Working with A Sociopath | 120 Seconds to Better Leadership

*Video Transcription* 

Thinking today about what it’s like to work with a sociopath. I always thought sociopaths were the guys that were in horror movies that were chopping people into bits on Halloween, and I didn’t realize that they're somewhat prevalent in our normal, everyday work lives. The estimate that we see is about 3% of the population are on the sociopathic spectrum, which isn’t a lot, but the higher you go in organizations the more prevalent they become. We know that about 15% of CEOs and politicians are actually sociopaths.

So, what does this mean? Sociopaths do not have an ethical compass. They’re actually missing the part of the brain that gives us the ability to feel empathy or a guilty conscious. They don’t have that. So, they’ll do whatever they want, they’ll say whatever they want, to get wherever they want, or whatever they want. So, obviously if you have this person on your team, they can’t be trusted, they can’t be cured, and if you work for one that can be really dangerous. They can catapult your career if they want to. They can also tank your career if they want to. So, it’s especially important I think to be careful around these folks. Here are just a couple of symptoms to look for, when you think you might be working with someone who’s a sociopath, which is different than a narcissist.

Charisma without Honesty 

Sociopaths are incredibly dishonest, they lie constantly, again to get whatever they want, to do whatever they want. Because they don’t have a conscious there’s nothing in them that tells them to maybe feel bad about that, so you can’t trust a word that they say. They also tend to be highly intelligent and charismatic, which is part of why they end up being really successful. They know what people want to hear, and they’re really good at delivering that, so that again they can achieve their goals.

So, highly charismatic but dishonest. They can spend a lot of time talking about how honest they are, and how impeccable their ethics are because again it’s like ‘no I’m the most honest guy in the room,’ and they’re like the most dishonest guy. People that are honest generally don’t have to talk about the fact that they’re honest because they just are, but people that are really dishonest tend to talk a lot about how honest they are because that’s their cover. So, it’s “thou doth protest too much,” I think, a little bit.  

Watch Out for Gaslighting 

Probably the last thing I want to say is sociopaths have a really strong tendency to gaslight people. If you haven’t googled gaslighting, most of the research is written about how people gaslight in personal relationships, and that’s so much at work. But, the principle’s the same. Gaslighting is when someone makes maybe a small mistake, and the person just blows them up, like they are throwing gasoline on the fire and this huge reaction to make the person that they’re gaslighting feel really insecure and embarrassed, and like oh my gosh that must have been a huge transgression, when it wasn’t. They’re just trying to get you to question your own sanity essentially. So those would be the big things that I think I see in sociopaths.  

Fortunately, I haven’t run across a ton of them, but again the higher you go in an organization the more likely you are to run across one. If you don’t know what some of the signs are, you can spend a lot of years making yourself crazy trying to figure out why this person is so difficult. So, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re working for one, the only solution is to get out of that job and find someone else to work for, because you’re never going to change them and it will make you kind of crazy.

Executive CoachingEmily Bermes