When people think of a psychopath, they often conjure up images of serial killers. And while most serial killers likely are psychopaths, many more psychopaths aren't murderers. In fact, research over the past couple of decades reveals that some psychopaths are successful professionals who excel in the workplace.
Unfortunately, that means there's a chance you might find yourself working next to a psychopath. And while a psychopathic co-worker might not pose any physical danger to you, there certainly is a big emotional risk.
Dealing with a workplace psychopath can take a toll on your psychological well-being. And it could hurt your career if you're not careful. Learning how to spot a workplace psychopath and understanding how to deal with one can reduce some of the damage.
How to Spot a Successful Psychopath
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Research and Personality titled "The Search of the Successful Psychopath" examined what separates psychopaths who become criminals from psychopaths who succeed in business.
Researchers concluded that successful psychopaths share the same core features as other psychopaths. They're arrogant, dishonest, and callous. They experience little remorse, minimize self-blame, exploit people, and exhibit shallow affect.
What made successful psychopaths different was their level of conscientiousness. Psychopaths who become criminals rank low in this personality trait. Successful psychopaths, however, rank higher in conscientiousness.
Ranking higher in conscientiousness means that successful psychopaths are less impulsive, negligent, and irresponsible than the psychopaths who live a life of crime. That doesn't mean successful psychopaths are always law-abiding citizens, however. They just might be smart enough not to get caught.
Psychopaths are most often male. But that doesn't mean you'll never encounter a female psychopath. Although they're not as common, they do exist and they can be just as harmful as male psychopaths.
Why Psychopaths Sometimes Succeed in the Workplace
Psychologists estimate 1 percent of the population meets the criteria for psychopathy. Yet about 3 percent of business leaders may be psychopaths. By comparison, an estimated 15 percent of prison inmates are estimated to be psychopaths.
So why would a disproportionate number of business leaders be psychopaths? Researchers suspect their characteristics and behavior may give them some competitive advantages in the workplace.
For example, they're quite charming. That can come in quite handy when someone is looking to network with powerful people.
They also have a grandiose sense of self. When they say they can skyrocket the company to new heights, they believe it. And they often convince others that they're capable and competent too.
They're also good at manipulating people. They know how to use guilt and flattery to get what they want.
How to Deal With a Psychopath
Whether you're convinced your boss is a psychopath or you're concerned your colleague is a psychopath, there's a good chance that you've encountered at least one psychopath in the workplace.
Switching teams, changing departments, or finding a new job altogether may not feel like an option. But it's best to avoid psychopaths whenever possible because working alongside a toxic person will take a toll on your psychological well-being.
If you must deal with a psychopath, try these five strategies:
1. Keep Your Emotions in Check
No matter how frustrated or upset you feel, keep your emotions in check. Losing your cool gives a psychopath more power over you, as he'll see that he can manipulate your emotions. Present a calm demeanor at all times.
2. Don't Show That You're Intimidated
Psychopaths often use intimidation to control others. A psychopath may make subtle threats, stand over you while you're talking, or use aggressive language to get you to back down. Stand your ground in an assertive manner, and report incidents of bullying or harassment to human resources.
3. Don't Buy Into Their Stories
Psychopaths often use long-winded tales to paint themselves as victims. They often blame other people and refuse to take any responsibility for their wrongdoing. Showing sympathy for them plays into their hand, so keep discussions centered on facts only.
4. Turn the Conversation Back on Them
Pointing out a psychopath's flaws can be the best way to disarm them. So when a psychopath blames someone else, turn the conversation back on them. Say something like, "Are you doing OK today? I saw how you responded in the meeting today and I wonder if you might be stressed out."
5. Opt for Online Communication Whenever You Can
A 2016 study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that psychopaths excel at negotiating when they're communicating face-to-face. Online conversations make it difficult--if not impossible--for them to charm their way into a better deal. So consider requesting all communication occur via email if you can.
Build Your Mental Strength
If you can't escape daily interaction with a psychopath, it's especially important to work on building your mental muscles. Get proactive about taking care of yourself and managing your stress.
If you're struggling, consider talking to a mental health professional. It's difficult to stay mentally strong when you're working alongside a toxic person.