Is Your Boss a Psychopath? And what can you do about it??

Posted July 14, 2009 in Latest News & Insights

I had lunch today with a colleague who has just landed a new job at a great place with really interesting work.  Being the consumate professional that he is, he went to great pains to tell me how exciting the job is, how fortunate he feels to have one in this economy and what great potential their is for him the in role.

And then the comment came out: “The only challenge is that my boss is a bit of a psycho.”

Having had my own experience working for a work place bully, I cringed as I heard the play by play of the behaviours:

1) Condescending tone of voice (you know the kind… when you feel like you’re being talked to as if you were a complete idiot even though your a professional with 20 years experience)

2) Eye rolling and general ‘huffing and puffing’ when being asked for direction (“Stop wasting my important time with your stupid little questions”)

3) Guarding of information to the point of actually restricting details necessary to allow my colleague to perform his job effectively

4) High turnover of staff (several on stress leave) and a generally tense atmosphere with people crying in the washroom.

Which led me to my obvious question: “Why hasn’t she been fired??”  In my experience, you can’t be a “little bit” of a psycho.  If the behaviour is this consistently extreme and disrespectful, you need to ousted.

But, for whatever reason, this manager has managed to ‘work the system’ and manouver through the organization, positioning herself as “indispensable”.  Which got me thinking about what my friend could do to take matters into his own hands and get her out of the picture.  This may sound completely Machiavellian, but sometimes you have to pull out the big guns to get rid of workplace abusers.  There are countless books written about this, but here is my suggestion for a simple four step process to get an abusive boss fired (assuming of course that the boss in question is “fireable” and not the owner of the company!):

Step one:  Begin to build relationships with key influencers at and above your bosses level.  Get to know who’s who at the senior table and try and get as direct line to them as you can (you don’t want your reputation filtered to them through your boss).

Step two:  Be a helpful coach to your colleagues and peers… share strategies on how to “manage” the crazed boss in question.  This positions you in an informal leadership role with your colleagues and aligns their allegiance more to you than your boss.  This strategy can also have the bonus outcome of giving you the potential to have a shot at your bosses role once s/he is fired.

Step three:  Get some visible “wins” under your belt with the above stakeholders (ie: position yourself as a credible professional who gets the job done).

Step four:  Once wins have been established, use your new found status as a “get it done guy or gal” to have a “can I get your advice on this tricky situation?” with the senior executive (see Step One) who has the most influence with the person who can fire your psycho boss.

The key (in my experience) to ousting a horrid manager is to make yourself more indispensable than they are.  By nurturing relationships with key senior level stakeholders, being a solid team player and over delivering on your own projects, you may actually stand the chance of exposing and disposing of the problem boss.  The “can I ask your advice” approach is a low-risk way of getting the message out to senior level supporters that there’s a problem.  In my experience, going to an influencer (vs. the person who can do the firing) is the best strategy since they will know how to position the problem for the best impact.

What other strategies would you recommend for my friend?  It’s time to get rid of bad bosses everywhere!

Happy leading!


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24 Comments

  1. […] current boss is the classic office nutbar that was discussed in our prior blog about working with a psycho boss.  She has lots of good reason’s to leave and would probably be able to land a job very […]

  2. […] Although most of us aren’t being scrutinized to the same degree as your average politician, there does seem to be a hyper amount of criticism thrown at the average boss these days.  On behalf of all managers out there who are trying their best, this post is for all you non-managers who seem to think that slinging extra mud at a leader who is struggling is a helpful strategy (for those of you working for bad leaders, skip to our previous post of what to do if you’re working for a psychopath). […]

