The Corporate Psychopath: Workplace bullying

As a CEO, owner of a business and person who knows many other business owners and senior management, the problem of what I have come to think of as the  ‘corporate psychopath’ appears to be growing. If you have come across this article you may have been the victim of bullying at work, or know someone in this unfortunate position. You may, as senior management be attempting to manage a bully which is not an easy task.

Often these monsters terrorise staff and management at all levels in the business, covering up mistakes for which they themselves are responsible and blaming others. In some cases this causes their staff and co-workers to become desperate enough to leave their employment without another job to go to.

When we think of the term psychopath, images of sadistically violent individuals often come to mind such as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. In my experience the defining characteristic traits of the ‘corporate psychopath’ can be found in a broad spectrum of work environments.

Often these monstrous individuals are initially charming, displaying false empathy to the point that even when thier victims instinct senses danger they ignore this feeling as irrational. These people have a natural talent for manipulation and are self-absorbed individuals with no conscience or feeling for others and for whom rules have no meaning. These depraved manipulators can appear unstoppable. Their non physical violence against innocent victims appears to be planned, purposeful and emotionless. Any attempt at reason will fail as these people appear to operate outside the code that governs normal, rational behaviour towards others.

Their powers of manipulation include the ability to rework the facts when challenged with the truth, and the ability to weave together a series of contradictory statements into a credible sounding story. They do not necessarily lie, they manipulate the truth to the point that they leave everyone confused while covering themselves with an endless paper trail of accusatory emails which contain subtle and not so subtle threats directed at their latest victim. The motivator appears to be control, dominance and an inability to be wrong.

Most successful business people and managers are not corporate psychopaths. Some people consider successful business people and senior management to be ruthless, while this may be true, what differentiates the the destructive type from the successful business person is ethics and the ability to lead and motivate people long term. The corporate psychopath is usually only successful short term and tends to change jobs or roles frequently for this reason. The successful business person is able to ruthlessly pursue objectives for the company over and above their own personal goals while building long term relationships based on mutual benefit and trust. This is done alongside the ability to aggressively negotiate a deal which is in the end equitable for all parties.



23 thoughts on “The Corporate Psychopath: Workplace bullying

  1. Fiona,
    there is a more prosaic version of the corporate psychopath you describe. We might call this individual the ‘job’s-worth psychopath’. This is a morally weak person in a management position, who just takes the path of least resistance and messes people around when they deviate. No attempt at pastoral care is made, and corporate punishments are dished out without compunction. This is the equivalent of the Concentration Camp Commandant who just does what he is told, excusing himself by merely ‘following orders’. They are at a low level of moral development, with poor capacity to see another’s point of view, and an inability to think for themselves. They are usually not wicked people, and are obedient servants of the status quo, but can cause a lot of harm nonetheless.

    In contrast to the type you describe, they tend to keep their jobs (because of their obedience) and they exist in vast numbers. I have known quite a few of them, and if they are men they tend not to have testicles.

    • Hi Joe. I agree with both you and Fiona in part. The Bullies I have experienced first hand have been of the type where it was not upper mgmt giving the orders. These were individuals whose self esteem was so low and their need to make their Target ( who they usually feel threatened by) feel intimidated and humiliated to such a degree the Bully feels even greater more powerful. If the Target does Not respond as the Bully intends, the Campaign then intensifies as the Bully Recruits Others to join a MOB. Many of my readers have not returned to work are on medication for: anxiety, panic attacks, depression, inability to sleep etc. I have had some (men and women) call me from work distraught and in tears. One was a double PhD with two Masters Degrees being tormented by his female boss and her boss; both had much less education than did he.
      I truly believe the Attitude of the Targets Must change from one of feeling defenseless to one of empowerment! The Bully’s mentality may never change.

      • Marilyn, I think you are a linkedin user?

        If so would you mind sharing this post around as many groups as possible. My groups are just my own industry and spirituality groups. This is a pan workplace issue. If you do share, it would be good if you can encourage people to come back here to the blog to discuss the issue. It seems like you have a lot of experience in this area yourself and could take an active part in this also.

        I have attended a stress management group myself (not for this issue) and I have been shocked at how many people have encountered this problem. I would say without exception all my friends have encountered this, possibly not as the victim but they are certainly aware of it happening in their organisation

        Anyone else who feels the inclination please share also

  2. Hmmm, yes we have all come across a few of these…Highly successful at keeping their jobs

    I have not personally worked with any in my place of work, but have seen plenty of them when contracted to larger organisations. Friends working within government run organisations speak about them all the time.

  3. The other thing Joe, how would you define a psychopath?. I thought that the word mean’t a dangerous individual with little in the way of any moral code. What you describe is an impotent avoider, or subservient person acting on orders, who can hide behind the authority of their superiors- the monkey and not the organ grinder so to speak…

  4. Fiona I so much agree with your description of the Bully in the workplace as opposed to one who is just a Mean Equal Opportunity boss. The Psychopath focuses relentlessly on their Target until the Target is DRIVEN to leave, becomes chronically ill, depressed or dies. The Bully Boss never ever stops as long as the Organization Empowers the Bully by Allowing them to collect a paycheck.

    • Marilyn. it is a travesty when well educated and normally confident people are reduced to having to take medication. One of the problems is that the bully is often very skilled in corporate politics. This also very much includes the Jobsworth variety described by Joe.

