A brief overview of dysfunctional pathologies
A long time ago I was having a conversation with my team over lunch about psychopaths and sociopaths. I was trying to explain the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. The way I phrased it was that a psychopath would disembowel a dog because they wanted to exercise power and enjoyed the dog’s suffering. A sociopath would do it because they were bored and wanted to know what the inside of a dog looked like. On the way back from lunch we got in the elevator to go back to the ground floor. There was building work going on so there was a lot of plastic sheeting inside (think scene out of Dexter). Someone from another team got in. About half way down, one of my team suddenly said “You know what? I don’t think I’d have a problem with disembowelling a dog…”. The moment hung in the air. The non-team member looked, how shall I put it, rather spooked. This led to hilarity on the people who had been part of the original conversation. Which spooked the non-team member further. When the elevator doors opened at the bottom — they actually set off at a run.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot. And one of things that struck me is that we all work under the assumption that people are mentally together and are constantly surprised when (we) they are not. I asked myself the question — how would I behave if I knew I was working for a sociopath or a psychopath or a narcissist. It turns out I would have been a whole lot more effective in my career if I’d assumed the people I was working for had elements of these personality traits. There were times where I knew I was working for someone who was consumed by self interest or had a huge ego (or was a little bit evil). Knowing that enabled me to work around it and, in some cases, use it to my advantage. I had my boss (my manager’s manager) who was openly self interested. He said in our first meeting that his job was just a stepping stone and we should get what we needed from each other to progress. We then (over some beers) did tried to score ourselves on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and he was disappointed that he didn’t score higher (in particular higher than me). Looking back it was one of the most open and productive relationships I’ve had with a manager. We were both open that we were a bit different (or broken depending on your viewpoint) and that made us more able to understand how to get the best out of each other.
Which leads me to the punchline of my joke. A sociopath, psychopath and narcissist walk into a bar. The sociopath sets fire to the table because they are bored. The psychopath sets fire to the table because they enjoy seeing things burn and want to see everyone fleeing in terror. The narcissist sets fire to the table because they think the firelight will really set off the colour of their shirt. Then the narcissist writes me a rude email for listing them last in the joke (yes, I did that on purpose).
What matters here is the trigger for the behaviour. When you know how someone is motivated they become predictable. Predictable people are easy to work with. Now, in extreme cases (such as trying to burn the bar to the ground) that preditability may actually mean you need to get out of there as quickly as possible. At the very least you can come up with a reasonable strategy for managing the immediate situation.
We also have a little of each of these types in all of us. Who doesn’t love being at the centre of the universe? Boredom drives good people to do very strange things. And, I defy anyone not to have had the urge to burn it all to the ground from time to time. Though it’s worth noting that people who take delight in the suffering of others or wanton exercising of power are the type you most want to steer clear of.
So how should you cope with the above (and recognise it in yourself)?
- Psychopaths. The biggest thing you’re going to notice about psychopaths is that they want to exercise power. They take delight in using any power they have. Often punitively or without regard to the consequences to other people or, in some cases, because of them. The best defence against psychopaths is to steer clear of them. When confronted with their actions (and consequences) they will seek to punish the person raising them. Rather than confront them directly — ask them whether they have considered how this will affect other people. A functioning pscyhopath needs to have someone they listen to who possesses empathy to fill in the gaps. Otherwise their use of power becomes unchecked and this leads to very bad things. However, a functioning psychopath is one of the most results focused people you’ll ever meet as long as you can stop the bodycount from happening.
- Sociopaths. Boredom and curiosity are the drivers here. You keep a functioning sociopath out of trouble by keeping them stimulated. If you can provide sufficient stimulation a high functioning sociopath may be among the more productive members of your team. However, they are likely to require some coaching lest they leave a trail of destruction behind them. In a non-functioning sense this person can be incredibly destructive and impossible to predict because they’ll just follow their curiosity. Pair a sociopath with someone who has a clear view of the goal you’re pursuing. Give them your impossible problems. Show them that mayhem caused by their curiosity leads to consequences which are going to be quite boring for them. Then let self interest take over.
- Narcissists. Driven by status and self interest. This person doesn’t care as long as they come out of things looking good. This can result in being more interested in looking good than meaningful results. They also want a high power gradient to show that they are important but are more interested in the trappings of status rather than the exercise of power. If you’re working for a narcissist and can figure out how to make them look good you are going to go a long way. And a good rule in general when understanding the care and feeding of your own manager is understanding how to make them look good and what success looks like for them. The same applies to anyone — though more extreme narcissists will engage in some of the more destructive office behaviours (like claiming credit for things, throwing you under the bus when things go bad and promoting sycophants). Beware of bringing a narcissist bad news — if it has the possibility to make them look bad they may bury it (or they may bury you).
Now, here’s some bad news. From my career it’s fair to say that some of the most senior people I know have elements of all of the above. Quite a few of them very strongly. It’s possible to be very high functioning and quite messed up. If I look at myself then I can see elements of all of these things. To the extent I developed a series of checks and balances. For example:
- Never punish someone for bringing you bad news. Seriously, take a deep breath and thank the person for being honest with you.
- Encourage dissent. You want people to disagree with you. You want people to tell you when you’re stepping over a line. A warning sign is when the dissent stops — think of it as all the animals in the forest going quiet because there’s a predator. It may mean you’ve turned into that predator.
- Never claim the credit for project success. Let the people who did the work bask in the limelight. It doesn’t matter what behind the scenes work you did to ensure alignment, open doors and smooth things over. It honestly doesn’t matter if no one ever knows the extent of this. Your team’s success reflects on you.
- Always claim the blame for things going wrong. From time to time the sky will fall in. Stuff will go wrong. That’s when you need to be present between your team and your management. If you can’t do that then you can’t turn it into learning and you’ve wasted the moment. Which in turn affects your future reflected glory prospects.
- Don’t use your own position to get perks. An example of this was my team was in the middle of a office move (one of my most hated activities). At the start of the process I asked people which desk was the one nobody wanted to have. I took that desk. If you want to defuse status behaviours in other people then role model the opposite yourself.
In summary — we’re all a bit broken. As time passes we become more entrenched in our brokenness unless we reflect on it. We will all indulge in psychopathic, sociopathic or narcissitic behaviour from time to time. Behaviour can be addressed. And our intentions do not matter one iota. More to the point we need to stop assuming that the people we’re dealing with are only motivated by goodness. There’s a darkness inside everyone — accept it and either work with it or get away from it. A good starting point however is to assume that everyone is a pscyhopathic, narcisstic sociopath. You’re in for fewer surprises that way.
Note that in writing this — I’m not in any way a qualified pyschologist. These are my musings as someone who has spent a large portion of their adult life trying to figure out why they don’t seem to think in the same ways as most of the people around them.