How to deal with dark personalities at work [Wise Wednesdays]
The higher up you go in an organisation, the greater the prevalence of narcissists and psychopaths. Careers with the highest proportion of psychopaths are CEO, Lawyer, Media (TV/radio), Salesperson and Surgeon.
Reasons for these unfortunate statistics include the use of charm, empty confidence that is interpreted as leadership and a talent for covert manipulation of outcomes. As a result, corporate psychopaths have also been called Seductive Operational Bullies.
Interactions with such personalities at work will leave you feeling off-balance, drained, demoralised and needing time to recover. If you’re an empath like many of my clients, you’ll feel the impact very strongly. Your work may suffer as well as your health.
A few years ago, I came across some research examining the “Dark Triad”. The term describes people who have a combination of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. In other words, they lie, cheat and manipulate without shame or guilt to get what they want. This knowledge did help me to steer clear of certain types of people and situations, and I share some of it below.
YOUR MOST POWERFUL SHIELD IN PROTECTING YOURSELF: PRESENCE
Strong parallels between psychopathic behaviour and mindfulness or presence have been documented in that they are present-focused, undisturbed by emotion and have insight into subtle patterns. This finding may be unsettling but it offers a way forward.
While those with “dark triad” traits are seen as powerful perpetrators who lack empathy, they also appear to be seeking fulfilment – like everyone else - but in destructive ways. So some of their unpleasant behaviours are simply learned reactions to certain triggers.
This is good news since you might be able to defuse the trigger i.e. they may respond to a shift in how you show up and an honest conversation, as one of my clients discovered.
It’s also good news because you can develop stronger presence or mindfulness any time.
In essence, the person who is the most present in a relationship dynamic is the one who will have the ultimate advantage. It’s the person who will perceive the situation most clearly and have the most options for action. And this can be done through careful self-reflection to expand awareness.
With presence you can:
1) pick up on unhealthy dynamics early so you can take action much more quickly; and
2) shift your own behaviours to break the dynamic (you can’t control others but you can influence the relationship dynamic by making different choices).
This requires an acceptance of the mirror effect: Everyone who provokes an emotional reaction when we interact with them is telling us something about ourselves - we are mirrors for each other.
We can use our reactions to point us to our misperceptions and therefore our unclaimed power and agency in the situation. Reclaiming these will lead to the optimal outcome one way or another.
For example, if I were coaching you, I’d ask you a series of questions to help you dig into your own perception and beliefs about the situation. This would help you understand how you’ve somehow found yourself dancing with a narcissist or psychopath and therefore what your options might be to move forward.
Once that becomes clear, it’s easier to take action to protect yourself and your work and even reach a positive outcome.
Here are some of the questions you might reflect on based on the key dark triad traits that you’re likely to encounter.
Which of these traits do you find yourself exposed to the most? Choose one and use the questions to reflect on where you can shift your own behaviour to break the dynamic.
1) Manipulation, lying and deceit (Machiavellianism):
· How much of your motivations and plans do you reveal to others? Might you be revealing too much, too quickly?
· Do you tend to focus on others in relationship dynamics and forget about your own goals and needs?
Tip: Practise slowing down in conversations and relationships to see if there is balance and build trust rather than assume it. Use silence and pauses to check in with your intuition and allow others to share information.
2) Lack of empathy and absence of concern (Psychopathy):
· Do you tend to make excuses for people’s bad behaviours, ignore red flags and loosen your boundaries to keep the peace or avoid confrontation?
· Are you idealising a situation or person because you’re worried about what it might mean if you faced reality (e.g. that you’ve wasted your time or that you may have to move on)?
Tip: Give yourself space for self-soothing after difficult interactions. Notice if there is anger or rage. Allow yourself to use its energy for the good and to bring your thinking back in line with the reality of the situation.
3) Excessive self-importance and need for admiration (Narcissism):
· How might you be playing small, minimising your contribution or being blind to the value you bring to the table?
· Where are you embodying a sense of not being good enough (this can look like excessive self-effacing or helpfulness/subservience with a lot of imposter thoughts and self-criticism).
Tip: Start an appreciation practice (a different flavour of gratitude practice where you thank yourself for all the things you’re doing and qualities you’re bringing). Speak up and don’t be afraid to either interrupt, change the subject or go quiet and excuse yourself if someone is just talking about themselves.
Ideally, Dark Triad individuals are best dealt with through systemic solutions that may include Human Resources and team leaders. So it’s important not to isolate yourself from support where available. If you’re in a position of responsibility, deal with these problems early.
But even if it’s your boss, you can use some of the tools discussed here to try and shift the dynamics.
For example, my client L was at the end of her tether constantly being manipulated into fixing her boss’ mess and trying to meet vague goals and moving targets. After a coaching session where we explored her rescuer persona, she experimented with being very present and not jumping in with solutions to everything her boss threw at her. The silence and non-reactivity she displayed slowed her boss down and shifted the dynamic in the conversation. Suddenly, nothing would stick. Yet work got done. This meant that she left the meeting much more grounded and without new problems on her to do list. Importantly, it also meant she averted a potentially disastrous situation for the organisation by neutralising the momentum behind an unethical decision her boss was trying to push.
Of course, this is a one off and those bent on manipulation will catch up fast and come up with a new strategy. Then you have to consider your long term plan.
- Remember you have options and rights
- Presence is your secret shield
- Identify exactly what bothers you and use this to defuse triggers (see where you can disrupt the dynamic by empowering yourself with new beliefs and behaviours)
- Get support to solve the situation systemically where possible
- Leaving is always an option. You always have other opportunities available to you.
The Psychopath in the C-Suite. INSEAD.
Who’s Afraid of the Workplace Psychopath. University of Worcester.
Introducing the Dark Empath. Psychology Today.
Dark Personalities in the Workplace. Durham University.
Dutton K The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.