Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Capacity for Maximum Physical Performance In Humans – Do We Ever Really Go ‘All Out’

I read an article in the newspaper this week about a group of pedestrians who lifted a car off a lady that was trapped under it after the car crashed into her as they were walking by the scene of the accident. A few weeks ago I watched young world class cyclists in the Tour De France push themselves up miles of uphill road in some of the highest mountains in France, and who looked completely exhausted at the end of each stage. I have had some fun Twitter repartee recently with Samuele Marcora, Jeroen Swart, Andy Renfree, Ross Tucker and others – old science collaborators, friends and academic ‘sparring partners’ – regarding whether folk ever use their maximal physical capacity, and if not, whether their performances are regulated by processes in the body or brain, and if in the brain, whether algorithmic neural processes are involved, or rather more intangible mental motivation related processes are behind our maximal physical performances during races or athletic events. I spent a fair amount of time, particularly when working at the University of Cape Town a decade and more ago, examining these concepts, and developed a theory for them, along with colleagues Tim Noakes and Vicki Lambert, called the Central Governor theory, which caused some controversy then, and still does today, with folk either loving or hating it, as what happens with all theories in science.

For a long time, the concept of maximal performance, and what finally results in folk reaching the absolute limits of what they physically can do, could be described as a ‘catastrophic’ model of fatigue. In the catastrophic model, the body, when pushed hard during an athletic event, either runs out of key nutrients or energy fuels, or is ‘poisoned’ as a result of metabolites that cannot be cleared out of muscles quickly enough, either due to lack of oxygen delivery capacity of the lungs or blood supply which have been ‘overwhelmed’ by the demand placed on them by the physical activity. The lactic acid theory was the classical example of this – the ‘burning’ pain one feels in one’s muscle during extreme exercise was thought to be related to lactic acid build up, which eventually ‘poisoned’ the muscles to the point that they simply stopped working.

Most of these theories developed from animal studies, or isolated muscle studies, where muscles were removed from their normal anatomical environment and stimulated with electrical shocks until they stopped contracting completely (developed rigor for the scientists reading this). At this point of absolute fatigue, a variety of parameters such as lactic acid were measured, and given that the levels of these parameters were very high (or very low in the case of fuels), a cause / effect relationship between absolute fatigue in these isolated muscles and lactic acid for example was suggested to be occurring during these trials. But the action of muscles of human folk performing exercise does not occur in an isolated state or in a petri dish. We therefore did some work in the University of Cape Town labs, building on work by greats in the fatigue field such as Roger Enoka and Simon Gandevia, amongst others, and looked at how much muscle was recruited during real life endurance and sprint athletic activity, using fairly novel techniques (at least at that point in time!) such as electromyography (EMG), which indirectly measures muscle recruitment (though one could write a book on the merits of this technique to measure fatigue, or the lack thereof). In a breakthrough study for us, we found that the muscles of folks in the lab who pushed themselves to the point when they said they were absolutely exhausted still had reserve capacity / had not used their muscles absolutely maximally, which was both astonishing and exciting to us. We did muscle biopsies at the beginning and end of the trial, and also found that the levels of fuels such as muscle glycogen and glucose, essential fuels of the body, were low but not zero, indicating the presence of a fuel reserve capacity too. We repeated this type of study in a number of different population groups and types of athletic events, and found similar results, and concluded that the brain of an athlete ‘stopped’ an athlete in an anticipatory way prior to them ever being absolutely completely fatigued, even if they did ‘feel’ absolutely exhausted. So some process in the brain appears to ‘disconnect’ the sensation of fatigue from what exactly was happening in the body, likely as a protective mechanism to prevent the occurrence of either muscle damage or general circulatory failure which could (and occasionally does) occur during an athletic event in a very motivated athlete.

