Could your boss be a psychopath?

It’s the rags to riches to rags story of a hotshot, real-life New York stockbroker, Jordan Belfort, who conned his way through life, starting at the bottom of the Wall Street pecking order and by the 1990s making millions selling worthless stocks.

Belfort’s story is also a tale of complete disregard for others, of careless spending, and of a raging drug and prostitute habit. His enormous success and affluence gave him the title “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But in 1994, the fairy tale ended, with Belfort being banned from the securities business for life, and being sent to jail for fraud and money laundering.

In cases like Belfort, it isn’t always easy to distinguish between corporate genius and psychopath, says Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries. Frankly, it’s often a thin line that divides them. Some of these people rise to astonishing heights, but in the process they cause enormous damage. They can poison the workplace, putting the health of both their companies and staff at risk.

People who behave like this are what I call Seductive Operational Bullies (SOBs). Without going so far as to commit murder or arson, but unburdened by the pangs of conscience that moderate most people’s interactions with others, such people are “psychopaths lite.”

They can be found wherever power, status, or money is at stake. Outwardly normal, apparently successful and charming, their lack of empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse can have serious interpersonal repercussions and destroy organisations. Their chameleon-like qualities mean they often reach top executive positions, especially in organizations that appreciate impression management, corporate gamesmanship, risk taking, domination, competitiveness, and assertiveness.

Of course, psychopaths have always been around. Many historical figures that committed crimes against humanity fall within this category. But only a small subset of psychopaths turns into violent criminals. What we need to realize is that there exist many less extreme forms of psychopathy.

Seductive operational bullies are not blatantly violent or antisocial; their disturbing behavior is not so in your face. They can be hard to spot, due to their manipulative personalities; they are often “hidden in plain sight.” Indeed, many of the behaviors and qualities they exhibit, that indicate mental problems in other contexts, actually appear quite appropriate in senior executive positions.

Unlike fundamental psychopaths, born without the capacity to form emotional bonds (due to possible genetic abnormalities), “lite” psychopaths are usually the products of their childhoods. Their capacity for empathetic response may have been incapacitated due to repeated disillusionment in their childhood, caused by physical or sexual abuse or other forms of maltreatment. Over time, these negative environmental experiences may have led to the deactivation or poor repair of normal human emotional, neurological pathways, resulting in psychopathic behavior patterns.

Estimates vary, but perhaps 3.9 percent of corporate professionals could be described as having psychopathic tendencies, a figure considerably higher than is found in the general population. From these observations we can deduce that many people working in organisations have a fair chance of having an experience with a pathological boss.

Unfortunately, most people working for seductive operational bullies lack the knowledge and skills to effectively respond and deal with them. Either they don’t understand the cause of their problems, or they don’t know how to fight back. To make matters worse, these psychopathic executives usually have the dedication, focus, and business acumen to create at least the appearance of success.

They are highly manipulative, discrediting others around them, deflecting the issue at hand when confronted. They will threaten and distort the facts, all the while presenting themselves as helpful and or working “for the good of the company.” They are very talented at hiding their true motives, while making others look incompetent, uncooperative, or self-serving. The only thing that counts for these people is to win. They prey on people’s emotional vulnerabilities.

So what can be done to prevent such people can causing havoc? Ideally, organizations should fine-tune their recruitment procedures in order to avoid hiring them in the first place. Scrutinize resumes for any anomalies and put the candidate through multiple interviews. Seductive operational bullies have a tendency to tell interviewers what they think they want to hear, and different interviewers can elicit different, sometimes contradictory, responses.

What if the psychopath is already on your staff? If you see talented people leaving a project or a company, that may be a sign. A red flag should also go up if there are glaring discrepancies between how direct reports and junior employees perceive an executive and how that executive’s peers or boss perceive him or her. Lower-level employees are often on the receiving end of a boss’s psychopathic behavior and usually spot a problem much sooner than senior management. It’s also important to encourage teamwork, as that’s something that psychopaths don’t feel comfortable with; they’ll look for the door. And take steps to develop a corporate culture in which junior employees are able to express concerns about their colleagues and superiors without fear of reprisal.

Finally, if you are so unfortunate as to have a psychopath as your boss or even as CEO of the company, recognise that you are unlikely to be able to get him or her to change. Attempting an ouster is likely to be difficult and will jeopardise your own career. In this case, the best course is not to stick around but to cut your losses, and move on.