  3. Noelle says:

    Maybe you could provide some type of checklist here – such as identifying the key challenges in your relationship with the boss and then comparing/contrasting with others` relationships. This can help you determine ifthe boss is a psyhopath or just difficult. For example, if others have had difficulty with the boss while key variables have changed (for example you may have a difference of opinion that has escalated to conflict, while others` difficulties were catalysed by some other cause – tardiness for example) then the boss may be making “excuses“ to create conflict with his/her subordinates. In the latter case ther person may be a psychopath or serial bully. If past conflicts have surrounded a certain key variables – the boss has a philosophy in the filed and does not tolerate alternative views – then there may be a chance of adapting, at least in the short term. If it appears that the conflict is random then get out for the sake of your mental health – isn`t it usually the organization that is at fault in this case? The boss` boss may support this behavior.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hi Noelle… thanks for the comments. It’s an interesting provocation to think could you create a “checklist” of “psycho” behaviours. (My husband, who is a mental health worker hates that I titled this post the way I did, but I was using my friend’s own language). I think there is definitely a difference between someone who is so out of control that they’re “dangerous” to your mental health and someone who’s a garden variety bully. One of the things that I think separates a “bully” from someone who is truly “psycho” is the latter is completely devoid of empathy. They seem to have absolutely no insight into how their behaviour is affecting others. Bullies, on the other hand, seem to get some kind of power tripping joy out of causing pain. When you are working with someone who appears excessively self-centred, has an incredible ability to manage appearances with others, and can make you feel 10 feet tall one minute and lower than dirt the next… I think you’re dealing with something more than a “bully”. My own experience with a psycho boss can be summed up this way: when sobbing in their office about the death of a longtime mentor, my boss went through all the “motions” of being concerned and then after the obligatory 5 minutes of “showing empathy” was up, didn’t miss a beat and asked me if I thought my junior co-worker should be invited to their exclusive holiday party. The question was so irrelevant and non-sensical that I was floored. When I replayed it to my husband, he pointed out that people who lack empathy know what they are “supposed” to do, so can go through the motions of showing sadness/empathy, but really don’t care. I think Nicole Kidman does a great job of demo’ing the behaviours of a psychopath in the film To Die For. Look for her practicing how to show emotions in the mirror scene.

  4. Mel says:

    Step 5: Quit. I’ve worked for a sociopath and a psychopath – neither was a pleasure. I stood my ground with both, but both were so high in the organization that frankly, I couldn’t go above them and I knew nothing would change. So, I made myself indispensable while quietly looking for something better. When I found it (there’s ALWAYS something better than working for a nutcase) I quit. A great way to stick it to the man :).

    • LeaderTalker says:

      100% agree with you Mel. Life is far to short to live in misery. If the psycho in question out ranks you and is either a sacred cow or (often the case) an owner, all you can do is run with your sanity and reputation intact. I’d also add (for the benefit of readers who may be thinking of giving their boss the boot), although extremely tempting, best to do the quitting without too much bridge burning. Although you might gain some short term satisfaction by launching some final last words missiles at your nutty boss, it’s best to exit gracefully. Unless you’re moving to work selling pottery out of a hut in Indonesia, industries tend to be pretty small and one thing psycho’s are really good at it managing external impressions. No need to try and get in some parting shots before you go… they may only come back to haunt you.

  5. […] Is Your Boss a Psychopath? And what can you do about it?? July 2009 6 comments 3 […]

  6. Mark says:

    There are plenty of psycho bosses in SMT positions in UK schools.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hey Mark… sorry to hear that. I could really get on a soap box about lousy teachers but will save that for future rants. Not sure what it’s like in the UK, but here in Canada the lousy ones even have a strong union to protect them. Ridiculous when you think of the lifelong impact a horrendous teacher can have. Shameful really. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. DINESH R MAKWANA says:

    If you add the article below from Dr Burch from Auckland, you will see how much value and merit there is your article. You are essentially right about workplace bullying where extreme individuals with a high repeat rate at some one in ten are really “psychopaths”. Well done for bringing this article to my attention too. In the world of law and recruitment and self care, these articles are invaluable.

    Dr Burch said his research shows psychopaths created “toxic workplaces” with bullying, manipulation, sexual harassment, lying and fiddling the books.

    “We all come across people at work from time to time who are difficult, devious and troublesome,” Dr Burch said.

    Dr Burch said most people with personalities generally fitting under the ‘psychopathic umbrella’ do not commit obvious crime and are not imprisoned or hospitalised, but function within normal society – often with apparent success and the respect of their bosses.

    However, workplace psychopaths are generally highly destructive and manipulative individuals with “dark sides” who have no remorse for their actions, which can result in a range of serious issues for organisations and the people within them, Dr Burch says.

