3 09 2011

I have been following some interesting discussions on LinkedIn about psychopaths in the workplace (Leaders Institute of SA group). While I believe sociopaths is probably more accurate, I have to admit psychopaths has more of a ring to it. So I will bow to peer pressure!

I won’t go into too much detail – if you are interested, google it, there is a wealth of information. But basically they are talking about people who exhibit sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies such as a lack of empathy, extreme self-absorption and focus on benefitting themselves irrespective of the cost or impact to others or to the organisation.

Many years ago I had one of these as a boss – the entire organisation was dysfunctional as a result – and more recently I have been observing (from what I hope is a safe distance) a couple of others in action courtesy of some friends who are currently suffering.

However the one area I haven’t seen much conversation about is the enablers.

The original Psychopaths in the Workplace text (which I have unfortunately forgotten the name of and hence can’t link), talks about how the psychopath can appear charming and plausible. It is part of their psyche to be able to manipulate people and you can’t do that unless you can form alliances, bring people on-board. If they were instantly repellant and obvious then they wouldn’t be so effective at their manipulation.

The stats seem to say 25% of senior execs display psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. And we aren’t just talking about leaders with poor people / communication skills, people who are driven to achieve, or people who have to do tough and unpleasant things like retrenching employees. The important difference is that for the psychopath, their focus is entirely on themselves and they completely lack empathy. Benefits to the organisation are incidental only in that they reflect well upon them. If came down to a choice between the organisation or themselves – well there really isn’t a choice.

So the people around the psychopath fall into a number of categories. The most obvious is the victims – anyone who gets in their way is in this category as they will stop at nothing.

Then there are the useful ones – they are the worker bees, often subordinates to the psychopath, who are rewarded or protected because they are useful. They might do work for the psychopath, or provide intelligence. They may or may not see the psychopath for what he or she is. They are safe so long as they serve a purpose and don’t get in the way. Any threat will be eliminated.

The other category often mentioned is those above the psychopath. While they have potential to be in the way and hence fall into the victim category, they also can be useful to the psychopath. They may be in charge of conferring promotions or opportunities, or being referees. So often the psychopath will put on the charm offensive, and these people won’t see him or her for what they truly are.

But the enablers. And here is where I am going out on a limb. My experience and observations are that the psychopath often has one or two enablers. These are people who have formed an alliance with the psychopath. They are, if you like, super-worker-bees – or perhaps henchmen. They do the bidding of the psychopath and display similar tendencies.

Are they mini-psychopaths in the making? Are they simply modelling what seems to be effective and/or rewarded behaviour? Do they have Stockholm Syndrome? I really have no idea, and maybe it is a mixture of all three.

But if they are not psychopaths, then they are almost more culpable, because they have set aside their ethics and morals to do things they know to be deleterious to others.

The psychopath doesn’t know any different.

Disclaimer: I stress that I am not a clinician and hence this is the opinion of a layperson – a keen amateur diagnostician, as I like to refer to myself.

Further information on this topic can be found in the fascinating book The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronsson). There are a whole load of resources at Amazon. And as always, Wikipedia provides us with information on the Hare psychopath test.

If you like this posting you might also like When organisations turn Cannibal and Swimming with Sharks.



11 responses

3 09 2011

Very interesting…hadn’t thought of the enablers in this sense. It brings to mind the likes of the mafia, the social dynamics of the prison system, the plethora of crime movies and how the sociopathic personality can create major cultural shifts. Hitler springs to mind. How many ordinary, everyday people managed to bend their sense of morality and ethics to enable the will of a sociopath to manifest? These big, glaring examples might be more evident to most people, because we’re generally not living them. We can view them in hindsight, as stories, as lessons to study in human psychology. Everyday situations can be so much more tricky to pinpoint and navigate.
A fascinating topic.
(PS Sorry- it’s late…I don’t know exactly the point I’m attempting to make, it seems a bit ‘rambley’ now I’ve read it back, but my bed is beckoning!)

4 09 2011

Actually Hitler is an interesting example (not that I am an historian) – but it would seem that many of his inner circle displayed similar behaviour and similar capacity for evil that he did, yet they didn’t threaten his position of power, they did his bidding, and they benefitted from becoming powerful themselves via their access to his power. Perhaps they were also enablers. As Janet notes, it would seem difficult for a system to have two or more competing psychopaths.

19 12 2012
Oliver Wendel Holmes

The Crips, the Bloods, 311 Boyz, Sex Money Murda, Hells Angels, Black Cobra, MS-13, Latin Kings, Nazis, Democrats, just to name a few are systems (gangs) that have been around for a long time and they are composed entirely of competing psychopaths. Eventually, in the mix of each of these gangs, a top dog comes out–the psychopath of all psychopaths. This leader is more ruthless, more cunning, more dangerous, physically more powerful, and more intelligent than the others. Eventually, this leader is overthrown and a new top psychopath becomes leader.

3 09 2011
Janet Devlin

Very nice precis. I hadn’t heard of ‘enablers’ in that context before.