A number of other examples of this protective ‘central’ / brain protective mechanism came to light during our further experiments, or from experiments in other labs around the world. Derek Kay, Jack Cannon and Frank Marino in Australia found that in a lab study using race-like conditions, participants started fast, slowed down in the middle and sped up the last 10 percent (or so) of the trial. The EMG activity in their study tracked these increases and decreases in pace, which indicated that these changes were probably initiated and regulated by the brain. The increase in pace in the last 10 percent of the trial was described as an ‘endspurt’ – speeding up at the end of an event or activity – and of course if one’s muscles are being ‘poisoned’ by a continuous build-up of metabolites during a race, or if one did run out of a fuel completely, there would be no way that the trial participants could speed up and show an endspurt at the end of the race. A fascinating study performed in the 1960’s, which came to light when we investigated what we were finding, which perhaps would not have passed the muster these days from an ethical perspective, showed support for this concept. Trial participants were asked to contract their leg muscles as hard as possible in a leg strength testing device where the movement of the leg was resisted and the force output of the leg muscles recorded. The subjects were encouraged to keep on going until they claimed they were absolutely exhausted and could not continue for even a few seconds longer, and at this point a second researcher, who unknown to the participants had entered the room behind them, fired off a shotgun blank shell, without the participants seeing them do so. This obviously caused a massive shock to the participants, and the interesting finding from a study perspective was that the subjects put out between 20 and 30 percent more force after hearing the gunshot, despite saying prior to hearing the gunshot that they were absolutely exhausted. Again, this was strong evidence for the presence of the muscle reserve capacity at exhaustion and a ‘disconnect’ between the sensation of fatigue and the physical changes associated with the fatiguing process.

We, and other scientist folk, have had a long look at how this sensory / perceptual disconnect during the fatigue process and at the point of absolute ‘fatigue’ occurs. Clearly there is teleology behind this finding, and it is likely that it is a protective mechanism which uses ‘trickery’ to keep folk safe from their own motivational drives, but it is does ‘boggle the mind’ to think that one’s own brain in effect ‘lies’ to its own ‘self’ in order to protect ‘it’ from ‘itself’. The origin of sensations and the perception of emotional constructs such as fatigue, and how they develop in underlying brain structures (or indeed how they are even related to physical brain structures) is difficult to understand, given how little we unfortunately know about basic brain function, mental states, or indeed sensory awareness of anything. However, using indirect methods, we were able to show that the dissociation of the sensation of fatigue from the underlying physical fatigue processes can be fairly easily elicited. One of the most fun studies I have been involved with (though which has very relevant findings pertaining to this research area), was a study we (Rachel Winchester and others) did during my time at Northumbria University, where when young male participants who were running on a treadmill said they were feeling exhausted, we introduced either an attractive female or an athletic male into the lab who interacted with them while they were running. There were profound changes in the levels of reported sensation of fatigue by the athletes – when the attractive female interacted with them, they reported significant reductions in the level of fatigue they felt, but when an athletic male interacted with them, they reported being significantly more fatigued as a result of the interaction. So this was classic (and humour inducing) evidence showing that the sensation of fatigue can be actually fairly easily ‘dissociated’ from what is happening in the body itself, and that the sensation of fatigue has a psycho-social component, or at least can be ‘interfered with’ by psycho-social factors.

