones’, we have plenty of evidence in public office too, where the solution is often to play the person rather than the ball.
Sadly, I have witnessed the above behaviours first hand in a large NGO which became the catalyst to launch me into the kindness space. Every cloud has a silver lining and the lessons learnt enable me to reflect and ponder, “What is the kinder option?”. Whether it is in business, family or relationships, the kinder option is often the path of most resistance because when we are hurting we want to instinctively respond in kind.
When I find myself having to deal with these situations, I think about how I should ‘walk the talk’ as a leader who embraces kindness as an overarching value. What do I do if a leader or a close colleague or friend is showing traits of a corporate psychopath albeit low on the spectrum?
Well, mediation won’t work, as a corporate psychopath will be in denial and make all the right noises dismissing their behaviour to just simple “misunderstandings”.
In this event, for organisations who use KPIs “Kindness Performance Indicators”, it’s important to check they are being met and a Kindness Clause in the agreement or in the position description is properly evoked.
Keep records and follow up conversations with emails or better still have third parties involved. This is not paranoia or being “mean and calculating”. This is to ensure that in the event things don’t work out for the best, you have a fall-back position as no doubt you will become a target for raising concerns. Remember by this stage the alarms bells have already tolled, several incidents may have already occurred, and it may continue to escalate, despite coaching and intervention – all designed with the best intentions to help.
If mediation is not well managed with a one-to-one debrief and shared, it leaves parties not understanding the outcome and therefore not taking away any lessons. I always ask, “What do you feel you have learnt from this process?”. The answer will determine whether progress was made.
When All Else Fails…
Action needs to be taken quickly and by action I don’t mean dragging people over the coals to humiliate or give them a public flogging. It’s about understanding the circumstances that creates this behaviour in the first instance which is often learned behaviour.
While giving someone the benefit of the doubt seems kind, it may be dangerous. One must be firm, but fair. Often this behaviour is coming from a past trauma or fear and it’s become a survival mechanism. The need to be recognised and acknowledged when they come from a space of low self-esteem and self-worth is paramount for those who are always seeking the lime light.
Ensure you acknowledge the problematic behaviour with the appropriate people in your team and advise them that you will be meeting over a coffee to have a discussion (a conversation in kindness) with the person in question.
Choose a neutral venue like a café, (if its online via Skype or Zoom with video). Re-assure the person in question by calmly discussing the issues and concerns by telling them you understand but most importantly advise them that they are in a safe space and that you are not gunning for them.
If the behaviour continues unchecked or the mentoring is not accepted after this, the longer it can fester the more damage will be done. This will undermine the organisation because kindness will be mistaken for weakness.
Advise the appropriate members in your team of the outcome and what was said, personal journal notes are advisable. Be wary of making the mistake by allowing yourself to be swayed by the powers of persuasion of a corporate psychopath. Always question their answers as often they will contradict themselves when caught in a lie.
Advise the person in question that an amicable solution is being drafted to avoid further escalation of tensions. Your team may have similar concerns or stories to share and these conversations should be had with the best of intention; seek counsel for a positive outcome rather than a witch hunt.
Prepare the person so they are not ‘blind-sided’. Express your honest opinion to them directly and do not attempt to water it down by suggesting, “we are considering everyone’s perspective”, because you are either afraid of the response or you don’t want to be the only ‘bad guy’. Own your action. Call out bad behaviour with integrity. Rhetoric that gives a false sense of security will backfire. A leader needs to be firm, fair and compassionate but most of all, be honest.
Self-promotion and glory is a driver for most psychopaths. If these incentives are removed by temporarily restricting their level of influence, e.g. public exposure and points of contact with third parties outside of the immediate network, their true motive will quickly reveal itself. Do this with discretion – so as not to humiliate – and explain why this temporary measure was necessary. They will either question whether their behaviour is serving their best interest or whether the position still serves their interest.
Probation can be extended and followed up by assigning an independent mentor (whom is not involved directly in the conflict) to provide further training for the person in question. However, if we are dealing with a person with serious flawed character traits, the claim they repeatedly breach protocol because of ‘misunderstanding’ will be exposed for what it truly is. There will eventually be another outburst.
Managing this can be laid out in stages and communicated clearly with the consensus of the senior management team. Should the person in question continue to not adhere to procedures and protocol, it would require further action;
- Probation leads to
- Mentorship training, which leads to
- Temporarily restrict or limit responsibilities which leads to
- Temporary demotion and finally if no improvement is seen, will lead to
In the event they do not resign then you have no alternative but to terminate their services.
Ensuring you have followed these procedures and kept supporting documentation, it is unlikely they will be in a position to claim damages. They will of course make (untenable) threats of litigation possibly even in an extreme case, defamation of character…
Had the person truly been involved for the right reasons and was prepared to honour the agreement they committed to, which included the ‘Kindness Clause’ they will serve out the probation in good faith, give it their all and everyone could move forward stronger for the experience having gone through a successful healing and reconciliation. If not, their pride will demand that they leave.
Some may ask, “Why bother? Just go straight to asking for their resignation, as this all seems like a lost cause?” This process is exhausting and comes with risk and it will test you. Few leaders can navigate their way through it without buttons being pushed. That said, my argument for reconciliation first is, “If we exclude the bully from the playground does the bully get better or worse?”.
I truly believe we need to seek out the best in people and encourage them to shine so they can feel they are included and have a sense of belonging. In practicing kindness with sincerity, even when our instincts shout otherwise, perhaps we will read less headlines where the disenfranchised or tormented souls sought vengeance on others for perceived personal injustices.
Ed. Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash.