My colleague is a psycho, what should I do?

Posted August 4, 2011 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

One of the most fascinating things about a WordPress blog is the stats it gives you on the search phrases people use to find your blog.  This search then drives which of your posts are the top ones.  I’m sad to say, the phrase that gets most 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 gratuitous attempt to boost blog traffic, I’m going to blog about it.

Several years ago, there was an article in the Globe and Mail that advised you on how you could tell if you were dating a psychopath. My main take-away from that read was that the psychopath went from being completely charming and making you feel like you were the center of his/her universe, to making you feel like less than nothing… but not because they were directly abusive.  True psychopaths have a way of manipulating and belittling you that slowly saps your confidence and esteem.  Psychopaths are not only adept at the art of manipulation, they see nothing wrong with their approach… as long as it’s getting them what they want.

The funny thing was, the article reminded me of a former boss.  I circulated it to two former colleagues who both had the same “OMG… that sounds like X!” reaction.

So, back to my conversation with my colleague (we’ll call him Jim) about their psycho peer who we’ll call Bob.  Bob was brought into the organization by the
company CEO and planted in Jim’s department much to his (and his supervisors) surprise.  Both Jim and Bob are VP’s who report into an EVP who reports to the CEO.

Like any good psychopath, Bob is highly skilled at charming the senior
ranks above his EVP.  In addition to the CEO, the COO, CIO and several members of the Board have been wooed.

Meanwhile, back in the rank and file, everyone around Bob is shaking their heads.  Jim, who is no shrinking violet, admits that on some level he’s actually afraid of Bob.  He believes Bob has the power to manipulate any situation.  Jim believes that confronting Bob about his negative behaviour will only wind up with Jim finding himself fired.  He has approached his boss about his concerns, but the EVP is planning on retiring in six months and isn’t about to die on this hill.  To top it off, odds are… Bob’s going to fill the spot.

So, what would you do?

Would you confront Bob, knowing that there’s a very highly likelihood
that doing so will get you fired?  Or would you go another route?  I’ve had
this conversation with various people in similar situations at least a dozen
times.  I’ve heard all kinds of opinions, but here’s the top 5 suggestions that I’ve amassed:

  1. Use humour… Try to defuse the situation and let the person know that “you’re on to them”.  The challenge as I see it with this approach is that psychopaths don’t care that you’re on to them… they are completely devoid of empathy and have no remorse over any of the consequences of their behaviour.  Plus, I’m not sure humour wouldn’t just backfire on you.
  2. Turn the other cheek…  Steer clear of them and avoid any type of
    potentially negative interactions.  I like this one a bit better because, again, psychopath’s aren’t your garden-variety bully. They will take you down and won’t think anything of it.  Who wants to put themselves in that type of emotional torture?  Better to stay away and keep your head down.  Cowardly? Certainly.
  3. Line up your allies… build relationships with other people at your peer, boss and senior executive levels.  That way, when the psychopath starts throwing you under the bus, you have people in your corner who can offer a different perspective. I like this better because, at least, you’ll leave question marks in others minds and, maybe eventually, the truth about the psycho will surface.
  4. Line up another job… and exit gracefully. Sadly, I don’t think true office psychopaths can be rehabilitated.  Moving on may be your best option. And, before you throw a bomb out in your exit interview, consider taking the high road instead.  Afterall, why get a person like that’s blacklist?  As masters of manipulation, they’ll probably find a way to make you look like the problem and them look like the hero for getting you to resign.
  5. Anonymously send their resume out to other places… I heard that strategy at a recent Art of Leadership event.  Could be worth a try.

Let’s face it. Psychopaths are mentally ill.  You cannot rationalize with a mentally ill person.  They need help and medication.  Sadly, highly functioning mentally ill people are unlikely to get the help they need.  Ordinarily, I’m all about having the fierce conversation and being authentic, but in situations this, sometimes you have to use other strategies.

Afterall, there’s no point in banging your head against a brick wall.  Better to walk around it.  That’s my opinion… what’s yours?

Hopefully, you won’t encounter too many psychopath’s in your work life, but if you think you may be working with one… here’s a list to verify your suspicions against.

Happy leading!

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  1. I guess the main question I have is: how do you tell someone’s a psycho, and not just a jerk? Because with a jerk, I would be direct, then I would use humour. With a psycho, as a fortune cookie once advised me, I’d cross the street…

  2. Tori1164 says:

    I think its best to move on…the stress isn’t worth it, and the damage to yourself and to your own working reputation, should things go wrong. So my advise is look for other work and get out, get out! I once worked for a psycho and if I knew better Id have walked away. How’s it going Julienne Kelly. You still torturing people at work…..

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Agreed. I don’t think you can actually out maneuver a true psycho. I recently read Snakes in Suits and it paints a pretty bleak picture. Move on gets my vote too. And, hopefully Julienne Kelly will stumble on this post and get the help she needs. Dare to dream.