Corporate Psychopaths First Go In & Shank The Strongest

by Chris Silver Smith
Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), infamous lady of the Borgia family who purportedly poisoned rivals.

Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), infamous lady of the Borgia family who purportedly poisoned rivals.

I’m periodically reminded of some of the worst people I’ve had the pleasure of working with in corporate America. While everyone’s worked with people who are merely negative or less-intelligent or annoying, the worst-of-the-worst people are downright evil and malicious.

We spend so much time at our workplaces that morale and enjoyment of the people you spend your life with becomes very important. If one of those people is a sociopath, it can really put a strain upon your workdays. Strange that I would still think about these people, but negative incidents stick with you a lot stronger than positive ones, in many cases.

Some of these psychopaths float from company to company, leaving destruction and casualties in the wake of their passing. You can identify them pretty quickly — I remember one woman who introduced herself to me via an email note that was a fairly blistering flame — truly awesome intro for a relative newbie who can’t possibly have the full context of what/how/why things are done at a company. I say that it’s easy to identify corporate psychopaths, because, when they arrive at a company, they often go in seeking to shank the strongest first, like the new alpha-male, entering a prison block! They’ll attempt to sideline and eliminate the high-performers in order to be able to manipulate and control the entire environment.

These people are pretty wheels-off, out-out-of-control in many cases. They are primarily out for personal gain with no regard to anyone else, and/or they are out for inflicting unhappiness upon others for the sheer enjoyment of it.

Oh, the stories I could tell — and there’ve been so many of them! One choice jerk I worked with was shorter than average, and many of us chalked his behavior up to having a Napoleon complex. He tried to claim that I lied about some professional evaluations of the chances of a particular project working, among many other unsavory behaviors which were completely unmerited. (Funnily enough, he bulldozed over many departments and strongarmed a contract with a dubious company — which our company later had to sue for literally millions of dollars which they likely hid or embezzled from us.)

So, why do companies put up with this crap?!? In one case I dealt with, a top director was blatently breaking every ethical rule in the book, but firing her would’ve been embarrassing to the executive director who hired her in the first place — and, perhaps he was actually afraid of her history of lawsuits against prior employers (a problem which could’ve been avoided if he’d reviewed her history carefully or had listened to the warnings of his other directors prior to hiring her). It would’ve been easier to ignore this particular person if she hadn’t been so malicious in addition to unethical — she had a bad habit of trying to blame the failures of her department upon all other departments and take credit for work they didn’t do. Ultimately, getting her productivity-sucking vacuum out of the company required numerous complaints to multiple departments and executives, bypassing the weak person who she reported-to.

In another case, some of the malicious people I worked with operated with impunity, bringing down the morale of large swaths of the organization with the knowledge of the executives above. I heard that the executives considered them to be “change agents”, and that they allowed their excesses because they thought they were clever or high-performing. (In one very funny case, the psychopath first was dismissive of the findings of my usability researchers, saying they were stupid or invalid and then abruptly did an about-face, claiming that in order to execute on their projects effectively they had to have the usability researchers reporting directly to them. Huh – amazing they could make that request with a straight face, and further amazing that the executives over them didn’t perceive the hypocrisy.)

Let me just say this bluntly: a terrorist is a “change agent” — but, that doesn’t alter the fact that they’re highly destructive. It’s not actually necessary to castigate underlings, insult coworkers, demean others in one’s company in order to bring about change and improve a business. I think many executives confuse pushy, opinionated people with intelligence.

Further, it turns out that jerks may actually be costing your company a heckuva lot more than what they’re making for you. According to Dr. Robbert Sutton‘s book, The No Asshole Rule, people who make coworkers unhappy cause increased absenteeism, and they result in loads of lost time due to conflict resolution activities. What’s more, employees who have a mean, pushy person inflicted upon them are far less motivated and produce less work. If you’re going to be demeaned for doing your job, why bother to benefit your employer? Employees undergoing this sort of treatment think consciously or unconsciously, “…if my bosses did this to me on purpose, they obviously don’t value what I do for them.”

Sutton is not the only one to point out the business impacts caused by jerks. In their book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare describe how psychopathic employees inflict considerable damage within a company by manipulating organizational processes, exploiting communication weaknesses, and promoting interpersonal conflicts.

