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!