So what does all this tell us about the limits to performance and whether athletes, or indeed folk who perform recreational sport, ever really are ‘maximally’ fatigued, even if they do feel as if they are. The evidence described above would seem to clearly indicate that, at least in these scientific studies, one’s brain as a protective mechanism appears to limit ones activity to an always submaximal level, even if one ‘feels’ that one is pushing oneself to absolute maximum. How the brain (or mind) does this is currently not clear, but there is clearly some interplay or calculation between one’s motivations and desires for success, and one’s fear of damaging oneself during athletic, or indeed any, physical activity. Interestingly, in the wild, animals being chased by predators do occasionally push themselves so hard to not be eaten as prey, that even if they escape, they die as a result of their muscles becoming so damaged by overheating or over-exertion that they become necrotic, which results in kidney failure and death from multiple organ failure due to toxin build up from the badly damaged muscles. Clearly us humans are never in a situation in our routine lives that these animals face, and therefore perhaps this ‘reserve’ capacity is some relic of our ancestry where we were indeed potentially a larger animals prey, and there was benefit of always maintaining a reserve for this ‘death-defying’ challenge if it occurred, though of course it will always be nothing more than conjecture when speculating on ancestry or evolution as a cause for modern day behaviour or function, particularly when brain function or mental behaviour is involved. Though some athletes do collapse during and after events (and why they do so is still a mystery), the vast majority, even Tour De France winners, know that they need to leave a small level of physical capacity to allow them to be able to climb off the bike, have a shower, get their medal, or leave something ‘in the tank’ to race the next day. So when we think we are absolutely exhausted, we probably never are. When we see the person with the car on top of them in the middle of the road, we do have the capacity to perform life-saving feats (obviously within reason) and have ‘strength’ that we are not aware of. Whether it is wise to use this inherent reserve, and risk ‘all’, even one’s life, for that single instance of extreme use of strength or endurance capacity in whatever circumstance, is of course another story. As is persuading my scientific colleagues, who despite all this evidence described above, still think the concepts are baloney and nothing more than a good story!

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Patriotism, Nationalism And Social Identity – Do the Dangers of ‘Isms’ Outweigh Their Positives In Society

This weekend I watched a rugby international game between South Africa and Argentina (and one between Wales and Ireland – a busy weekend as an armchair sports fan!), and when the players of each team lined up prior to the start of the game and the national anthems of each team played, I was struck by the passion that was evident both in the players and spectators, with a lot of folk reverently placing their hands over their national badges on their jerseys, and a number of both players and spectators in tears as the anthems were played. Last week I read about an incident at a local rugby derby between two schools, where all of players, teachers and parents had become involved in a mass brawl pitting the folk identifying with each School against the other. A few weeks ago the family and I visited Cape Town, and visited an outdoor restaurant high up on beautiful Table Mountain, and noted that a colonial era statue next to looked like it had recently had something flammable poured on it and it had been burnt by someone or some group of individuals. All of these got me thinking of the issues of patriotism, nationalism and social identify, and why folk felt the need to ‘believe’ in their national or local rugby sides, or why folk felt agitated enough about a statue that they felt the need to deface it, or indeed why such statues and flags were put up in the first place. This got me wondering whether patriotism, and its twin concept, nationalism, are really beneficial, or are perhaps a sign of identity issues either in individual folk, or of groups of folks, or indeed of nations and / or their leaders.

Patriotism is generally defined as a cultural attachment to one’s homeland and devotion to one’s country. It is thought that the term patriot was generated from an ensemble of the Greek words ‘patriotes’, which describes ‘countrymen’, and ‘patris’, which describes the concept of the ‘fatherland’. Nationalism is defined as a belief or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with and becoming attached to their nation. Nationalism is thought to be associated with national identity, in contrast to patriotism, which is suggested to involve social conditioning and personal behaviour that supports a ‘Nation’s’ decisions and actions. Symbolism is important in national identity, with national flags, anthems and monuments being used by national leaders and communities to both generate and enhance national identity and feelings of patriotism.

Two general theories (amongst many) of how Nationalism and Patriotism developed are the primordial and modernistic theories. In the primordial theory, nationalism is thought to be a caused by the ancient evolutionary tendency or ‘desire’ of humans, wherever this in the human psyche originates from, to organize into distinct groupings based on affinity from birth, or learnt from family and relatives, which create positive psychological ‘triggers’ in the minds of folk living in a particular nation that result in positive responses to patriotic or nationalistic cues. In contrast, in the modernistic theory, nationalism is thought to be a more recent phenomenon that requires structural conditions of modern society in order to exist, and perhaps also manipulation by or encouragement of the nations leaders for it to be able to develop. It has also been suggested that three levels of common requirements exist that are needed for the development of national identity: 1) At an inter-group level, in response to potential competition or conflict, folk organize into groups to either attack other groups or defend their group from hostile ‘other’ groups; 2) At the intra-group level, folk as individuals gain advantage through cooperation with others in securing resources that are not available through individual effort; and 3) on the individual level, self-interest concerns of folk related to their own perceived personal fitness levels either consciously or unconsciously motivate the need for and creation of a group formation as a means of security. All of these different levels of ‘need’ result in the development of first group and then national identity, and the development of ‘boundaries’ between one’s own group or nation and those ‘outside’ of the group or nation, and in essence the development of such national (or group, ethnic or religious) boundaries become both protective of and problematical for the group that uses and defines them.

