There are patterns to be wary of in a workplace, you need to learn to notice the signs to avoid a world of pain.
Most people have a horror story from their work history. An aggressive boss, a domineering co-worker, a manager who always sexually harasses the secretary. Not everyone who is a toxic coworker is a narcissistic psychopath, but every narcissistic psychopath is a toxic coworker. It’s important to notice who is really a danger to your job satisfaction and who is simply highly amibitous and has a big ego.
Psychopathy in the workplace
Psychopaths are antisocial, ruthless, and lack remorse. However they often have superficial charm, and use this to schmooze the staff above their level, all while being abusive to the staff below them. The psychologist and psychopathy expert Robert Hare, in his book Snakes In Suits: When Psychopathy Go To Work believes that 3% of senior management in business are psychopaths (compared to 1% in the general population). It’s hard to argue for this or against this point, you would need to subject senior management to a lengthy process including numerous psychological assessments to get a diagnosis.
It is hard for someone to manipulate their way all the way up the corporate ladder without the requisite skills of a high performance employee. If you take a high performing employee and make them more ruthless it will make them more likely to do whatever it takes to move up the corporate ladder.
Narcissism in the workplace
This is where I would highly urge you to read my article on narcissism if you have not done so yet. Do not confuse narcissism with someone who has a big ego. Someone can have a big ego and not be a narcissist – they are not the same thing.
A big ego (sufficient self-esteem) can be helpful and can make an employee more drive towards success. Narcissists have a view of themselves that is not based on reality. They have a grandiose image of themselves and a compulsive drive to acquire narcissistic supply. Their human relations are purely to acquire attention and adulation from colleagues, managers, and subordinates.
Their drive to be “successful” is purely based on acquiring narcissistic supply though other people (attention and status) and status symbols. They are never team players and they are always purely seeking their own success. They have grandiose fantasies and their real life achievements will never be sufficient to match them.
Narcissists compulsively seek workplace achievements for themselves. No matter how successful they are, narcissists will never have a place in a healthy corporation. They will poison any corporation they enter.
Psychopathic Narcissism is when a person is both a narcissist and a psychopath. They posses the worst characteristics of both conditions and are the most dangerous people that can ever exist in a corporation.
They combine the ruthlessness and anti-social personality of the psychopath with the grandiose self-image of the narcissist. These people will make your life a living hell, but in the workplace you take a job and can only hope that you work with good people. When you join a company all you can do is manage your relationships with your coworkers.
Or maybe there is another option?
The Warning Signs
The best defense against working with psychopathic, narcissistic bosses is proper research.
Primarily you should do research into the company, look at reviews of the company that former employees have given the company. Glassdoor is always a website I recommend for employee reviews. Read a lot of them, the 5 star reviews may be faked or employees may be “encouraged” to write them. The 1 star reviews are either exaggerated by people who have a bone to pick with the company, or are true horror stories. But the most valuable reviews are always the 2-4 star reviews, these are usually the most honest reviews – statistically, most workplaces will be 2-4 star quality workplaces.
You should also build a strong network of people in your industry. This can be done through informal coffee chats, or big industry events and groups. This peer network you have built are the people you will email when you have questions about potential companies and bosses you would work for.
Last, but certainly not least is the smell test. Before or during the formal interviewing for a position, invite your potential boss for a coffee chat. Learn more about the position and the company, and your bosses career path. Ask some simple questions and don’t be an idiot. You aren’t trying to portray yourself as the smartest person in the world. You are trying to follow your intuition and understand the communication and leadership style of your boss and whether you would work well with them.
My (Almost) Psychopathic Narcissistic Boss
A couple of years ago I applied for a position and reached out to the hiring manager asking to grab a coffee. I wanted to learn more about the position, naturally. The manager told me to meet him at the office, and then we could grab a coffee at a nearby Starbucks.
When I arrived the receptionist told me to wait in the reception area because the manager was busy with a phone call. I made some small talk with her, and when an analyst walked by who was parted of the group I was interested in she stopped him and introduced me. I started talking to him and he told me an associate had quit recently so he had worked the last 2 weeks without a day off. This was the first hint of a toxic corporate culture.
The manager finished his phone call and we went down to Starbucks for a coffee. We made small talk in the elevator and walk to Starbucks. He bought me a coffee and we sat down. We talk about general goings on in the industry and then he asks for my resume. I told him I didn’t have a copy on hand, but I attached it to the email I sent him.
He told me to always bring a resume to the coffee chats I go on (fair comment). He then asks if he can give me some honest advice, I said of course. He tells me I should have came wearing a full suit and tie, and that I was sitting too relaxed, I should be sitting fully upright and be leaning towards the table between us.
Good Advice or a Disguised Warning?
Was this good, helpful advice he was giving me? Or was he looking for an outlet to vent his frustration about being swamped with work. I don’t think it’s normal to tell someone else how to dress or how to sit when you’re having a coffee with them.
These were signals to me that he was not going to be a good boss to work for. They were not major issues, but I like to use them as an example because I trusted my intuition. I sent a contact who was a mutual LinkedIn connection with him a messaging asking about the group. This contact tells me the group has a reputation for having a terrible work-life balance and being a complete grind.
Disaster avoided. The only way to avoid a world of pain is to know the signs of a toxic boss, and do proper background research.
Managing Toxic Bosses
If you find yourself in a workplace with a toxic boss, start looking for a new job immediately. Do not willingly subject yourself to more abuse. That being said, while you’re looking for a new job here are some tips for managing a toxic boss.
- Don’t talk about your personal life around them. They see you as a source of narcissistic supply and not as an autonomous individual.
- Don’t appear too independent. Employees who act too independently are viewed as threats and are more likely to be harassed by narcissistic bosses.
- Don’t try to be friends with them – friendship is only possible among equals.
- Learn their routines. If they are grumpy in the morning avoid them, if they are more helpful in the afternoon ask them questions then.
Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Robert Hare
Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin