How to spot if your boss has psychopathic tendencies

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Anna Brech
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We’ve all had our fair share of difficult managers but working with a psychopathic boss is something different altogether.

According to Psychology Today, “Psychopathy is among the most difficult disorders to spot. The psychopath can appear normal, even charming. Underneath, he or she lacks conscience and empathy, making him or her manipulative and volatile.”

A core set of traits for someone with this personality complex would include cold-heartedness or a lack of empathy, shallow emotions, insincere speech, overconfidence and selfishness.

But, while psychopathy historically carries very negative associations, there are no black and whites when it comes to behaviour. Like any psychological condition, it’s a spectrum, and one which features positive elements, too. People with psychopathic tendencies often make great leaders – precisely because they’re better able to be charming, ruthless, deceptive and impulsive. 

So, how do you recognise when you have a boss with psychopathic leanings at the helm? That’s the question that author David Gillespie tackles in his book Taming Toxic People: The science of identifying and dealing with psychopaths at work and at home.

“The higher or more powerful a position, the more likely that person is going to be a psychopath,” Gillespie tells, in an interview this week. “The most obvious, immediate behaviour is that they lie. They lie a lot and they’re very convincing liars.

“At first you don’t pick up on it. Over time, you start to realise that you’ve just been told a lie and when you confront them with that lie, you get another lie.

“They make you feel like an idiot because you’ve misunderstood them or acted on what they said and they make you feel like you have a problem. That kind of behaviour — they will tell you lies almost as easily as breathing. They have no trouble doing it..”

Gillespie, says “extraordinarily confusing” and “very difficult” psychopathic bosses lean towards micro-management: “They’ll suddenly introduce new procedures in the workplace involving lots of detail and reporting to them, but you’ll find certain people who are exempt from all this.”

Gillespie says dealing with a psychopathic boss on a day-to-day basis is difficult but it can be done.

“They are highly predictable, so once you understand what’s driving them you can continue to work for them,” he says. “It won’t be fun, but you can do it and you can keep your sanity.

“Workplaces need to give employees who work around these people paths that allow them to go past or around the psychopath. They are about transparency — don’t let psychopaths freewheel and run their own show. Put in place tight processes that put structure around the way they work.

“There are no one-on-one meetings. There are group meetings where tasks are assigned and they’re non-negotiable. They stop them from acting out and make paths around them clear to those who work with them.”

Images: iStock


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.