  5. I find this discussion very interesting, but I think we should be a little careful with terminology like “psychopath”, which is a word that is used for all kinds of reasons by all kinds of people that usually contradict each other.
    But worse than this misunderstanding, there are more and more ‘experts’ who believe they can recognize a psychopathic personality (even in children). This opens the door to pre-emptive justice.

    That social danger aside, a psychopath is (by its definition) a mentally ill person. But mentally ill has been used throughout history for most people who don’t fit the current idea of what is “normal”. In other words, those who don’t follow the group and are therefore outcast, which in turn causes some of them to seek acts of revenge.
    I am not, by any means, making excuses for bullies (whether they act on their own because they are power ‘mad’ or because they consider themselves an authority and want to follow the rules, or for that matter, because they want to belong to the group.
    Bullying is much less a problem of individuals (whether bully or victim and whether at school or at work), but of followers – those who stand by and let it happen.
    Personality types have certainly something to do with bullying, but it is due just as much to the type of the bully as of that of the followers, who want to belong.
    This, as I explain in my books, is a problem that has evolved in people and the tendencies cannot be changed, but what can be changed is that attitude we take to who we blame and how much value we attach to being like everybody else.

    • I agree that we should be careful when labeling bullies as ‘psychopaths’. As I explain in my book How Organizations Empower the Bully Boss:A criminal in the workplace, some bullies do fit the DSM IV criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder (aka psychopathy, sociopathy). I do believe there needs to be an acknowledgment of the severity of these individuals’ propensity, capacity and determination to do harm to others; and, that given their (bully) positions of power over their targets (subordinates) the organization is responsible for the safety (physical,psychological health) of each worker harmed by these individuals (bullies) which they continue to reward with a paycheck. The damage experienced by thousands each year cannot be overstated. Hundreds if not many more suffer long lasting effects of the trauma even while the bully continues on the path to inflict more of their victims with the same. These types of bullies do have an antisocial personality disorder which the laypeople more are apt to understand as the Psychopath. The need to have Targets to recognize the crime of this behavior and the extent of the bullies disorder makes the benefit of calling the bully a psychopath out weigh the detriment to it being overstated in some cases of bullies. The targets have gone for far too long at far too great of an expense with their suffering to feel that it is their fault when in reality their only undoing was their working in the same workplace as someone who should be better placed in a cell than in a workplace given the power to destroy lives. Having counseled many of those suffering from the campaign of a bully boss, I have very adamant feelings regarding their freedom and empowerment to terrorize while getting paid to do so.

      • I my view we all are better off doing our own home-work first:

        If the attention is turned towards that awareness that wakes up in the morning, instead of towards people, places, things, thoughts, etc., eventually it will be discovered that that awareness is infinite-eternal-awareness-love-bliss.

        • Thank you Jane for your comment. I am not in opposition. I agree with you and that is why I am now trying to help others to do the same; it is not as easy for many people and it will take much more work than many have to give. However, my goal and my mission is to convince them that the work is a worthwhile investment if it results in improving the quality of their life. So, yes, I do agree.

        • Yes, If only the world were like this. There are many ways of achieving what you believe in. The first way in my belief is always through co-operation and awareness of the other person

    • Yes, We should always be careful about attaching labels to people.

      You are right about the followers. I have encountered bullying many times in my life in different situations. I have never started as a victim of bullying but have become one because I would not stand by and see it happen to other people. As a result of this I have been bullied at home (as a child), at school and I have seen this pattern occurring in my place of work although my seniority makes this difficult for the bully to achieve.

  6. Good article. I’m interested in tis topic myself as it has happened to me twice, even 3 times. Once was from a colleague, not my manager or boss. So, that was a one-off case I guess. Beside, this woman ended up having a nervous breakdown then, so she was probably taking on me her personal problems! However, I was victim twice of bullyism. So, basically, it became moral harassment. I don’t want to go into detail here, but basically, in both cases, I felt that I was disturbing, and so I wasn’t welcome to stay anymore. I understood that I had to leave. Indeed, I think that bullies are often people who are insecure about themselves, and may see you as a threat.

  7. Personally I have been abused more often by the workplace sociopaths, because they don’t broadcast their moves or bad intentions like psychopaths. Often the socipaths are merely being greedy, or just doing things for their own reasons, completely disregarding the needs of others or even the collective corporate team. They don’t mean to be bad, they just don’t care.
    And that is the root of evil.

  8. A little info for those concerned about use of the word “psychopath” in conjunction in with the behavior of workplace bullies:

    Although the term “psychopath” is thrown around pretty regularly, there’s not a hard and fast set of diagnostic criteria to use to identify who’s a psychopath and who isn’t. Official stance of the American Psychiatric Association (as presented in the DSM-IV-TR) is that the terms “psychopathy” and “sociopathy” are misnomers referring to characteristics that fall within Cluster B of personality disorder constructs such as narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

    In the ICD-10, the World Health Organization refers to psychopathy as one of several synonyms for “dissocial personality disorder,” characterized by at least 3 of the following characteristics:

    – Callous unconcern for the feelings of others.
    – Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.
    – Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.
    – Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.
    – Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
    – Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.

    Whether that brings us closer to true wisdom, worth noting that WHO’s definition of dissocial personality disorder hits quite close to the tree.

    Forwhat it’s worth..

  9. Pingback: Bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended – harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 | chiara1421

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