At the heart of both Nationalism and Patriotism is of course one’s own personal and social identity. Identity is defined as the distinctive characteristics belonging to any given individual, or shared by all members of a particular social category or group. An individuals’ self-identity develops through identification with ‘significant others’, primarily parents and other individuals during one’s formative years, but also with the ‘groups’ that one associates with in particular during one’s early stages of development in life. The relationship between one’s self identity and social identity is complex, and obviously societies do not exist without the individuals that collectively make them up, so social identity constructs and individual identity are fairly certainly closely linked. A neat way of looking at one’s self and social identity is that it is grounded in the past, and defines one’s future behaviour and how one acts to others around one, depending on the boundaries generated by the particular environment one’s identity develops in. There is a bell-shaped curve of levels of identity in different people, with the majority of folk having moderate ‘levels’ of personal and social identity, but with some folk having ‘high diffuse’ social identity who do not relate to any particular personal or social identity, and other’s having ‘low diffuse’ social identity who relate highly to a particular social identity and are defensive of it. Some folk (likely the ‘low diffuse’ group) appear to gain a sense of positive self-esteem from their social identity groups, whether it is their local rugby or soccer team fan club (some great work has been done looking at this by my old colleagues Dr Matt Lewis, Dr Melissa Anderson and Dr Sandy Wolfson, amongst others), the school they attend, their work community, their ethnic or religious group or national boundary, or indeed these days with enhanced communication capacity, their international work or social structures.

Patriotism and Nationalism can be forces for ‘good’ in benign societies, but unfortunately they can also be problematic and indeed frankly dangerous to those not in the ‘circle of trust’ of the group of folk that define themselves as a particular nation. Both Patriotism and Nationalism can be used by ruling elites to advance their own agenda, and ‘manufacture consent’ in the folk they rule, for their own gain rather than that of the general good of the society as a whole that make up a particular Nation. Nationalism as a concept is inherently divisive, as it highlights perceived differences between groups and people as an inherent requirement of its definition. Nations, or indeed any particular social identity, creates boundaries, with those outside this identity being by necessity external to the national group. It has been suggested that to be successful a nation should coincide with a single / uniform cultural, ethnic or religious group within its boundaries, as this would allow the nation to most easily create its specific identity and ‘nationhood’, but this would then create the spectre of potential antagonism of a state towards those not associated with the predominant social culture within its boundaries, whether other external nations or states, or minorities within the nation or state that are ‘different’ to the culture of the nation or state. History abounds with examples of aggressive actions by ‘nations’ against those even inside their own boundaries which are ‘different’ to the self-identity propagated by leaders, and indeed the citizens / followers of the leaders of those nations which profess or propose to have a homogenous self-identity and do not tolerate ‘otherness’ in that self-identity. Because of its propensity to encourage divisions in society and between nations, the 18th century American statesmen, Samuel Johnson, suggested that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’, and the writer George Orwell, while viewing patriotism in a relatively positive light as a devotion to a particular place, described nationalism as ‘power-hunger tempered by self-deception’.

