“I, Psychopath”: Have you met this guy at work?

Many associate the term “psychopath” with serial killers and movies such as “Silence of the Lambs.” But those of us who have been studying the dark side of work know that on occasion, psychopaths appear in the workplace, and the damage they can do — legally and illegally — is tremendous.

If you want to learn more about the kinds of psychopaths who show up in boardrooms rather than on Most Wanted lists, the documentary “I, Psychopath” (2009) — now available on various free documentary websites and on demand from Amazon — may be of interest.

Meet Sam Vaknin

Sam Vaknin is a businessman and author of Malignant Self-Love — Narcissism Revisited (2001), a book about, umm, himself. A few years after penning his magnum opus, he agreed to be filmed for a documentary that would follow his “journey into diagnosis,” featuring meetings with leading researchers in the field of psychopathy.

The result is the oddly compelling “I, Psychopath.” From the site Top Documentary Films, here’s a description:

In this intriguing documentary, Sam Vaknin, a self-proclaimed psychopath, goes in search of a diagnosis. . . . Vaknin and his long-suffering but ever-loyal wife, Lidija, embark on a diagnostic road trip. . . . The 47-year-old convicted corporate criminal has agreed to take part in the pursuit of his own diagnosis… meeting the world’s experts in psychopathy in the hope that science will provide some answers for why he is like he is. These experts put Vaknin (and his wife) through a battery of rigorous psychological tests and neuro-scientific experiments.

I watched the documentary last week and was struck by three things:

First, Vaknin comes across as being no different than a number of other workplace jerks I’ve encountered over the years, arrogant and full of himself.

Second, he goes about meeting with several psychopathy experts as if he was seeking advice on his 401k or a case of persistent dandruff, and the experts respond accordingly. Yikes!

Third, his loyal wife is by his side throughout the film. Are we talking Smart Women, Foolish Choices here, or does she see a warm fuzzy side that the rest of us don’t?

Robert Hare’s work

Among those featured in the documentary is Dr. Robert Hare, whose psychopathy checklist, which measures traits such as pathological lying, lack of guilt, and anti-social behavior, has become a standard diagnostic tool. Hare’s work on psychopathy has led to two important books:

Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (1999)

Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (2007)

Snakes in Suits has become a special favorite among those trying to understand psychological abuse in the workplace. I’ve had more than one bullying target tell me that the book is tremendously validating of their experiences and impressions.

Psychopathy and abuse at work

Hare estimates that one percent of the American population are psychopaths. I’ve heard that figure dismissed as “only” one in a hundred, but to me it’s alarming.

In any event, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute urge us to distinguish between psychopathic behaviors at work and individual diagnoses of psychopathy. Their point is that workplace cultures can become psychopathic, even in workplaces not populated by hordes of actual psychopaths.

This helps to explain how some workplaces become rife with bullying behaviors. All it takes is a psychopath or two at or near the top of the management chain to establish an organizational culture of ruthlessness and abuse. Thus, the behavior is modeled, and the rest of us pay the price.

21 responses

  1. David, I will definitely check out this documentary! It is amazing how workplace psychopaths perform their craft without any feelings of wrongdoing. Thanks for an excellent blog post.

    Kevin Kennemer
    The Chief People Officer
    The People Group

    • The psychopaths I’ve had to report to and work “with” have been my managers and peers in the Chief People department. Therefore — no help was available anywhere.

      The company always come first and talk about changing culture is very cheap.

  2. This describes my woman manager! I will be reviewing this documentary! The one good thing that comes out of this is the validation that those of us that are on the receiving end of these psychopaths find out we are normal, sane people!

  3. “Their point is that workplace cultures can become psychopathic, even in workplaces not populated by hordes of actual psychopaths.”

    Good point to remember. Sometimes it’s a group effort 🙂

  4. Modeled behavior. Thank you for this reminder, David.

    When I worked at the largest private university in the world, I became deeply concerned about how the young people who came and went, working for a “churn and burn” employer, would learn to view themselves as employees. Was this kind of workplace seen as the “norm”?
    This employer took advantage of employees by instilling false hopes of large salaries for long hours and concentrated efforts to recruit students at any cost…cost to the students AND to the employees.
    Young (and mature) employees were subjected to unethical practices and tyrannical bullying each week by managers who were trained to turn a blind eye to the unrealistic, impossible expectations with “heave ho” pressure, as if they were slave mongers.
    This company has been fined millions of dollars more than once for paying “enrollment counselors” or “academic advisors” based on how many students they recruit. Because the university uses the Federal Governments student loans (the LARGEST user of these loans), it is against the law to pay compensation based on the number of students recruited, ie loans used..
    Apparently this employer believes they are exempt from following the law since they pay the fines and continue the same practice. This is a publicly held company so the mantra I heard on a weekly basis was, “We have to make a profit for the investors”. Sad to think that this “educational” institution is modeling such behavior to so many youthful employees. For many, this was their first employer…just surely not their last.
    Modeled behavior. Trickle down. There are just too many terrible examples of unacceptable practices that seem to continue to be accepted. This is what motivated me to join the grassroots movement to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill. Thank you for your continuing enlightenment on this vital issue.

  5. Ironic. Recently encountered a narcissus in my private life, David. Was completely fooled and shocked by having been his target. Opened my eyes to the existance of such a horrific ‘disease’ and the characteristics which existed in many of my former bully bosses and peers. THIS AFTER HAVE BEEN A TARGET IN THE WORKPLACE AND STILL HEALING.
    It’s frightening and sickening. The manipulation and damage these ‘people’ are able to inflict upon others is horrific.
    We ALL need to educate ourselves to this disorder and how to arm ourselves against becoming the victims of their torments!! I encourage folks to research further narcissistic personality disease.
    Thanks for the post.

