How to spot the office psychopath

Psychopaths can go undetected in the workplace. Here's how to spot the toxic employee lurking in your organisation.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 28 Nov 2019

Psychopaths are typically selfish individuals, who are devoid of compassion, manipulative and prone to lying. They may have a superficial charm but are often bullies, increasing workplace stress, and creating unnecessary conflict. 

According to the criminal psychologist Robert Hare, who coined the term "snakes in suits" to describe this kind of individual, psychopaths make up 1 per cent of the general population – but there are many more in the business world. It follows that if your company employs more than 100 people, you may have at least one within your ranks.

Psychopaths can do a lot of damage to organisations, especially when they hold senior roles. Studies show that psychopaths reduce productivity, increase staff absenteeism, and can erode social responsibility.

Why psychopaths thrive in business

There is a reason that so many psychopaths find refuge in the corporate world. "Just look at modern working environments: what are the priorities?" asks Dr Cheryl Travers, chartered psychologist and lecturer at Loughborough University. "Beating the competition, hitting ambitious targets, hard selling, finding out what rivals are doing and sometimes stealing their ideas. 

"Those who are ruthless, resilient to others’ opinions and immune to the fear of failure are more likely to climb to the top."

How to spot a psychopath

There are some tell-tale signs that you may be dealing with a psychopath. Travers says to look for a combinations of behaviours: "Look for those who consistently take credit for others’ ideas. Those who are incredibly charming to one’s face, then stab you in the back with no apparent remorse. They may lie in order to serve their purposes, and can be very manipulative. They also tend to set impossible deadlines and make employees feel like they can never work hard or efficiently enough."

Psychopaths often struggle with impulse control, which means they are very bad at long-term planning, adds Travers. "They tend to live in the here and now, in spite of the cost to others and the organisation. Also look out for: lying, a lack of empathy, superficial charm and charisma, no conscience or guilt shown for hard decisions."

Psychopaths tend to bring with them a feeling of unease. "You may well feel when dealing with them that you have been manipulated but didn’t feel able to stop the process," explains Travers. "Their behaviour may be out of line but you will feel powerless to deal with it."

In conversation with a psychopath

You may also be able to detect a psychopath by carefully listening to how they speak. Researcher Jeffrey Hancock led a US study into psychopathic traits back in 2011. He and his team studied the speech patterns of convicted criminals who were known psychopaths and found that they typically used past tense to talk about their crimes, which can be an indicator of psychological detachment.

The researchers also found more dysfluencies — more of the "uhs" and "ums" that interrupt speech. Psychopaths are more likely to use these words as a stalling tactic while they attempt to create a "mask of sanity," said Hancock.

According to Travers, it is important to root out workplace psychopaths quickly, before they can do lasting damage to your team or your organisation. "Keep a diary of events and things that happen with this person," she says. "These things can come in handy if ever you have to take them to a disciplinary – keep records."

Image credit: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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