Is My Boss a Sociopath? Here’s What to Do If the Answer Is Yes

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There’s an interesting phenomenon in business that few people talk about: sociopaths.

Sociopaths aren’t the characters we see in movies – people who are so obviously deranged and criminal as to be immediately untrustworthy. Quite the contrary, actually. They walk among us and work among us. And not only do they look quite normal, but they’re often successful, charming, and highly intelligent, too.

The thing that sets those with sociopathic tendencies apart from the rest of us isn’t that they appear terrifying. It’s that they absolutely lack the ability to empathize. As a result, they can (and do) whatever they want to get what they want - without remorse and regardless of ethics.

This is probably why sociopaths tend to hold a disproportionately high rate of high-level positions; among the general population, about 3% of people are on the sociopathy spectrum. But among politicians and CEO’s, that number jumps to 15%.  

Why? It’s because sociopaths are willing to do things others won’t to get to the top.   

So, the odds are high that if you don’t run across one in your personal life, you might at work.

In fact, the higher you rise in an organization, the more likely it is you’ll cross paths with one. It could be your boss, a colleague, a client, or a direct report.

Here’s how to identify sociopathic behavior – and how to navigate the relationship if you do.

Common Characteristics of Sociopaths

If you’re professionally connected to a sociopath, this is what you may experience.

High charisma.

Sociopaths tend to be well-liked by those who haven’t figured out their shell game – and many, of course, never do.

They will ensure that their high-power and status relationships remain on solid ground.  Those with power will be lied to (as will others), but sociopaths will do more to protect those lies and build themselves up to those they feel will get them what they want. 

This isn’t a suck up – it’s a con.

Lies.

I’m sure you’ve heard that everyone tells at least some white lies. You know the variety of fibs I’m talking about: “No, dear, those pants don’t make you look fat!”

But sociopaths are different. They lie to mislead, and ultimately to get what they want.  Sometimes, that’s money. Sometimes it’s opportunity. Sometimes it’s power. Regardless, they lie to inflate their image, to manipulate and control others, and ultimately to game a situation for some advantage.

Sometimes they lie simply for sport. In fact, they get so used to lying that it becomes a way of life. They lie to get what they want, but they also lie just because they can.

Somewhat ironically, they like empathetic people (I’m looking at you, HR!). And the people who are high-empathy tend to be victimized in more insidious ways. Sociopaths will set you up, use you, and even abuse you (see gaslighting here) to get what they want – but also because experiencing a feeling of power over someone who is empathetic is their ultimate joy.

How to Spot Sociopaths

It’s not easy – in fact, sociopaths are often great at making people think the best of them. But here are a few things to watch for.

They make the truth feel special.

One subtle thing I’ve noticed is the energy that sociopaths put into making the truth seem like… the truth. They’ll use phrases like, “I’ll be honest here,” when there should’ve been no need to qualify their words in the first place, or they’ll go to great lengths to describe themselves as trustworthy. Then they’ll react bombastically if their stories are ever questioned.

Here’s the thing: people who are honest don’t need to prove it – they just are. Consistently qualifying statements as truthful or elaborately demonstrating credibility are red flag behaviors.

They like to be the hero.

Yes, sociopaths have a bit of the hero complex. It’s part of what endears them to people and causes others to be unsuspecting, vulnerable, trusting. Sociopaths may provide opportunity to trust – only to capitalize on dependencies later. 

They engage in gaslighting.

By “gaslighting,” I mean manufacturing an extreme punishment for what should’ve been a simple problem, with the result being the creation of self-doubt in the target.  Sociopaths do this because they love creating doubt in others (and about others). They may give exaggerated responses to simple situations, then try to make you feel that the crime was worthy of the punishment (when it should be the other way around).

What You Should Do When You Encounter a Sociopath

Current psychological research does not believe sociopaths can be helped or cured.  The personality disorder seems to be baked into the DNA.

So.

If you’re a helper, save your energy and protect yourself.

If you are in a position to be victimized (stolen from, set up to fail with your boss, treated abusively by a boss, sabotaged, etc.), you must remove yourself from the situation. Quit your job (I’m not kidding). Move out of the function.

Do whatever you have to in order to extract yourself from the situation; slowly back away from the sociopath in the hope that they will move on. It’s your best and only option.

Act as you would toward a caged animal with rabies. You don’t want to provoke an attack, but you don’t want to stay in the cage and be its helpmate, either.

And, finally, research sociopathology.

You may have to extrapolate “relationship” articles about sociopaths, but many such articles will teach you warning signs. If you feel you may work with a sociopath – or, worse, work for one – read up.

While neither this article nor the more in-depth research you do later will not qualify you to diagnose sociopathology, research may give you the information you need to keep yourself – and your career – safe.

Want more advice on dealing with difficult work relationships? Let’s talk.