      • I did extensive research on the disease. VERY difficult to treat as generally the narc does not seek treatment due to the very fact of the vicious circle of not knowing or being able to ADMIT they are not perfect.

        Many sites out there on the net which go into details, Mary. It’s a frustrating, complicating, and to myself, depressing even learning about the illness.

  6. Ben – I thought that would be the case. I have known people like that, but haven’t had them impact my life. It’s hard to watch others be abused, though.

    Thanks for the info.

  7. Excellent article. For me the most sickening and amazing thing is that people can talk about the havoc these people cause to other peoples lives until the cows come home, but it is allowed to continue. That permission is given by the organisation itself, ( and of course the managers) by doing nothing to stop it, and by the employees, by the same method. We must push for laws that convict and punish proven practitioners, and perhaps start an “Employment Offender” register, so that corporate criminals will find it difficult to obtain POSITIONS OF AUTHORITY IN THE FUTURE. ….. DO NOTHING, AND YOU’RE TAKING PART ……….

    • Completely agree with you, IAIAN! Been there, done it, (spoke up) unfortunately and was OUSTED aka bullied until I could barely stand and then, eventually wrongly terminated.
      If I had to do it all over again, however, I WOULD.
      Management styles DO trickle down from above as we know. YES, push for LEGISLATION TO END THESE CORRUPT CORPORATE CRIMINALS!
      No one should have to work under a bully. NO ONE.

  8. Thank you, everyone, for these comments. I’ve been too preoccupied with a couple of things today to be able to respond individually, but I found these responses very interesting — I didn’t expect this post to be so popular — but it obviously relates to the experiences of many who have experienced bullying and abuse at work and elsewhere.

  9. Namie used to say workplace bullies were not psychopaths. Does this mean he has changed his mind? It has been clear to me for several years that the worst of them and one of the ones I came into contact with were obvious psychopaths for years. Yes, it is the ones at the top that are generally the psychopaths who then create a culture of bullying. In my experience at a native hospital they were in mid-management and able to get full control because of the lack of sophistication in administration. Finally someone is discussing the psychopaths, thank you.

    • I’ve never heard Gary say that bullies are never psychopaths. I think his main point has been that most bullying behaviors are committed by people who would not be diagnosed as psychopaths. I think many of us are pretty much in agreement on the power of a single psychopath at the top to create a culture and to model behavior.

  10. Well done, Ben. Unfortunately, a predictable result, given the lack of teeth in the legal process ( if you can call it that). Not only should the offenders be listed and prevented from repeating their poison, in my opinion, but I also feel that those who, by their silence, condoned the prosecuted behaviour should be held to some account, probably within the job. Good luck for the future.

  11. It’s a compelling and interesting documentary, but I have to sound a warning about jumping to conclusions that “bullies” at work are “psychopaths”. Psychopaths are really quite rare in the non-imprisoned population, and while it might be tempting to ascribe someone’s behaviour at work to a personality disorder, it can have really dangerous side effects (for them and for you). This issue has not been treated well in the media, with multiple (reputable) news sources, both here in Australia and abroad publishing checklists to figure out if your boss is a “psycho”, and suggesting that you could be sitting next to one. I really think we need to evaluate these behaviours as calmly as possible. Of course there are psychopaths out there, but “diagnosing” people (and that is implicitly encouraged in some sources) can do more harm. I don’t think any of this is inconsistent with David’s cautions above, and the clarifications offered of Gary’s position… but just my two cents worth…

  12. Carlo – good comment. Really, whether a bully is a bona fide psycho or not, the results are the same. Sometimes it’s helpful (for some reason) to be able to find a reason for someone’s bad behavior so we ascribe these different labels.

  13. Sad, but true, these thuggish bullies steal careers and reputations from thousands of consciencious employees. No Public Employee has protection against the ruling by the Supreme Court, Garcetti v. Ceballos, (2006). The laws and courts give “inopposite” directions to employee’s, e.g. if you see, bullying, physical sexual abuse, neglect; it is the law to report. But in the Supreme court ruling, Garcetti v Ceballos if your complaint, words are any part of your job duty you can be fired. The courts rule for management, stating management must be able to “run the company the way they want without interference”. To government, illegal, abusive, neglect, fraud is “efficient management”? This 2006 ruling makes the laws to report “inopposite”. You can’t have it both ways, e.g. doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, teachers, police, border protection agents, FBI, attorney’s by law must report illegal doings, but if you do so and it is part of your job duty you will loose your job. Read Christine Totten from Lewis and Clark Law Review. Google, “Silence in the Hallways”, Read about principal John Sullivan from Yorktown School District. There are Union’s that allow altering of personnel files because if they speak out for one employee this jepordizes their jobs. Taxpayers pay for all the “behind-the-scenes” billions of corruption with unlimited taxpayer funds in which taxpayers are never made aware; hiring huge attorney firms to set up and get rid of anyone who cared enough to speak. I pray that a passionate writer or journalist gets permission from their management to research and write about this hugh Public National Policy issue.

    There are laws made, laws published, laws amended, laws taught at federal, state and local levels, but with Garcetti v Ceballos these laws mean nothing except billions of dollars lost by taxpayers unaware that their money has been going toward covering up illegal management actions. Laws mean nothing unless there is accountability for following laws.

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