How to Tell if Your Boss Is a Psychopath

Excerpt from “The Leader’s Mindset: How to Win in the Age of Disruption” by Terence Mauri (Morgan James Publishing, October 2016).

I have a confession. I once had a psychopathic boss. His nickname in the office was “silent assassin.” He wasn’t the CEO but did hold a senior position as Head of Department for a big consultancy I worked at. I was in a windowless temporary office set up on his floor where I was asked to help get rid of 10 percent of employees owing to difficult trading conditions. The language used to describe this sorry state of affairs was obviously much more slick. “Downsizing” was the term used, if I recall correctly.

My boss would make a show of coming in and out of my office and just stay for five minutes practicing his imaginary golf swing without saying a thing. Other times, I’d bump into him in the lift and he would just stand there with an unsettling death stare. No hello, no greeting, nothing. I started to ignore him. The rest of the team would nervously watch him worried about who was going to be next. Once, he circled my desk menacingly and tapped his fingers along my shoulders like a keyboard, whispering in my ear, “Mauri, I bet you’re ready to bail, aren’t you?” and then he’d snatch my phone and go, “Ah, there’s a recruiter calling you back right now.” A psychopath boss if ever there was one.

According to a study released by a team of Australian psychologists, as many as one in five bosses display psychopathic traits. That’s not a typo. One in five is a worryingly high ratio not dissimilar to the prison population, but it does explain why a whopping one in three people will be bullied at some point in their career, and according to the human capital business, Gallup, only 21 percent of employees are fully engaged in their work and more than 70 percent are actively looking for a new job. People join companies but most often leave because of bad bosses.

Now, before we start labeling every boss as a psycho, let’s be clear about what it means to be a psychopath. Popular culture has stereotyped a psychopath in cult films such as American Psycho, Devil Wears Prada, and Fatal Attraction. However, let’s first debunk a few myths about this antisocial personality disorder.

The simple truth is, there are many executives who thrive in organizations despite having psychopathic traits. This could have to do with the fact that capitalism rewards bold risk taking often at the expense of empathy. And not all psychopathic traits are bad all of the time. For example, the fearless dominance trait often is found in entrepreneurs who probably wouldn’t have the audacity to think they could build the next multi-billion-dollar company without it.

So how do you spot a psychopathic boss? From the Australian Study, here’s what to look out for:

  • Egocentric: Flamboyant, attention-seeking, manipulative, and sometimes downright cunning
  • Lack of Empathy: Cold, ruthless, and calculating
  • Amoral: Insincere, back covering, superficial, and ultra-competitive

A cursory glance at the above list could easily be a list of leadership traits displayed by CEOs of some of the most famous companies on the planet. Enron, Arthur Andersen, and the Bernie Madoff Hedge Fund Scandal come to mind.

Future Proof

So what can you do to prepare for dealing with a psychopathic boss now or in future? If the Australian research is anything to go by, we can assume it’s a question of when and not if. In reality, a psychopathic boss is more likely to prey on submissive “yes” people than professional and respected ones. Try these three strategies that act as a deterrent and future proof yourself against the unwanted attention of a psychopathic boss.

  1. Become a lynchpin. Make yourself indispensable. This means expertise. Become the go-to person in your team for information and demonstrate to others your skill and competence. It will send a clear signal to any aggressors that you are a person of influence and they should back off.
  2. Build your posse. A posse means your team, your family, and your mentors. A strong network provides protection against personal attacks and gives you access to information and high-profile decision-makers. A psychopathic boss is more likely to want to keep you on his or her side than risk sabotaging his or her reputation.
  3. Practice 20 seconds of daily courage. We spend a third of our lives in the office, so it’s important to have a voice and be heard. A psychopathic boss thrives in an environment where a culture of fear is the norm. The Equality Act was introduced to protect employees from bullies, but it’s up to individuals to have the courage to speak up when another person is being disrespectful, or worse, bullying. Attend assertiveness training and understand that ultimately you choose how you wish to be treated. Never give permission to others to treat with you less respect than you deserve. It’s a mindset and a skill we should be educated about at school because by the time we start work life, we’re already programmed to accommodate bullies and avoid those tricky but life-changing talks.

The psychopath boss does not have a place in today’s world. Be the boss you always wished for and show your best self every day.

Excerpt from “The Leader’s Mindset: How to Win in the Age of Disruptionby Terence Mauri (Morgan James Publishing, October 2016).

Terence Mauri is a global expert helping leaders innovate, adapt, and succeed in the age of disruption in which massive yet hard-to-predict upheavals are expected. He is a keynote speaker, Inc. Magazine columnist, and author of best-selling bookThe Leader’s Mindset: How To Win In The Age of Disruption.”


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