    And they’re making you ill, he said.

    Victims suffered insomnia, depression, were more prone to heart attacks could even be traumatised to the point of suicide.

    “Unrelenting stress from a toxic workplace causes anxiety and clinical depression in 30 percent of female and 20 percent of male targets, according to international research. The risk of cardiovascular disease is 30 percent more likely when workers believe their workplace is unjust….”

    Best Regards,

    DINESH R MAKWANA (INORBITS AND DREAMWORDS)

  8. […] people to our blog is the phrase “my boss is a psycho” or some such variation.  It’s led to this post being the most read.  Earlier this week, I was in a conversation with a colleague who has a psycho peer, and, in a […]

  9. Dale says:

    My boss, and he’s also the owner of the small business, scores a firm 14. We’ve had a huge turnover, he repeatedly lies or tells half-truths, radicals the staff behind one another’s back, scoffs, looks for trouble and finds it and to the outside world, he is a charming smooth confident guy. Little do they know what leers behind that mask. Here’s the problem, I love the work but the “drama” caused by the owner/boss is a bit much at times. At least it’s only two days a week. I’ve nicely confronted him on many occasions only to have him nod his head in mock understanding, or denial, or tell me to “just let it go.” I’ve been documenting everything for a few years, just in case.

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Sorry to hear about your boss. Entrepreneurs are probably some of the worst people to have to work for when they’re bad, because you have so little leverage. It’s not like you can go and complain to HR and they can do anything about it! I suppose, if you’re learning a ton and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s possible to work for a complete nut… for a while anyway. But, in my own experience, once you start losing your confidence and questioning your own sanity, then it’s definitely time to move on. Sounds like you’re doing what it takes to take care of yourself and that’s the most important thing. Good luck and thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. 🙂

  10. Dale says:

    Glain,
    Thank you for the reply.
    I’m actually feeling empowered now that I know the name and color of the beast. It gives me a very helpful perspective to work from now. I do not believe I will ever let this man get to me to the point of losing my confidence or questioning my own sanity, I’m way better than that. You are right on the money about learning a ton of very useful things, from the nature of the business to how not to run a business.

    I do have two follow up questions: How does one negotiate with this kind of person? I’m guessing there must be a way to, one way or another. Asking for a raise for instance.

    How does one go about making changes that will positively effect the business with this type of person? Anything from keeping moral up, keeping staff, to something as updated as having an reasonable online presence (which we don’t)?

    Thank you again,
    Dale

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hi Dale… those are really good (and hard) questions, but I’ll give them a shot. In terms of negotiating with a person like that, I think it’s tricky. I think it’s best to think about the situation from their perspective. Specifically how will this action make their life easier / reduce their aggravation / make them look good… whatever their hot button is. Depending on what end of the psycho spectrum your bad boss is, that’s either easy to do our quite difficult. My psycho boss was easy to get money out of because (as long as you were REALLY good at what you were doing), they would rather pay you off than try and replace you. That being said, it was pretty “subject to change” and you had to strike while you were in the good books. I find many bad bosses are bad because they have very low EQ (emotional intelligence) and they actually believe people are dispensable… with people like that it’s hard to negotiate with them and the one thing I know for sure is that it’s impossible to get someone else to change their behaviour. You can only change/ control your own responses to that behaviour. Not sure if that’s helpful or not. But, keep learning those lessons on how not to run a business… that’s what definitely gave me the confidence to take the leap and start my own shop. 🙂

      In terms of keeping morale up, that’s where there’s a lot you can do. One of my favourite books of all time is Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s “First Break All the Rules”. They researched what made some managers great and, in addition to “normal” workplaces, they looked at people who were leading successful teams in highly dysfunctional workplaces. They found that even in lousy work environments, a manager could do a ton to keep their team motivated and productive. I’m not sure if you’re a team lead or not, but the principles in the book are things that anyone can apply. I highly recommend it. From my own experience, I’m a big believer in getting people focused on the small positives and wins. I used to get my team to start every meeting talking about successes we’d had… it was a great way to boost confidence and put a positive energy into the room. Plus, as a leader, I find helping people stay above the negativity can have a big impact. I try to encourage people to not contribute to the venting and bitching that can happen about your boss. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m sure guilty of doing lots of boss bashing in past lives, but, I’ve definitely learned that it only fuels the negative energy… which never helps the situation.