Even as a high-performer myself within an organization, some of the worst jerks I dealt with over time put a terrific strain upon me — so much so that it sticks with me to this day, and I’m getting a bit of it off my chest with this post. Here I was, a top-award-winning employee at my company, yet there were many times when I nearly left — abruptly — due to the unacceptable behavior of some of the people I was required to work with. Further, there were times when I had to expend ridiculous amounts of effort to counterract the worst excesses of some of my serial-killer coworkers — I would’ve much rather been working upon revenue-driving, creative projects than trying to inform executives that some coworker was lying about a particular issue or smoothing the ruffled feathers of employees who reported to me and who were metaphorically run over by a drive-by psychopath.

So, what do I advise for those of you who are dealing with your own sociopathic coworkers?

  • There’s no “one-size fits all” solution for this.
  • If you’re an employee dealing with an over-the-top jerk of a coworker, be sure your supervisor, and perhaps their boss is aware of the problem.
  • If your executives refuse to recognize the problem, you might point them to this blog post or to the books I mentioned previously.
  • Consider reporting unacceptable behavior to your HR department. However, proceed carefully — psychopaths are very good at doing things that are indeterminate or which cannot be addressed by HR processes.
  • One of the best strategies is to wait them out. Endure the crappy behavior and put in the bare minimum until the snake leaves your company — I’ve found multiple times that you can outlast these people, because their behavior is typically only successful in a short-term of three months to two years.
  • If your company mollycoddles psychopaths consider just leaving. Seriously, how hard is it to get another job? Life’s too short to spend it stressed-out and upset all the time. If your issue doesn’t appear to be a short-term thing, you’d be amazed just how liberated you really may be. Don’t assume you’re stuck where you are — put out feelers.
  • The Snakes in Suits book outlines a number of types of psychopaths, and how to deal with them. These strategies might be good, but I know that the strategies cannot completely mitigate the pain that can be inflicted upon you.
  • Unfortunately, for some predators I’ve found that they only respond to the same sorts of stimuli they inflict. Protect yourself in everything you do, and if they attack, attack them back so strongly that they’ll look towards going after weaker prey in the future.
  • If you’re an executive, you should seriously consider the impact and the longterm loss of respect your employees will have for you if you protect a jerk. Consider the possibility that your valuable employees may really see a serious and significant problem with a person, if they’re coming to you and lodging a complaint.
  • If you know you have a “bad seed” in your midst, you should try the “No Asshole Rule” recommendations promoted by Sutton. Apparently, quite a few companies have installed zero-tolerance policies for jerks, and it’s made for far better workplaces. Add a “No jerks allowed” rule to your employee handbooks, and commit to enforcing it.
  • You know what? Even a “top-performing” employee isn’t worth the casualties! Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t a good enough excuse to ignore sociopathic behavior.
  • Keeping a snake in your company can result in them reproducing. If you let them get away with it, it teaches other employees that such behavior will be ignored or even awarded.
  • Afraid of lawsuit from your snake employee? Consider a much-needed layoff of a position which you no longer need. Offer a small separation package in return for a signature relenquishing rights to sue. Lay off one person who just happens to be unpleasant.

Robert Hare describes psychopaths as people who use charisma, manipulation, intimidation, sexual intercourse and violence to control others and to satisfy their own needs. He states, “Lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse… What is missing, in other words, are the very qualities that allow a human being to live in social harmony”.

Remember the woman who introduced me with a flaming email note? That was just the beginning with her — she went on to do progressively meaner, more spiteful and insulting things to me and numerous others within the company. When they finally layed her off, I noticed she’d updated her LinkedIn profile, and listed “team-building” as one of her specialities. She probably works for your company, now!

Do you want a workplace that’s harmonious? Companies which get high marks for being enjoyable workplaces can perform pretty well in business terms, and I bet they don’t put up with jerks for very long.

(Thanks to my friend, Chris Irby, an awesome SEO copy writer, and writer for that matter, for the post title!)


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2 Responses to “Corporate Psychopaths First Go In & Shank The Strongest”

  1. Stever says:

    executives, managers, or bosses that consider these people to be “change agents” or allow them to stay because they think they’re clever or high-performing are often just incompetent.

  2. Neil says:

    This is amazingly-articulated. It’s always hard to explain this behavior to the higher-ups because at times it can be subtle or with plausible deniability and/or seen as “leadership.” Thanks for this.