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Coping with workplace psychos

Do you like psycho movies? Here's something really scary: You might work with one.

You're thinking, "Hmmm, maybe that quiet new co-worker with the piercings or the brooding swing shift janitor?"

Perhaps, but chances are just as good, and maybe better, that the psycho in your workplace is your boss, his boss, perhaps even your CEO.

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Now can you hear the lambs, Clarice?

As many as one in 100 adults in the workplace is a psychopath, according to the forthcoming "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work" by Robert D. Hare, professor emeritus in psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and Paul Babiak, a New York-based industrial-organizational psychologist. Not surprisingly, psychopaths comprise as much as a quarter of the prison population.

There also are a few psychos that manage to find a home in the workplace. Most of them aren't likely to slice and dice in their off hours like Wall Street wiz Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" or sauté their neighbors like Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs." But their innate charm, lust for thrills and lack of conscience can exact similar damage on the careers of those who stand in their way.

Unless you can find a way to have your company's psycho moved from the corner office to the local sanitarium, you're going to have to find a way to work with (or around) that person in order to hang onto your job. It helps to cope when you know a little about what makes such a person tick.

Practical demon-keeping
"Psychopaths know the difference between right and wrong, but they think it's amusing that you and I differentiate it," says Babiak. "They don't see a separation between what's mine and what's yours; what I own is theirs. They don't see my ownership of property or even my life as something valuable that they need to respect."

According to Hare, psychopaths share this laundry list of abnormalities:

  • lack of remorse or empathy
  • shallow emotions
  • manipulativeness
  • lying
  • egocentricity
  • glibness
  • low frustration tolerance
  • episodic relationships
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • persistent violation of social norms

Pedophiles and serial killers only represent the extreme end of the spectrum. What Babiak found in his workplace studies is that many psychos actually excel in the business environment, where charm and self-confidence easily mask their duplicitous nature.

"Some of the people were high in the personality aspects, meaning they had characteristic psychopathic features, but they weren't overly violent or antisocial. Which kind of makes sense because they have been successful in business," he says. "When they did present antisocial behavior, it was dressing down someone in public or backstabbing behavior. Bob Hare calls them 'subcriminal psychopaths.'"

-- Posted: April 13, 2005




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