Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dealing with the office psycho

The other day, former co-worker asked me for advice on how to deal with a difficult situation at work. Apparently I am regarded as "wise" in some circles. As this person was still stuck in the worst workplace I have ever suffered through, I thought the problem would be pretty dramatic. As it turns out, it didn't sound very dramatic. In fact, what he really wanted was confirmation that something was going on at all because he wasn't sure.

He described someone else in his project team that he thought was taking credit for for all of his work. They had clearly delineated areas of responsibility yet he always felt like this person was spending too much time looking aver his shoulder rather than doing their own work. She would drill him with a lot of questions so she had an effective working knowledge of what he was doing. None of this was necessary for her to do her own work.

Then she started answering questions from management that were directed at him. She would go so far as to talk over him if he managed to start his answer first which made him so uncomfortable he stopped talking. After this had been going on for a while he discovered she was sending "update" emails to management detailing his work but phrased to suggest it was all coming from her. Needless to say, he wasn't being sent copies of these email communications.

"I feel like she's out to get me, that she's going out of her way to screw me over. But that's crazy, why would she do that?"

The answer's actually quite simple: she's a psycho. Coming out and describing someone as a psychopath tends to get a laugh in response: "Yeah, she's crazy all right." But it isn't a joke. This type of behaviour is a perfect example of psychopathic/sociopathic behaviour. The diagnosis of a psychopath in the workplace is often not taken seriously because the term is coloured by preconception. People often confuse it with "psychotic". And those who know the difference are often influenced by popular fiction like "Silence of the Lambs".

What the office psychopath and Hannibal Lecter have in common is a complete lack what's commonly known as a conscience. They are perfectly aware of the concepts of right it wrong, they simply don't care. They don't feel remorse because anyone hurt by their actions is unimportant. The difference between a serial killer and an office psycho is what they want from you.

In case you think you think talking about psychopaths in the workplace is overblown, statistically, it's almost certain you work with or regularly interact with a psychopath. Most studies suggest that between 3% and 5% of the population suffer from the milder condition known as anti-social personality disorder and 1% of the population are psychopaths. In other words, 1 in 25 people you meet is a dick (you hadn't noticed?) and 1 in 100 is dangerous (a smaller number of these are violent predator types).

The likelihood of running into these characters at work is higher than this simply because of the number of companies who seem to actively encourage this sort of thing. How many managers would react positively to someone described as "a real results person, nothing gets in their way. They can charm anyone and won't hesitate to go after goals other people say are impossible. Anyone who's not on the team better get out of the way because this guy will crush them."

This is not saying all high achievers are psychopaths, in fact, most psychopaths can't maintain positive results for an extended period of time. This is mostly because they achieve their goals in an incredibly destructive way. They won't hesitate to cause major damage to everyone and everyone around them. Because they simply don't care.

The three main traits usually ascribed to psychopathic/sociopathic personality types are they are very egocentric, they have no empathy for others and they are incapable of feeling remorse or guilt. On the surface, this would appear to make them obvious monsters that could never fool anyone. The scary thing is that many of them are more than capable of faking all the human characteristics they lack in reality. The smarmiest person in the office, the one who easily makes friends and establishes trust can easily be the one who has no real concern for anyone around them.

So how to deal with an office psycho? The first and simplest rule is to get the hell away from them. These people will not hesitate to make your life miserable. They will destroy your career, your finance and your health. Don't try to appeal to their better nature. They don't have one.

Getting away from them means up to and including getting a different job. If you're working in an environment that encourages and rewards sociopathic behaviour, changing jobs is by far your best option. Seeing as how there are usually people who say changing jobs isn't viable for them, I'll provide a few more coping strategies. Seriously though, there are times when you need to bite the bullet and change jobs. There are very few jobs worth the long term emotional and even physical damage a workplace psycho will do to you.

One of the common strategies a workplace psycho will use is to isolate you. You absolutely must not allow this to happen. They want other people to doubt you and they want you to doubt yourself. The best remedy for this is frequent communication with everyone but your tormentor. In the case of my friend, the psycho went out of her way to block his attempts at communication. I suggested he deal with it as follows:

Send daily email updates on progress to your manager. The psycho was not informed of these because they were nothing to do with her. My friend did not report to her and she was not directly involved in his work. The manager doesn't even have to read these unless somewhere down the line there's a clash with the psycho. Then you have a timeline of activity that should protect you from their attacks.

Seeing as the psycho had the habit of talking over him and answering "for him" when his manager asked questions, I advised him to find times when she wasn't around to talk to his manager. These discussions don't have to be formal meetings although there are times when meetings help. Something as simple as having lunch at a different time to the psycho and taking the opportunity to talk while she's at lunch can work wonders.

If you are the target of the office psycho, they will go out of their way to make it look like you contribute nothing. The last thing you want is at some critical point for the boss to go "That's true, what does that guy ever do?" Regular chats (whether informal or formal) will help keep the boss appraised of exactly what you do.

Another important point is to give the psycho as little information as possible. This goes for both your work and your private life. If their plan is to steal credit for your work, obviously you can make it harder for them by not providing them with the required information. If you're going to starve them of information it's vitally important that you keep other informed of what work you are doing (both your manager and trusted peers). That way if the psycho complains that you're withholding information others can say that you've kept them fully informed.

If you're put on the spot as to why you haven't provided the same information to the psycho, be direct but not defensive. It isn't their job and they had no need to know.

Don't underestimate the importance of keeping your private live private, either. These office psychopaths can be especially skilled at appearing friendly. They are frequently consummate actors and in fact they often appear to be the most emotional person in the office. But it's all an act. The don't want to hear personal details out of genuine concern for you or anyone else, they want to use this information as a weapon against you. Don't give them that opportunity.

But one of the most important things you can do when dealing with an office psycho is to recognise them for what they are. Most of us are basically decent people and we tend to assume other people are as well. Psychopaths and sociopaths use that to their advantage. What we regard as a conscience, they regard as a weakness to be exploited. If you're like my friend you'll make the mistake of letting them get away with it for ages before doing anything about their behaviour.

These people are not just jerks and most studies suggest more than not being interested in changing, it isn't actually possible to change their behaviour - their brains are different. One way to tell if a troublesome person is actually a psychopath is their propensity for lying. And I'm not talking about "No, that outfit doesn't make you look fat" type of lies.

If someone can blatantly lie to your face and not back down even when you expose their lie, that's a bad sign. If they can do it twice, they're very likely to be a psychopathic personality. If they do it three times - hide the sharp knives.

Here's a little more fun reading for you:

This Fast Company article is one of the best pieces I found while researching this post.

Bob Sutton has a simple suggestion for companies wanting to keep psychos out - implement a "No Asshole" rule. No matter how good someone seems to be, don't hire them if they're an asshole.


fran said...

I found this article extremely informative. I do know a person who became friendly with me and my family, she also worked in the office where my husband worked as her boss . They are very good actors and very believable.

Anonymous said...

Yeah man, I had a really rough day when i got this massive untrue and unfounded personal and work-related attack via email today: I didn't give any quarter tho', coz I hate injustice. The upshot was our P S Y K O in the bosses' office in tears - Now I see that's part of the act. She sent me this lame and conditional apology by email. A real person woulda fronted up, don'tcha agree?