      And yes… I think there’s something very empowering when you start to realize that you’re not the crazy person in the situation. It allows you to let go and take a different perspective. So, congrats on getting a new view and I hope my rambling thoughts are of some help to you. All the best, Glain

  11. Dale says:

    Thank you again Glain,

    As for the negotiation topic, I believe my bad boss has a low EQ and doesn’t understand when someone quits. He says, if you can believe him, that people should feel luck to have a job. But we get mix messages and a few times when one of the core staff has threatened to walk, the boss has gone out of his way to make peace. I was hired because the core staff give their notice after reading a very critical email written to a new hire, about the core staff.

    Morale. No one is in a leadership position. But, I’m taking steps to be a leader and I have already set into motion the core staff getting together at a restaurant to chat and discuss these new revelations, and to take the first move towards a “game plan.” We have a very dysfunctional work environment, mostly because the boss isn’t willing to intervene. I know now it’s because the boss wants there to be distress.
    I’ll look into the suggested reading. Thank you for the recommendation. I shared the “quiz” with a few of the core staff and they are scoring the boss at 13’s and 14’s.

    Here are my talking points:
    We need to cut off the boss from any communications having to do with problems and the staff. If we have an issue with another staff member, we find a way to take it up with them in a reasonable manner. If we can’t find a way to do that, than it’s not important enough and just let it go. Do Not Get The Boss Involved. It will only give the boss fuel to twist stories, lie and to pit the staff against one another.

    We need to stop taking bad about the boss. It’s not helpful, and it’s negative and will do no good. The boss will not change, period.

    The boss can’t inflect physical pain and suffering but they can inflect emotional and psychological pain and suffering, if we let the boss. We have to learn to not feed into this cycle. The boss will not change, but we can change the way we deal with the boss. We need to support one another, not let the boss lie, twist and manipulate us individually.

    The boss can not be trusted to tell the truth or to keep confidences, period.

    Don’t buy into the blame game the boss plays. Keep in mind it’s the way the boss thinks and has little to do with reality or fact. The boss is incapable of accepting responsibility for their shortcomings, wrong actions and poor decisions. It will always be someone else’s fault.

    Discuss what makes a work place dysfunctional and with the lack of good positive leadership, how the core staff can lessen the dysfunction. I have notes on these issues from another source.

    Any suggestions or changes to these? Any other talking points you might recommend?

    Thank you again,
    Dale

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Hi Dale… I think your talking points and strategy seem reasonable. You’re focusing on the things you can control and not beating your head against a brick wall. I think if the core team can create a united front for each other, as you’re proposing, then at the very least you’ll all be able to support each other and hopefully make the workplace a little more tolerable. And, if that doesn’t work, polish up your resume and move on. Psychological and emotional bullying just isn’t worth the pain no matter what the pay. Best, Glain
      Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network

  12. Dale says:

    Glain,

    Here is an update on what’s been going on:
    The core staff had a meeting at a local restaurant for food and to talk about the work environment and especially about how we as the core staff would deal with our sociopathic boss/owner. After a long and productive discussion we decided as a group to do the following:

    We will not be engaging the boss with idle conversation in order to minimize his opportunities to lie and manipulate. If the boss approached us and starts in on criticism of another staff member we will say something to the effect of, “I do not want to be involved in a negative discussion about another staff member.” And we will walk away.

    We will not inform the boss of any problems with other staff members and will not inform him of problems within the store unless absolutely necessary. We will either deal with these situations among the core group or just let them go.

    We will not repeat minor negative things the boss tries to tell us about another staff member so that moral is kept up. There is no point in repeating the lies and manipulations of the boss. If anything major comes up we will let the other core staff members know about what the boss is up to. We are going to meet again in a month or two in order to keep up with what’s going on and to modify our strategy.

    When we were living the youngest of the core staff said, “Why did it take us this long to get together and do this?” We didn’t really have an answer.