Clearly, there are potential benefits to both a degree of nationalism and patriotism from the perception of generating a positive ethos amongst the citizens of a particular nation or state towards accepting the norms, standards and beliefs of that particular state, particularly if it has a benign world view and leadership. However, there are is also the potential for negative outcomes when the levels of patriotism or nationalism become too ‘high’, to both those folk outside of a nation’s boundaries, or to minorities within the nation’s boundaries who are ‘different’ to the majority of its citizens. As a leader, one would like to engender a sense of pride and belonging in those who one leads. But it is a fine line between engendering these positive collective attributes, and creating a group of individuals whose self-identity is too tightly linked to that of the institution or state which one leads, and who become resistant either to change, or diversity of opinion, or external influence. Symbols such as flags, statues or anthems can be useful in engendering pride, but as in the example of an old symbol being burnt in Cape Town, they can also be hated symbols of oppression in those who these symbols were previously used against, or are currently used, to manufacture antipathy towards and boundaries against. It is uplifting to see young folk before a rugby game being proud to represent their country in their chosen sport, but it’s unedifying to see participants, coaches and families feel such strong ties to their chosen team that they resort to violence to ‘protect’ their social, and perhaps self, identities. Patriotism helps retain bonds and family ties, but can be exclusive to those not originating from a particular geographic or social environment. On a personal level, I have noted that after living for extended periods on three different continents, my personal sense of patriotism has been attenuated (but this may just be associated with increased age and a perhaps wider life perspective which age often, but not always, engenders), and this is a negative from the sense that one feels to a degree ‘rootless’ if one has lived in many different places for long periods of time, but it is also a positive in that one does not ‘ally’ closely with any group or social infrastructure, which allows one to often ‘walk the middle path’ in both social and national disputes and debates.

An old Russian colleague, Dr Mikhael Lomarev, whom I worked with at a Research Centre in Washington DC in the USA in 2002 and 2003, not long after the attacks on both New York and Washington DC which occurred in 2001, when noticing how many Americans had flags on their houses, office buildings and cars, and who had lived through years of communism and socialism in his own country in his life, shook his head and said that he believed that the biggest danger in life are the ‘isms’ – from Fascism, to Communism, to in this case as he termed it American Patriotism, to Nationalism – and the world events of the decade following this discussion may have justified his concerns about the high level of ‘American Patriotism’ evident then, in some ways. Each ‘ism’ created a particular world-view and social structure that was perhaps meant initially to both protect and maintain the folk who lived in and through them, but in the end all became restrictive and damaging either to their own citizens or those around or ‘opposed’ to them. So while I enjoyed seeing the young sports folk holding the badge over the left pocket of their blazer at the start of that rugby game, I worried also where such symbolism and national pride leads to, and that the jackboot of authoritarianism, dressed up as nationalism, or even patriotism, lurks not far behind that simple gesture and the tear-stained patriotic faces which resulted from the singing of the national anthems. As much as belong to a society or a nation, we also are all one and the same living under the same blues skies and the same green hills and valleys, that existed long before we created nations and states, and will exist long after they are changed or gone. Perhaps this – a perception of ‘all-worldism’ – should be the ultimate ‘ism’ we should believe in and adhere to, as a first principle above all others!


Narcissistic Personality Disorders And Sociopathy – One Bad Apple Can The Whole Barrel Ruin

We have been dealing with some workplace issues which like nearly all management concerns, come down to challenging personalities and how to deal with them. I also recently had a discussion with an old colleague about a former acquaintance of ours who for a long part of a very successful career continuously worked hard to always be in the media or spotlight of attention, was always trying to claim personal responsibility for any innovative idea or concept developed by the team, and was always pretty nasty in undermining or aggressively rebutting anyone who disagreed with him, either on public stages or in the press, and we wondered if the individual had some of the symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder or sociopathy. In management circles, a common way of describing routine daily life is that ninety five percent of one’s working day is spent dealing with five percent of the staff in one’s team who are challenging and create difficulties for all that work around them. There is a growing perception in the scientific community that a number of these folk may not just be difficult folk in the work environment, but may have one of a number of different personality disorders that affects all aspects of their life, and all folk around them in a negative way, in both the work and home environment. The challenge is how to recognize them, as the signs of personality disorders are often subtle, and their presence may lead to overt success in the work environment from an output metrics perspective, although at the expense of a harmonious workplace. How to manage them is an even more difficult challenge, as is treating them for clinicians. So what are personality disorders, and how can we recognize them?

