I am definitely not a psychologist, although my wife has suggested I get a degree in psychology. The views behind today's post on working with sociopaths in business results from dealing with a variety of bad personality types and managing relationships with them in my career. A few of these individuals could only be described as corporate sociopaths. If you happen to be working for one directly, they definitely make horrible bosses.

What are the characteristics of a business sociopath?

Here's an official description of what a sociopath is. From an organizational perspective, the behaviors below suggest how to spot a sociopath in business. To gauge if you're working with one, ask yourself if the person in question:

  • Superficially compliments an individual then quickly attacks and/or criticizes them in much greater depth?
  • Displays a sense of superiority and talking down to others?
  • Addresses and subsequently changes topics in an apparently random fashion?
  • Displays a micro-focus on topics of intense interest to them which don't relate to significant (or even real) organizational issues?
  • Repeatedly undermines progress by creating havoc and disruption within the organization?
  • Appears to live in a "fictional world" where their intentions, behaviors, and actions appear to have little relationship to reality?
  • Accuses others of the very detrimental behaviors they display?
  • Is tremendously contradictory in their behavior without any apparent rhyme or reason for their actions?
  • Spreads falsehoods for no obvious reason, including lies which don't seem to even directly benefit them?
  • Alternates between showing another person intense focus and then completely ignoring them?

Sound maddening? It is when you are dealing with a sociopath in business.

If you see an individual demonstrating a majority of these sociopath traits coupled with a general sense they're hard to do business with, you are likely dealing with a corporate sociopath (at least by my definition).

What are steps to dealing with a sociopath in business?

One key I've found to accomplishing things while working with horrible bosses and other sociopaths in business is to skillfully work around them. If a sociopath thwarts progress, it's vital to maneuver them away from important initiatives that will move the organization forward. Let sociopaths in business wreak havoc on efforts which won't make huge differences one way or another.

The following suggestions are premised on you not being able to take formal steps for dealing with a sociopath in your organization. If you can't act formally, from personal experience (including reporting to at least one corporate sociopath), these 7 steps will help you be more successful in working with sociopaths in business and horrible bosses despite their negative behaviors.

1. Determine the individual's underlying motivation as best you can.

If you can determine this accurately, it becomes your backdrop for anticipating a sociopath's potential actions. For example, after a co-worker suggested the ego of a senior leader in our business was his Achilles' heel, the proper strategy was clear: "blow smoke" to steer his attention whenever he was around. Hint: The motivation is typically going to link to personal attention or affirmation.

2. Don't believe anything you can't independently corroborate.

Operate with the understanding you can't believe anything a corporate sociopath says. Because of this, continually gather information you'll need to assess what's going on. Be seen as a confidant within the organization. Ask open-ended questions, listen, and observe what's actually happening.

3. Minimize one-off conversations and avoid decisions during them.

If you’re working with a corporate sociopath, to the extent you can, use one-on-one conversations to ask questions and engage in harmless small talk which may help you better understand the individual. Avoid using one-on-one conversations as decision making opportunities because you want witnesses for the decisions a corporate sociopath makes. Push decision making to meetings where others are present who can corroborate decisions and direction setting when they're inevitably changed later.

4. Continually hone your flexibility and scenario planning skills.

When corporate sociopaths try in some unanticipated way to disrupt efforts where you're making progress, you want to be able to adapt and keep going as readily as possible. It's critical to do the strategic thinking that allows you to stay several steps ahead at all times.

5. Make smart trade-offs to keep the corporate sociopath placated and occupied.

If your boss is the offender, you can't play the "avoid" and "small talk" cards all the time. Decipher what's important and what isn't to the organization - not to the corporate sociopath. What that insight, placate sociopaths on all minor things you can to ideally buy a little room for quiet defiance on things that really do count. If you're in a position to do it, pair a lower impact team member with the sociopath to provide attention and crank through the busywork sociopaths create. In exchange, offer strong support and counsel to the person assigned to this role.

6. Carefully identify others who understand there's a problem person in your midst.

Be on the lookout for others who hint at frustration or exasperation with a corporate sociopath. Probe, without saying or revealing anything self-incriminating, and see where their loyalties are and what perspectives they'll express. It may be someone you can work with more closely to get things accomplished. Again, be careful it's someone you can ABSOLUTELY trust.

7. Protect yourself at all times.

Keep yourself above reproach. This makes it more difficult for corporate sociopaths (especially horrible bosses) to try to throw you under the bus. Protect yourself by:

  • Putting your ego to the side. Your objective should be making good progress for the organization. Concentrate on a personal sense of accomplishment because corporate sociopaths aren't going to make you feel GOOD about YOUR efforts.
  • Consciously trying to get out of the working situation you're in, if at all possible. This isn't destined to be rewarding work. Try to minimize how much time you have to deal with this person and ignore them as much as possible.
  • Never depending on a corporate sociopath to do real work. Cover your bases by minimizing any dependencies on them completing tasks. If they do own a task, figure out how to make sure someone else is backing them up.
  • Always thinking, but never saying everything you think, even to those you really trust.

Are you dealing with a sociopath in business?

If you have had to or are currently dealing with horrible bosses or other sociopaths in your organization, what have you experienced in dealing with a sociopath and still trying to do good work?Mike Brown


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