The thing I remember most from my first close encounter with a psychopath in business was my utter confusion. He seemed to continually do things that had the real potential to drive away our best workers. He was an odd mix of obsessive micromanager on some things and completely absent on other things.
I’ve had many good managers in my various careers and they all shared one thing in common: once they were satisfied you knew what you were doing, they stayed out of your way. Those managers became a resource I could bounce ideas off but they rarely intervened in my day-to-day work. And even then only if I was clearly lost.
The psychopath was very different. He was constantly meddling, making last-minute changes in direction, getting upset if I made a decision – any decision – and, in general, micromanaging the workplace. He implemented procedures which seemed to be aimed at monitoring what everybody was doing. He insisted that all decisions had to be made by him, no matter how small. There were enormous delays in getting even the smallest thing decided.
And then sometimes, if it was a pet project of his, it would be fast-tracked past all possible hurdles. He trusted nobody and the impact on the business was devastating. Our once happy, harmonious and focused workplace started to fall apart. No one seemed to trust anyone else and there was continuous in-fighting. We all felt like we were being watched.
This manager also had an uncanny ability to convince those higher up than him that someone else was to blame. They were clearly impressed by him no matter what happened. Somehow he always managed to deflect blame to others.
Often this would result in those people being fired or leaving. Our staff turnover went through the roof. Worse, the replacements he hired seem to be chosen based on how nice they were to him not how good they were at the job. But he didn’t seem to care.
While he was obsessive about the work practices of those beneath him, he never applied the same detailed eye to his decisions. They were always made on impulse, on the spot and with no input from anybody else. He was always late for meetings, always accepted credit and deflected blame, and always insisted on special treatment. For example, he always flew first class even though the company policy was economy.
He also played favourites, allowing some people little privileges in return for their loyalty. These people would often be deployed as his proxy in meetings. They could not make any decisions but they would convey his directives – ‘No, we cannot go that way, the boss is against that.’
Often the psychopath would be sitting in his office just down the hall and there was no good reason he couldn’t be there himself, but his absence made it much harder to challenge his views. Sometimes, particularly obstinate employees would demand that the minion race off and seek the boss’s opinion on an alternative approach. The minion would dutifully return with nothing changed.
This boss made a habit of giving select people subtle but excruciating public punishment. Everything the chosen victim said or did in a meeting would be challenged. Then, after the meeting, they would get the silent treatment. He would assign them a task and make it impossible for them to get the information or resources they needed, then he would make fun of their failure to perform at the next meeting. This could go on for weeks at a time and then suddenly it would switch to a new victim.
Everyone kept their heads down, in case he decided to pick on them next. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to who he favoured with rewards and who he didn’t. And trying to figure out his motivations did my head in. His constant pitting of employees against each other significantly accelerated the destruction of trust in the workplace.
Everyone was in it for themselves. No one knew who they could trust and, as a result, nobody trusted anyone. He often told me negative things about other employees. They were easy to believe because elements of things he said were true. Now, looking back, I realise I was just being used like the gullible fool I was. He was almost certainly doing the same thing with everyone else. He seemed to genuinely enjoy an environment where nobody trusted anyone else.
David speaks to Mia Freedman on the No Filter podcast
These were not the only things he lied about. The longer I knew him the more convinced I became that everything he said was a lie. Things that he told me years before did not gel with things he was telling me now. At first, I dismissed this as my inaccurate memory, and because I no longer trusted anyone at work there was no one to check with. So I started taking notes.
It was then that his lies became obvious. They were rarely big lies but they were consistent and they always had a built-in level of deniability – meaning he always had wiggle room. If challenged on something he had said or done, he seemed to have a rational alternative explanation. Pinning him down was like pinning jelly to a wall.
In a state of total confusion and despair, I eventually turned to Google for answers. Surprisingly I found them very quickly. My boss’s behaviour was an exact match to what bloggers and many scientists called a ‘corporate psychopath’. They all used slightly different terms. Some called it ‘psychopathy’. Some called it ‘sociopathy’. Some went with ‘narcissist’. And others just went with garden-variety ‘micromanagers’ and ‘bullies’. But they were all describing the same type of personality that was sucking the life out of my job.
I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that my boss didn’t care how good or bad my work was and didn’t have the skills to tell anyway. But at the time, I felt I was constantly being judged and watched. I became paranoid and fearful, and worked even harder to complete impossible and pointless tasks within the ridiculous time frames he was setting.
I could have given him anything and spent my time looking for a new job instead. I wish I had known that at the time. It would have made a big difference. I would still have despaired at the pointlessness of it all but at least I wouldn’t have taken it personally. I also realised that I had come across these same patterns of behaviour in other people, in workplaces and in my personal life. The details differed but the modus operandi was always the same.
It didn’t matter if they were female or male, old or young. It always boiled down to the same basic patterns of manipulation through divide and conquer. I had put these other people’s micromanagement and manipulation down to personality quirks. But once I found the label for my boss’s behaviour, I knew I was dealing with a very specific and dangerous personality type.
If this all sounds familiar to you, then you are not alone. I have discovered that almost everyone has a story like mine about someone they work with, are related to or are in a relationship with. People like my first psychopath are a part of everyone’s lives every day.
The purpose of this book is to provide guidance, not titillation. I want you to see how common psychopathic behaviour is and I want to give you the tools to deal with it. To that end, throughout the rest of the book, I’ve included examples from my own encounters and stories that people have told me about their interactions with psychopaths.
Obviously all the names and many of the identifying circumstances have been changed to protect . . . well, to stop me being sued.
This is an extract from Taming Toxic People: The Science Of Identifying And Dealing With Psychopaths At Work by Australian lawyer and best-selling author of the Sweet Poison books, David Gillespie. You can buy your copy here.