Personality disorders are defined as a class of mental disorders that are characterized by enduring maladaptive patterns of behaviour, cognition and inner experiences, exhibited across many contexts and deviating markedly from those accepted by the individual’s culture, and are not due to use of any substance or another medical condition. There are a number of different personality disorders, which are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, which is the psychiatrist’s ‘bible’ for classification of psychiatric disorders. These include obsessive-compulsive, antisocial, histrionic, borderline, schizoid, and paranoid personality disorders, amongst others, and while they all have some symptom overlap, they also each have unique characteristics and features. The personality disorder most associated with workplace dysfunction is narcissistic personality disorder, in which an individual is defined as being excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige, and vanity, is mentally unstable, but is unable to see the damage they are causing to other people. The term narcissism originated from the mythological Greek youth Narcissus who became infatuated with his own reflection in a lake, and did not recognize it as his own reflexion, and when he did, he died of grief for having falling in love with someone that did not exist outside of himself – and therefore the term is used to describe excessive vanity and self-centredness. In the DSM, signs of narcissistic personality disorder include 1) having a grandiose sense of self-importance with exaggeration of achievements and talents and an expectation to be recognized as superior; 2) having a sense of entitlement and expectation of favourable treatment and requires excessive admiration; 3) is inter-personally exploitative and takes advantage of others for their own end; 4) lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; 5) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of them; and 6) believes that they are ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by other special or high status people. The causes are multifactorial, and are speculated to include either an ‘overs-sensitive temperament at birth’, over-indulgence or over-evaluation by parents, family members or peers, or paradoxically emotional abuse in childhood, amongst other causes. It is thought to affect between one and five percent of people in society, and there is potentially, perhaps somewhat paradoxically given it is defined as a psychopathology, a greater percentage of narcissistic personality disorders found in folk who are high achievers as compared to the general population.

A second personality disorder, which is perhaps even more toxic to the work environment, is the sociopathic personality disorder, commonly described as sociopathy, and also known as psychopathy. Sociopathy is defined as a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behaviour, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behaviour. There is some overlap of the symptoms of a sociopath with that of narcissistic personality disorder, though sociopaths are more ‘dangerous’ and are prone to delinquency and overt criminal behaviour. Common symptoms include glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, need for stimulation and prone to boredom, parasitic lifestyle, impulsivity, a lack of remorse or guilt, callous and lacking in empathy, failure to accept responsibility for their actions, and also poor behavioural control and delinquency. Sociopaths have been divided into ‘unsuccessful’ sociopaths, who are involved with regular crime, including violence, sexual offence, conduct disorder and other antisocial behaviour. In contrast ‘successful’ sociopaths are corporate ‘high climbers’ who are successful in the work environment due to their anti-social symptoms and behaviour, which allow them to ‘climb over’ colleagues and show boldness for new challenges without any feelings of remorse or guilt that may prevent them doing so. It is not clear what the underlying causes of sociopathy are, or how they develop, and it has been speculated that either genetic or early social abuse in childhood are at the root of its development. Sociopathy is thought to occur in around one percent of the population, and like narcissistic personality disorder, is found in a high percentage of ‘high achievers’ in the work environment.

