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Everyday Psychopathy at Work

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Yulia Ievleva, LMFT, is a practicing psychotherapist and organizational consultant in Los Angeles. We talked recently about her upcoming presentation at the Women in Leadership Academic Conference sponsored by Pepperdine University entitled, "Are you working for a psychopath?" She focuses on how to identify the key traits that characterize toxic leaders and their impact on the workforce, especially with respect to issues of work-life balance.

Yulia hones in on the intersection of psychology and business. Psychopathy, as Yulia reminds me, is a broader and more colloquial term encompassing Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic and Narcissistic Personality Disorders listed in DSM-5 - the clinician's 'bible.' These character traits are believed to be deeply ingrained in a person and pretty much resistant to therapeutic intervention.

Although many psychopaths have poor impulse control winding up in prison, Yulia points out that some are ambitious, highly intelligent, and attracted to positions of power. These rock-star types have what it takes to forge successful careers in the corporate world. She describes those afflicted with these disorders as superficially charming, manipulative and indulging in self-serving behavior to the extreme detriment of others.

Even when confronted with evidence that their attitudes and behaviors harm others, the response is a stark lack of empathy or insight and ruthless callousness. If that weren't bad enough, there's the vengeful intense anger and rapidly shifting moods to contend with.

All of this intensifies how upsetting and 'crazy-making' it can be to work with or be supervised by someone who has little or no capacity to relate to you. Returning home drained and exasperated on a regular basis, you're on the fast-track to being burned out.

If you suspect your workplace is adversely affected by a psychopath here a few courses of action to consider;

Tip #1 - Seek therapy through your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or on your own:

This will help to attain much needed clarity and validation, recognizing psychopathy for what it is and explaining its detrimental effects on those in close proximity to you. Therapy can provide much-needed support that is hard to obtain elsewhere. A psychopath can wear a likable mask of a dynamic genius. Their 'pawns' are indoctrinated to believe others are useless, incompetent or expendable. Moreover, not every therapist will do justice to this problem if the risks are overlooked.

Tip #2 - Do not personalize a psychopath's attitudes or behaviors.

Make sure you extend self-care practices to the office. Remind yourself on the way in to work each day to put your game-face on. Positive self-talk may sound like this: "The workplace is a job. It's not some traumatic re-enactment of my childhood." If it is, work it out in individual therapy.

Tip #3 - Be mindful, lower your expectations and remember to hold good boundaries.

You have the right to say, 'Yes but,' and even 'No,' to outlandish demands. Be prepared for blow-back. You may feel like a newly molted crustacean with thin sensitive skin. You need a new shell of grit and toughness. Displays of weakness are pigeon-food for a psychopath.

Tip #4 - Get out of a psychopath's way.

Working around them by minimizing exposure to them, going invisible in a sense without feeling one-down, vulnerable, diminished or dominated. Recognizing that you are provoked may help put the pause on your own triggers.

Respite care may include taking regular breaks to collect yourself and all the time off you're entitled to and can afford. Be savvy and self-protective. Being employed while pursuing a new position is a time-honored job hunting strategy. Doing this without shirking work or otherwise sloughing off on the job is no easy task.

Talking with Yulia reminds me that psychopaths are no mere "Type-A" or "look-at-me" charismatic personalities who 'get things done,' and can lead by example.

They may even appear loyal and be highly motivating at times, if in the short term only. Psychopathy and transformational leadership are essentially antithetical, as the latter requires much emotional intelligence and people skills, we conclude.

Why then is psychopathy cultivated and promoted? As Yulia warns, psychopaths may even be sought out and rewarded in a highly competitive and fast-changing corporate environment as they seek to make their mark as executives. Their detrimental influence is revealed fairly soon after appointment.

One of the ways is through draconian organizational restructuring due to mergers and acquisitions and the downsizing that often comes with it. In spite of adverse productivity found under such tyranny, many modern organizations under current economic constraints actually seek out leaders with this style.

What are the personal costs to enduring this style of "leadership," I ask Yulia?
What catches up with psychopaths is the 'trail of tears' they leave behind as hostile workplaces work like vampire energy mechanisms rarely thriving over time.

Yulia has me rapt as she describes scenarios that include brutal office politics and rampant incivility in an unbearable work environment. This in turn leads to monstrous turnover rates, lost economies of expertise, widespread workplace bullying, and a loss of morale, skyrocketing despair and situational mental illness. Morbidity rates and disability claims and hostile workplace law suits rise due to physical and emotional distress.

Its true that many of us are "doing more with less." It's ironic then, while the need for life-work balance is amplified, is it attainable if we fail to answer the challenge posed by hidden or covert support of corporate psychopathy?