The dangers of the office psychopath


Psychopaths are not just found in serial killer movies and crime novels – they stalk corporate corridors too, where their trail of destruction might not include murder but can mean the death of productivity, motivation and profits.

The manipulation, deception, inflated self-opinion and back-stabbing of the corporate psychopath or narcissist can often cause work-related depression, anxiety disorders, burnout and physical illnesses: conditions which cost the South African economy more than R40-billion annually.

Corporate Mental Health Week this week (1 to 5 July 2019) turns the spotlight on work-related stress that accounts for more than 40% of all workplace-related illnesses in South Africa, with at least 1 in 4 employees diagnosed with depression. 

Often the leaders – who should be at the forefront of reducing workplace conditions that lead to stress and burnout contribute to the problem, rather than the solution. We are not talking about the ‘difficult’ boss here, but the boss who is a bully – many of who could be defined as corporate psychopaths.

The bullying tactics of corporate psychopaths increase conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism; reduce productivity and collective social responsibility; and erode corporate culture and ethical standards – diminishing shareholder value and returns on investment. Workplace bullying is a major cause of work-related stress. In a 2017 survey in the USA found that adults were being bullied at levels similar to teenagers – 31% of adults had been bullied at work and almost half believed that bullying behaviour was becoming more acceptable in the workplace.

Bullying can make you ill. In the same survey, 70% or more of bullying victims had experienced stress, anxiety or depression, 55% reported loss of confidence, 39% suffered from lack of sleep, 17% called in sick frequently, and 19% had suffered mental breakdown. Emotional stress can also cause or aggravate physical illnesses such as gastrointestinal problems (such as irritable bowel syndrome) and cardiovascular problems (such as hypertension), while victims of workplace bullying had double the risk of considering suicide in the five years following.

Chief executives have the highest prevalence of psychopathic traits of all jobs – a rate second only to prison inmates – and while it is estimated that 1 in 100 of the general population have psychopathic traits, this rises to 1 in 25 in business leaders.

Many of the traits characteristic of psychopaths – such as charm, fearless dominance, boldness and a grandiose sense of self – are also what help people get ahead in business. It’s important to note though that not everyone with loads of confidence and who is successful, even if they have a brash approach to people, has a personality disorder.

The workplace bullies to be most concerned about are those with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Narcissists can be brilliant strategists, have the courage to take risks and push through massive change and transition, and use their charisma and compelling visions to inspire others – fitting into conventional ideas of leadership.

These masters of self-image, who take credit but deflect blame, tend to gather a group of co-dependent people around them to support and reinforce their behaviour. They profess loyalty to the organisation but are really only committed to their own agenda, and people may experience them as distant and cold.

Narcissists tend to be over-sensitive to criticism, over-competitive, and often engage in counter-productive work behaviour when their self-esteem is threatened. They expect great dedication and may overwork others without any regard for the impact on their lives. Narcissists favour “indirect bullying tactics” such as withholding information, ignoring people or giving them the “silent treatment”, spreading rumours to discredit others, and inflating their contribution or taking credit for achievements they had little to do with.

Narcissists are also more likely to engage in sexual harassment, due to their inflated sense of importance and tendency to exploit others. The darker personality, is the psychopathic character, the boss or colleague with antisocial personality disorder – who replaces the narcissist’s exploitative tactics with predatory drive for strategic conquests, domination and cruelty. Successful psychopaths share the same core characteristics as those who become criminals – deceit, manipulativeness, indifference to the consequences of their actions, superficial charm, lack of empathy and lack of remorse – but tend to come from more privileged backgrounds and have higher IQ. 

Successful psychopaths tend to be more conscientious than those with a criminal record. They are less impulsive, negligent and irresponsible, but this doesn’t mean they are always law-abiding citizens – they may just be better at avoiding being caught. The bullying tactics of the successful psychopath are based on assessing the usefulness and weaknesses of those around them, manipulating others to bond with them, using their victims’ feedback to build and maintain control, and then abandoning them when they are no longer useful.

They are extremely efficient at using and manipulating communication networks to enhance their own reputation while discrediting others and creating and maintaining conflicts and rivalries amongst colleagues. They are excellent at spreading disinformation, while covering up their own association with this false information.

Both narcissists and psychopaths have traits that could be positive and they could be highly successful in business – but they can also create highly toxic environments with just as significant an emotional and financial toll on employees and organisations as other more obvious workplace stress factors. It is important to be equipped to recognise and safeguard oneself against these workplace bullies. 


Dr Renata Schoeman is a Psychiatrist and Associate Professor in Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).