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Toxic Shock: Recognising Destructive Personalities in the Workplace

– By Chris Welford

Toxic personalities are capable of sowing the seeds of conflict wherever they go. And in the workplace, there are two that stand out above all others: the corporate psychopath and the narcissist. This article tells you how to spot these types and what to do when you do.

The Psychopath

The corporate psychopath is really dangerous. This is someone who feels no guilt at their actions; no matter how much they have lied and cheated. They are acutely tuned into the emotions of others, but they are not in the least moved by them. Their colleagues are just pawns in their game and are
completely expendable. Often very charming and socially skilled, corporate psychopaths make highly toxic leaders and can completely disrupt a productive working environment.
And before you think of this as a rare phenomenon, you should be aware that one percent of the UK population exhibits psychopathic tendencies – that’s more than 600,000 people! Worse still, studies also suggest that around one in 10 managers exhibits such behaviour.   Sooner or later, you will employ, work with or work for one.
So are any of these behaviours familiar?

  • Publicly humiliating people, having temper tantrums and ridiculing others
  • Making promises that cannot possibly be kept and then shifting the responsibility for delivery onto someone else
  • Malicious spreading of lies
  • Excessive pushing of their personal agenda
  • Emotions that seem to change like traffic lights
  • Intentionally isolating people or resources
  • Rapid blaming of other people even though s/he is the guilty party
  • Encouraging peers or subordinates to harass or humiliate each other
  • Taking credit where none is due
  • Stealing ideas or property
  • Threats – veiled or otherwise
  • Management exclusively by bilateral arrangements – little group decision making
  • Invasion of the privacy of others
  • Inappropriate and unwanted sexual behaviour
  • Will do “whatever it takes” to win business attitude

ap-003Of course, not everything a corporate psychopath does is bad. In his excellent and entertaining book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Kevin Dutton points out that “Psychopaths are assertive. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate. Psychopaths tend to focus on the positive. Psychopaths don’t take things personally; they don’t beat themselves up if things go wrong, even if they’re to blame. And they’re pretty cool under pressure. Those kinds of characteristics aren’t just important in the business arena, but also in everyday life.”

Small wonder, then, that they continue to thrive.

What to do

If you suspect that there is someone working in your business has psychopathic tendencies, you need to recognise that these people are absolute masters at charm and manipulation and the way they come across can be utterly compelling.

So see this for what it probably is – just an act. Assume that everything they are telling you is a lie. Also, check out what they are saying to other people. Claude Steiner put this beautifully when he stated that “alienation = oppression + mystification”.

A psychopathic boss or colleague is highly manipulative and they aren’t in the least bit concerned about who they lie to and what they lie about as long as they don’t get caught and they get their needs met. They rely on isolating you from others and confusing you.   The best thing that you can do with a psychopath is put as much distance between you and them as possible. If this isn’t an option; maintain your sanity by getting support, blowing the whistle if you can and by keeping an accurate record of what’s actually happening. You might also want to pick up a copy of Snakes in Suits or my own Staying Sane in Business to find out more about corporate psychopaths.


The Narcissist

Not quite as damaging, but still highly toxic, is the narcissistic boss or colleague. Working for or in close proximity to a narcissist is like having a vampire bat on your neck, sucking you dry. What the narcissist needs more than anything else is a ready supply of adoration, adulation, admiration and approval.

Here are some signs:

  • Huge displays of self-importance – exaggeration of achievements and talents
  • Talk peppered with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance
  • The attitude that he or she is somehow special and that normal rules do not apply to them
  • Attention seeking and grandstanding
  • The continual narrative of entitlement – particularly to the visible trappings of success
  • Interpersonal exploitation; manipulation and emotional blackmail
  • Little empathy: is unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings or needs of others
  • Clear envy of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • Demonstrations of arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes

Narcissists seem to be trapped in perpetual early childhood, terrified that unless they are “special” and not ordinary like the rest of us, they will be abandoned and abandonment will lead to death. Some therapists believe that there is a connection here with over -protective, intrusive and smothering parenting styles.

The answer to the narcissist’s fear is to create a false persona, a special, gifted or wonderful being a special child that runs less risk of ceasing to exist. Underneath the false self exists a very frightened small person.


What to do

If you are working for or with a narcissist, the same solution applies as to the psychopath. The best thing you can do is remove yourself from the situation or indeed remove that person from the business. If you can’t or cannot do so immediately, here are some suggestions:

  • Define very clearly what you want (if anything) from a relationship with them. Remember, you are just a mirror in which they can admire themselves, a source of narcissistic supply, which allows them to maintain their false self.
  • Keep a clear sense of who you are and build your self-worth outside of the relationship that you have with them.
  • Try very hard not to prick their bubble. The narcissist’s greatest fear is the sudden collapse of their false self and having to confront the true self beneath. This fear can provoke an extreme reaction to anyone who threatens him or her.
  • Dig deep for compassion. Recognise the misery of their condition and do not leap to the conclusion that their apparent self-love is genuine. Narcissism has not been called malignant self-love without reason. It’s highly likely that what caused them to be the way they are is the pattern of care that they had as a small child.
  • On a day to day basis, listen to them, find a way of agreeing with them, don’t expect to please them and persuade them what you need is what they need.


welfordChris Welford is the founder of Sixth Sense Consulting and an experienced management consultant and coach. He is a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the European Coaching and Mentoring Council (EMCC) . He is also co-author, with Jackie Sykes, of the new book ‘Staying Sane in Business’.


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