PSYCHOPATHS are not just found in serial killer films and crime novels. They stalk corporate corridors too, where their trail of destruction might not include murder but can mean a loss of productivity, motivation and profits.

The manipulation, deception, inflated self-opinion and back-stabbing of the corporate psychopath or narcissist can often cause work-related depression, anxiety disorders, burnout and physical illnesses – conditions that cost the South African economy more than R40 billion annually. Corporate Mental Health Week on July 1 to 5 July turned the spotlight on work-related stress that accounts for more than 40% of all workplace-related illnesses in South Africa, with at least one in four employees diagnosed with depression.

Renata Schoeman, a psychiatrist and associate professor in leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, said it is often the leaders – who should be at the forefront of reducing workplace conditions that lead to stress and burnout – who contribute to the problem, rather than the solution. “We are not talking about the ‘difficult’ boss here, but the boss who is a bully – many of who could be defined as corporate psychopaths. “The bullying tactics of corporate psychopaths increase conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism, reduce productivity and collective social responsibility, and erode corporate culture and ethical standards – diminishing shareholder value and returns on investment,” she said. “Bullying can make you ill,” she said.

“In a US survey, 70% or more of bullying victims had experienced stress, anxiety or depression, 55% reported loss of confidence, 39% suffered from lack of sleep, 17% called in sick frequently and 19% had suffered mental breakdown. Emotional stress can also cause or aggravate physical illnesses such as gastrointestinal problems (such as irritable bowel syndrome) and cardiovascular problems (such as hypertension), while victims of workplace bullying had double the risk of considering suicide in the five years following.”

Chief executives have the highest prevalence of psychopathic characteristics of all jobs – a rate second only to prison inmates – and while it is estimated that one in 100 of the general population have psychopathic characteristics, it rises to one in 25 in managers. In what she calls “the curse of confidence”, Schoeman said that many of the traits characteristic of psychopaths – such as charm, fearless dominance, boldness and a “grandiose sense of self” – are also what help people get ahead in business.

However, she pointed out that “not everyone with loads of confidence and who is successful, even if they have a brash approach to people, has a personality disorder”. The workplace bullies to be most concerned about, she advised, are those with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. She said narcissists can be brilliant strategists, have the courage to take risks and push through massive change and transition, and use their charisma and compelling visions to inspire others – fitting into conventional ideas of leadership.

“These masters of self-image, who take credit but deflect blame, tend to gather a group of co-dependent people around them to support and reinforce their behaviour. They profess loyalty to the organisation, but are only committed to their own agenda, and people may experience them as distant and cold. “Narcissists tend to be oversensitive to criticism, overcompetitive and often engage in counterproductive work behaviour when their self-esteem is threatened. They expect great dedication and may overwork others without any regard for the impact on their lives,” she said. She said narcissists favoured “indirect bullying tactics” such as withholding information, ignoring people or giving them the silent treatment, spreading rumours to discredit other people and inflating their contribution or taking credit for achievements they had little to do with.

Narcissists are also more likely to engage in sexual harassment because of their inflated sense of importance and tendency to exploit other people. The “darker personality”, she said, is the psychopathic character, the boss or colleague with antisocial personality disorder – who replaces the narcissist’s exploitative tactics with predatory drive for strategic conquests, domination and cruelty.

Schoeman said that “successful psychopaths” share the same core characteristics as those who become criminals – such as deceit, manipulation, indifference to the consequences of their actions, superficial charm, lack of empathy and lack of remorse – but tend to come from more privileged backgrounds and have higher IQ. She said the bullying tactics of the “successful psychopath” were based on assessing the usefulness and weaknesses of those around them, manipulating others to bond with them, using their victims’ feedback to build and maintain control, and then abandoning them when they were no longer useful.

“They are extremely efficient at using and manipulating communication networks to enhance their own reputation, while discrediting others and creating and maintaining conflicts and rivalries among colleagues,” she said. “It is important to be equipped to recognise and safeguard oneself against these workplace bullies,” Schoeman said.
How to deal with the office narcissist or psychopath:

Dealing with a narcissist boss:

  1. Avoid contact;
  2. Ignore their actions;
  3. Stay neutral, calm and professional;
    • Resist the urge to challenge or confront them
    • Don’t offer or give any personal information or opinions
  4. Ground yourself
    • Realise it is not personal;
    • Realise their insecurity;
    • Accept that change likely won’t happen;
    • Build a supportive network;
    • Reach out for help;
    • Know your legal rights.
  5. Protect yourself
    • Be assertive, but not aggressive;
    • Have a witness;
    • Get everything in writing;
    • Be alert: When a narcissist can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you.
  6. Disarm the narcissist
    • Always empathise with your boss’s feelings but don’t expect any empathy back;
    • Give your boss ideas, but always let him/her take the credit for it.

Tips for dealing with antisocial bosses:

  1. Keep your emotions in check;
  2. Don’t show you are intimidated;
  3. Stick to the facts – do not get drawn into their victimhood stories;
  4. Ground yourself
    • Accept that some people are bad news;
    • Know your weaknesses – which the psychopath will exploit;
    • Take care of yourself, manage your stress and build your resilience;
    • Build your reputation and relationships.
  5. Protect yourself
  6. Report incidents of bullying and harassment to HR;
  7. Opt for online communication;
  8. Disarm the psychopath
    • Turn the conversation back to them when they blame someone else;
    • Point out their flaws. For example, their reaction in a meeting and asking them if they are feeling stressed.
  9. Safeguard the organisation
    • Have an ombudsman or anonymous tip-off line;
    • Cross-check your impressions with colleagues who know them well;
    • Expect responsibility;
    • Guarantee consequences;
    • Provide predictable punishment promptly;
    • Know the law.

Supplied by Jigsaw PR

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