Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

The debauchery-laden film by Martin Scorsese The Wolf of Wall Street is a prime example of financial corruption, excess, and corporate greed. 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. 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.”

Outwardly normal, apparently successful and charming, their lack of empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse can have serious interpersonal repercussions and destroy organizations. Their chameleon-like qualities mean they often reach top positions, especially in organizations that appreciate impression management, corporate gamesmanship, risk-taking, domination, competitiveness, and assertiveness.

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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.

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.

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. They are highly manipulative, discrediting others around them, deflecting the issue at hand when confronted. They will threaten and distort the facts. They are very talented at hiding their true motives, while making others look incompetent.

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 causing havoc? Ideally, organizations should fine-tune their recruitment procedures in order to avoid hiring them in the first place.

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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, recognize that you are unlikely to be able to get him or her to change. The best course is not to stick around but to cut your losses, and move on.