Both these personality disorders can cause significant problems in the workplace environment, and if present in an individual in a position of authority, can cause damage to entire work-force team, and increase the levels of bullying, conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism in the work environment. Folk with either narcissistic personality disorder or sociopathy can often be charming and friendly to staff at a higher level in the work environment, but abusive to staff below their level. They can ‘put on a mask’ as required in social situations, and this makes them very difficult to ‘diagnose’ when first meeting them, and one is often taken in by their positive presence (which would only be on display if they could gain something from the person they are interacting with). They assess what people want to hear and will interact with an individual in a way that will gain trust, but if interacting with someone from who there will be no gain, or challenges them, they will publicly humiliate colleagues or team members, spread malicious lies, rapidly shift between emotions and use a specific emotion to gain advantage over their ‘rivals’, take credit for other people’s accomplishments, blame others for their mistakes or incomplete work, encourage co-workers to harass or humiliate their ‘rivals’, and threaten ‘rivals’ with job loss, disciplinary procedures or harassment charges if this will be to their benefit. Sociopaths can bully folk in a purposive way if they will gain from it or if it will help them achieve their goals, but can also bully in a predatory way, just for the simple pleasure they feel in tormenting people who are either vulnerable or susceptible to being bullied by nature of their workplace status. The problem is that because they are charming in required situations, they do well in job interviews, and manipulate situations to their own gain once entering into an organization, and are therefore well ensconced in a workplace environment, or even have been promoted to a high leadership position, before folk working around them become aware of their true personality, and the damage they are causing to those around them and the environment they work in.

So what can one do if one is a manager, or indeed a co-worker or team member, of someone with a sociopathic or narcissistic personality disorder? Sadly, these personality disorders are notoriously difficult to manage, with sociopathy in particular being regarded almost as an untreatable disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder being similarly problematical as folk who have the disorder respond badly to / refuse to accept criticism, or acknowledge that they have any problem, and frequently ‘point the finger back’ and say the manager has the problem, and will often respond quickly with a harassment charge on a manager who dares to challenge them such with the fact and potential diagnosis of their disorder. In a great book on management theory, James McGrath and Bob Bates suggested what to me are the best ways of dealing with these challenging disorders in the workplace, including 1) using the boxing maxim, defend yourself at all times; 2) if you think someone is a sociopath or has a narcissistic personality disorder raise your concerns with human resources a soon as possible and get them recorded; 3) maintain meticulous records of your dealings with these folk, as they are compulsive liars and will distort past events and conversations; 4) protect your staff by monitoring their dealings with the person and the consequences of these interactions; 5) develop your own good relationships with other staff and managers, so when they charge you with harassment or make malicious allegations against one, there is character reference ‘backup’; 6) when dealing with the person, follow the organization’s policies and procedures to the utmost, as they will use any deviation from this to attack you back; and 7) attempt to isolate or corral the person’s work activity away from other staff members in order to protect them. Sadly, they also suggested that if your boss or manager is a sociopath, perhaps the best solution is to simply look for another job, or hope they move on or away from your work environment, as it is almost impossible to reason with folk with either of these personality disorders, and once they detect you are resistant to them, they will do all they can to make your life difficult or remove you from the work environment yourself.

Probably everyone has had some experience dealing with a work colleague, friend, or (heavens above) a life partner who has a narcissistic personality disorder or is a sociopath, and has scars from the interaction. The problem is again, that these personality deficits paradoxically often make these folk successful in their work, sport or social environment, even if they leave a trail of damage and discontent behind them. It’s always interesting to look back at folk who society would assess as having been successful and one has interacted with when young, before experience teaches one to lookout for such folk and avoid them, and when assessing their personalities and modus operandi in the work place, realize that their success was and is not based on their individual skills or efforts, but are potentially related to a personality disorder which allowed them to use people such as oneself, and others around them for their own gain, often with one knowing at the time. These folk in essence are ‘successful’ and pass through life being successful as a result of gain from, or manipulation of, others. More often though, one is caught in a disastrous and damaging environment before one recognizes that one is working in the presence of, or interacting with, someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder, and one is ‘locked in a battle for survival’ with them, and as described above. Strong management is needed, or brave decisions, if such a person is involved within one’s personal life, in order to either eject the individual from the environment, or leave the environment oneself – ultimately unfortunately there is very little chance of successfully managing such individuals if they maintain their presence in the environment in which one works or lives. One rotten apple really can the whole barrel ruin, but unfortunately, locating and removing that rotten apple from the barrel is not easy, and many a barrel has indeed been ruined by one rotten apple ultimately affecting the rest. It’s a brave and resilient manager that tries, and eventually succeeds!


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