Have you dealt with bullies in the workplace? Chances are, you were dealing with a narcissist or psychopath. Here’s how to identify these toxic types at work, according to research.
We often hear the myth that narcissists and psychopaths make great leaders and employees – that it is actually their narcissistic and psychopathic traits which foster great success. Perhaps it soothes us to think that even though these cruel and callous people are malignant in relationships they somehow benefit companies. In reality, the research shows differently. While it’s true that psychopaths seem to get promoted at higher rates due to office politics, their actual skill sets and competence tend to fall short. A study by Babiak and colleagues showed that that while psychopathy was positively associated with charisma, it was negatively associated with traits such as “being a team player,” responsibility, management skills, and overall accomplishments. Another study in 2022 of 2,969 adults revealed that psychopathic traits such as coldheartedness and self-centered impulsivity were associated with lower professional success. Unfortunately, the drawbacks to having a psychopath as an employee doesn’t end there. Psychopaths also tend to be workplace bullies. Research by Dåderman and Ragnestål-Impola (2019) revealed that psychopathic traits, Machiavellianism, extroversion, and low agreeableness predicted bullying tactics in the workplace.
What research suggests is that it’s not a psychopath’s true merit that gets them ahead – it’s actually their empty charm, combined with the ability to manipulate and con others, and communicate smoothly with people who hold power and authority – that initially “impresses” those in leadership positions to invest in them. Sheehy and colleagues (2020) assert that individuals with Dark triad traits such as narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy and what they call “subclinical psychopaths” present a “façade of normalcy” but engage in harmful sabotaging behaviors that is “potentially devastating for the organization, its mission, its employees.” As they write, “The evidence of corporate psychopaths in practice reveals that they are particularly ruthless, conscience-free managers who are largely motivated by greed and aggrandizement. Where they excel is their ability to adapt their conduct as need and context requires. They excel in recognizing those they need and those who can make their lives difficult, as well as those they can intimidate and discount. They learn, in effect, to ‘kiss up, and kick down’.”
How Do You Know You’re Being Victimized?
It’s likely that if you bring admirable and desirable qualities, credentials, achievements, skills, and natural talent to the workplace, you will be made a target by a workplace bully in your lifetime. As many as 75% of workers have experienced some form of workplace bullying whether being a direct target or witness. According to Forbes, “People become targets because something about them is threatening to the bully. Often they are more skilled, more technically proficient, have a higher EQ or people just like them better.” You may be a victim of workplace bullying if you’ve experienced any of the following:
The bully gets up close and personal in the beginning, gathering information on you to later use against you.
Psychopathic individuals know when to kiss up and kick down. They will usually use love bombing strategies to gain your trust, especially if they believe you threaten their position, promotion, or are a valuable asset to the team. They want to ensure they win the “competition” you didn’t even know you were in – so, in order to do so, they have to figure out what makes you tick first. They may get close to you to pinpoint both your strengths and weaknesses ahead of time. They might invite you out to lunches or personal get-togethers to “pick your brain,” in the beginning, pretending to welcome you graciously if you’re a new hire. You will notice that they tend to interrogate you with questions that seem a bit too personal – questions about your childhood, how you feel about your boss or fellow colleagues, your usual weekend plans, your past experiences, as well as any ideas you have. Little do you know, they will later distort and weaponize this information to misrepresent you or your work to your boss, gossip about you with other colleagues, or take credit for your ideas.
They Devalue You, Covertly or Overtly
After a workplace bully is done winning your trust, they’ll begin consuming and devaluing you. They will ensure your focus is on them and their actions rather than your work. They could demand to be in communication with you at all times, even if you don’t report to them. They might point out irrelevant mistakes or fabricated flaws because of their envy. They could downplay your achievements or fail to acknowledge them altogether; more covert bullies mix praise with punishment so they can get away with their behavior in front of others. If you protest, they could admonish you with a sarcastic, patronizing tone or condescending attitude, or dish out covert put-downs designed to provoke you – these covert put-downs will be leveraged with plausible deniability to gaslight you. They will use your reactions to their chronic mistreatment to paint you as a “difficult person” or someone who is always starting trouble to the rest of the company, even if you are a high performer who has never had this issue with anyone else but them.
They exploit and steal credit for your labor.
Workplace bullies may not have too much merit on their own, but they do have one special ability: the ability to recognize talent and capitalize off and profit off the skills of other people. If they sense that your work is doing especially well or that you bring unique ideas to the table, they will callously steal that work or ideas for their own benefit and try to put their own name on it to gain praise. This is one of the ways they attempt to climb the corporate ladder and victimize those who are high-achievers in the workplace.
They pit people against one another and lack empathy.
A good employee and authentic team player tends to bring their own unique ideas to the table while also encouraging others to succeed. They may also point out what’s not working, invite effective solutions, or share concerns because they genuinely care about the company. Psychopaths couldn’t care less about company morale or long-term sustainability and will engage in unethical actions for short-term gratification and short-lived boosts in profit. They lack empathy which is demonstrated in the horrific ways they mistreat others and handle the emotions or concerns of others. They alienate some of the most talented and hard-working people at their companies which actually leads to substantially less profit in the long run – so employers must be wary if they are looking to hire someone with psychopathic traits. Instead, employers should look to hire workers with good work ethic, insight, empathy, integrity, and a track record of achievement. Genuine empathy is a deeply underrated quality to have in corporate workplaces, but it’s actually the fuel that builds solid connections and creates major social change. Psychopaths without empathy are simply limited in what they’re capable of; contrary to popular myth, their ruthlessness does not make them an asset – it makes them a liability.
Some workplace psychopaths agitate people on purpose out of the sadistic pleasure they get watching people react to their manipulation tactics. As Nathan Brooks (2019), a researcher and forensic psychologist who studies psychopathy in the workplace describes, “Typically psychopaths create a lot of chaos and generally tend to play people off against each other…for psychopaths, it [corporate success] is a game and they don’t mind if they violate morals. It is about getting where they want in the company and having dominance over others.” Because their game is a power ploy, not a pursuit for genuine success or contributing to the greater good, corporate psychopaths don’t tend to fare well in the long run. Eventually, they get caught embezzling funds, stealing the work of others, or bullying innocent people. Their priority is themselves, not the company. Since they lack the skills to get ahead authentically and organically, once they can no longer leech off of people and are held accountable, they usually move on to another company that doesn’t know their true nature.
What To Do If You Encounter a Workplace Bully
In order to navigate a workplace bully, you have to be stringent about documentation. Avoid sharing your ideas with psychopathic colleagues one-on-one unless it is documented or in a team meeting where there are witnesses. Do not disclose any personal information about yourself. Be wary of individuals who tend to love bomb you early on. Be measured in your responses to the bully and avoid excessive contact outside of the workplace. Resist the urge to seem overly kind or vulnerable – bullies take advantage of people they think won’t hold them accountable. Practice being more assertive about the work you’ve accomplished – chances are, you’ve been too “humble” about showcasing the enormity of what you’ve achieved while the psychopathic person has been running around using your ideas as their own. You can use the information that these toxic types use psychopathic charisma to get ahead to benefit yourself in a way that is still balanced with empathy. “Promote” and sell yourself more while still sticking to your core values. If you’re a hard-working, talented person, you deserve to flourish – and you are the type of person every workplace needs more of – not the psychopath.