It seems to me that ‘enablement’, if that’s a word, is a two way street – as in most social settings among animals (and, indeed, all ecosystems) there has to be a pay off for all involved in the dynamic for the system to achieve some sense of stability and be sustainable, but there is generally an agreed, if disagreeable, set of rules about roles and boundaries. In psychpathological terms, while the ‘second tier enablers’ may display antisocial or sociopathic behaviours, they may not display all out personality ‘disorder’ (as may be the case for the leader) as this threatens the integrity of the system. Pathological personality traits are not discrete phenomena, but a reflection of degree of dysfunction: the complex interplay between genes, history and situational factors. There would simply not be enough room for two or more competing psychopaths. They cannot compete too aggressively with each other or the ‘leader’ – for if their behaviour becomes a threat to the leader and/or the system, others will demonstrate behaviour that will bring it back to homestasis or equilibrium. In this way, I believe there is much in common with co-dependent relationships and family therapy models wherein, without carefully structured intervention at all levels, the dysfunctional system is maintained through inappropriate power relationships which, nevertheless, enable the system to be maintained usually to the detriment and exit (voluntarily or otherwise) of less powerful members of the system.

I do not think this is the be all end all, especially as applied in an evolutionary sense (eg think altruism, but I think this analysis can be applied to sociopolitical systems too.

4 09 2011

Thanks Janet – nice to have a clinician’s view on this! I agree that it is important for the enablers not to in any way threaten the psychopath, otherwise they become a threat. They seem to be very happy playing a subservient role in this. And also agree there is a pay-off for the, which is power over others, and access to power viw the psychopath.

The concept of codependency is interesting in this context – on an emotional sense I don’t believe it goes both ways, but there definitely is an exchange of value between them.

My advice to my friends who are in this situation at the moment is get out. There doesn’t seem to be another solution when those above the psychopath cannot see what he or she is.

19 12 2012
Oliver Wendel Holmes

The “enablers” are psychopaths themselves. Birds of a feather cluck together.

22 12 2012

Sometimes yes, but sometimes they seem to be people who think they can be “safe” or attain power by working with them, or perhaps just conform to what is being asked of them, no matter how unreasonable or unsavoury. If you think of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, people behaved in ways that they normally would not because of the influence of leaders / situation. And the experiment where people were required to electric shock other participants. The example of the Nazis – while the leaders probably were psychopathic, a lot of “normal people” went along with what was happening. The example of the Democrats – assuming you mean the political party – is pretty amusing!

If the ultimate aim of the psychopath in these situations is personal power then psychopaths working together is likely to be an unstable system….constant com-eting self-interests over-riding the group-interest.

4 09 2011
Janet Devlin

Hi Louise

1.Power: codependency usually involves a substantial power differential so that dysfunctional behaviour of one (say alcoholism) can be maintained by the fear surrounding the threat of loss of the relationship with the codependent partner/other – though there is always emotion and value involved, it is principally a power struggle in my view

2. Pick your fights: I totally agree with you that one needs to get out asap of these situations – those above the psychopath are usually afraid of that person and his/her sycophants – for very good reason and mostly wont get involved or take responsibility until considerable damage is done, if ever (see book about Margaret Tobin for example of this)

3. Codependent personality disorders: another thing I overlooked in my last post, though hinted at it, is the codependent/parasitic relationship between different types of personality disorders. The relationship between Narcissistic men and Histrionic women in a romantic sense is possibly the most well recognised and researched, but applies equally in the workplace as to the home. In essence, as indicated last time, these ‘matches’ ensure that the needs of each are met, in a highly neurotic manner, that has ramifications of others around them.

4. Borderline personality disorders and those demonstrating traits of this type are particularly difficult to address in the workplace, constantly undermining others and splitting teams, mostly in a passive-aggressive manner.

Shark Tales………….

4 09 2011

Indeed – I must loook into the codependency between different types of personality disorders. There may be an explanation there as to who and why these “axes of evil” develop.

I almost want to go back to uni and study psychology Janet – except that I am doing MBA homework at the moment and have just about enough study right now!’

The book about Margaret Tobin is Inside Madness by Melissa Sweet and was a real eye-opener, not only on that case but also on the SA mental health system. Such a loss.

4 09 2011
Janet Devlin

yes, I think you need a break for now!!!

Inside Madness was so very tragic (couldn’t remember the title) – I knew Margaret a little from NSW and most of the players from there and some from SA, as would you. Sign of just how dangerous and powerful the personality disordered and/or delusional person can be – if we needed reminding. The PD is easily tipped into psychotic behaviour under stress (eg threats to their delusional and highly fragile belief structures)

The stalking literature is also informative here – once again a powerplay with very tragic consequences for victims. I have seen examples of sociopathic or other PD ‘bosses’ stalking’ other workers in a metaphorical and actual sense in order to pull them into line when they are threatening the power base or even merely perceived to be doing so. This can be a simple as being popular with coworkers or having a good CV!!

Looking forward to collaborating on Shark Tales! Finding these discussions highly stimulating.

4 09 2011

will you have more time when you are on Xmas Island?

I am likewise greatly enjoying chatting with you on so many forums at the moment!

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