  13. Dear Dale (and the helpful Glain),

    One of most important aspects of a good employees armoury in dealing with a psychopathic and a difficult boss is the ability to “quit”. Really, think of your talents with a much better boss; it makes sense and as per the Nike adverts, “Just Do It”!

    Best Wishes,

    DINESH R MAKWANA (DREAMWORDS AND INORBITS)

  14. Dear Dale (and the helpful Glain),

    One of the most important aspects of a good employees’ armoury in dealing with a psychopathic and a difficult boss is the ability to “quit”. Sometimes, you can get into a syndrome of thought where you believe the Psychopath will be removed; and your rights of an employee will triumph. Invariably the Psychopath just does not go and you are losing time and money and value. “Quit” is a positive if used correctly.

    Really, think of your talents with a much better boss; it makes sense and as per the Nike adverts, “Just Do It”!

    Best Wishes,

    DINESH R MAKWANA (DREAMWORDS AND INORBITS)

  15. Dale says:

    DINESH,

    You are beginning to sound, as we say, like a broken record. You are also beginning to sound like someone who has no problem with quitting a job because things are too tough for you and there is nothing wrong with having 3 to 5 jobs a year. Someone will always treat you better. You make it sound like we all have a basement at our parents house to live in, or a partner who can support us between jobs.

    In this economy jobs are not that easy to find. It has been my experience that we have no guarantees that the next job, the next boss, will be better than the one we just left. In fact, it’s been my experience that people are more likely to take their problems with them to the next job, and the next after that.
    Learning to cope, learning to deal with a bad boss is a skill that is not considered by many of the younger people in the work force these days. Just cut and run seems to be the mind set.

    In my case, I know the bad boss is not going to leave. I know that now that the core staff is communicating and has a decent plan for dealing with the bad boss we can and will cope. Here are two examples from just last week:
    Boss is openly upset at a staff member who’s not there, because we were out of something. One of the other core staff members stood up to the bad boss and stated facts, that there had been a conversation and agreement that the bad boss was responsible for ordering this item. Bad boss didn’t like hearing the truth and walked away. A few days later I was there when the bad boss was grumbling to the staff member about not having an item in stock. They repeated the agreement they’d had, then back stepped and commented that maybe they’d remembered wrongly. When the bad boss was out of the office, I told the staff member that they should not second guess themselves in situations like this. That is was typical of this type of bad boss to do just this type of thing and that next time to stand their ground and insist that they remember correctly what was said. I was supporting her.

    Second situation: Bad boss is bad mouthing an core staff member over a delivery. Long story short, we called the staff member in question and got their side of the story. I also worked the next day with them and got it directly. The bad boss has twisted the facts around to the point of being an outright lie.
    But the core staff knows better now.

    See, we all like what we do, like the customers we deal with. The pay and benefits are fair but could always be better. We are learning skills to adapt to the only thing that is a problem, the bad boss.

    Quit is an option, yes. But quit is not always the better option.

  16. Dear Dale,

    I am not the 3 or 5 jobs a year jobber but at the very least a Managing Partner with considerable experience of handling difficult and useless management teams and even very prejudicial ones; and with credible career histories throughout too.

    You are right about being responsible but the whole topic here is about the “Psychopath”!!!!!…..believe me…”Quit” is a very useful item in your mindset and that’s all I am talking about. If you are dealing with extremes don’t loose sight of extreme solutions like “Quit”.

    Best Wishes,

    DINESH R MAKWANA (DREAMWORDS AND INORBITS)

  17. Private Ryan says:

    Not possible when the boss is very competent socially and has mastered the technique of manipulation. All the time I invest in being a high value professional he can invest in pure power play and manipulation. The game is just tilted in favor of the jerk. And the psychopath can be still valued highly (because of past successes, knowledge of facts/people, etc). The only solution over the long term is to go away before going completely insane.

    • admin says:

      Completely agree. It’s a sad fact that most organizations are geared towards rewarding and promoting people with psychopathic tendencies. Having worked for a sociopath/narcissist combination myself, there are some situations that are simply no-win and you need to move on. The above suggestion only works if you’re working for a run of the mill jerk not a true psychopath. Thanks for your comment and hopefully you’re not living that boss situation right now.