Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse?

Is it possible that a category of individuals who can be called “almost psychopaths” are responsible for a lot of the most severe bullying and abuse in the workplace?

Ronald Schouten (M.D./J.D.), a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, and James Silver (J.D.), an attorney specializing in criminal law, have co-authored a fascinating new book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). It’s part of the Harvard Medical School’s “The Almost Effect” series, which explores the gray areas between normal health and severe, clinically-diagnosed medical conditions.

The authors describe psychopathy as a “major abnormality” marked by a lack of empathy and behaviors that are “inappropriately deceitful, aggressive, and indifferent to the rights or feelings of others.” These behaviors are “the norm, not the exception.”

Schouten and Silver have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, but there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, which they describe this way:

Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.

. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.

Their benchmark for making these assessments is the well-known psychopathy checklist developed by Dr. Robert Hare.

The almost psychopath at work

While the true psychopath may have trouble functioning in regular society, the almost psychopath often can navigate life successfully, including — perhaps especially in — the workplace. Appropriately, the authors devote a full chapter to “Working with an Almost Psychopath.”

The chapter opens with the story of “Greta,” a smart, talented, attractive woman whose skill for manipulating others becomes evident during childhood. Once she enters the work world, she demonstrates an easy knack for lying and deceit, cultivating the right supporters, stealing credit for others’ successes, and treating subordinates poorly.

Greta, the authors posit, is an almost psychopath, and their portrayal of her will resonate with many readers of this blog. (Interestingly, they dwell quite a bit on female psychopathy.) They also discuss workplace bullying, citing studies by the Workplace Bullying Institute in support of their observation of its widespread prevalence.

Alas, they offer no easy solutions. Their suggestions include directly approaching the almost psychopath, a strategy that has backfired on many individuals. More realistically, they conclude that leaving a job may be the most viable option for dealing with an almost psychopath — an ending that we’ve seen often with many cases of bullying at work.

Does this explain things?

Many people experiencing severe workplace bullying are treated dismissively when they claim that they are being targeted by a psychopath. After all, doubters ask, isn’t that status reserved for serial killers and other “maniacs”?

For the sake of argument, let’s concede the possibility that many workplace aggressors do not fit the clinical criteria for full-blown psychopathy.

However, if this is the case, then Schouten and Silver have given us a fitting explanation for the chilling, manipulative individuals who somehow don’t meet the checklist definition of a psychopath but who subject their co-workers to horrible mistreatment. Welcome to the world of the almost psychopath.

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Schouten and Silver also co-host the “Almost a Psychopath” blog for Psychology Today, here.

Dr. Schouten talks about subclinical psychopathy in a short YouTube video here.

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19 responses

  1. The “almost” psychopath perfectly describes my supervisor. If left alone in a room with her, she is mean, scary, and stares into your eyes. When another person walks in, she transforms into another person. Five people at work quit right after she started. During your first meeting alone with her, she tells everyone that she is not a “nice” person and that she fired physicians in her other job. She lies, accuses employees of wrong doings, and is backed up by higher management because she can manipulate them into believing her. I filed a complaint with the EEOC and even retained a lawyer. The workplace retained a lawyer. Everything in her statement is a lie and I am accused of having a vengence against her. It is so crazy that because of my health, I told my lawyer I am giving up. I truly wanted to make a difference but I will hopefully I can contact politicians to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill.

    • I so identify with you. Wow. Mine was promoted after years of bad performance,because she was a minority and local. She has a high school diploma where everyone has to have a science degree minimum. Its a southern state and Public Health, she abuses power as a manager in exactly the same ways you are describing. Thanks for posting.

  2. I understand only too well the desire to understand and have explanations for the behaviour of destructive individuals in the workforce. Ultimately, it doesn’t help. From a practical perspective, it is only “useful” information to the perpetrator…and considerably less useful information than having a well defined and enforced standard of workplace behaviour.

    Empathy is not a quality that can be legislated or turned on and off entirely at will. Some folks may have less capacity for it than others. Perhaps tools can be developed and utilized that would ensure that individuals in positions of trust and authority at least have some demonstrated emotional intelligence as a condition of employment. In the end it doesn’t matter to a target or employer WHY this behaviour occurs…the result doesn’t change.

    Engineers of social change or clinicians engaged to assist these individuals professionally might want to investigate the roots and possible interventions for prevention of the nurturing of these “psychopathic” qualities (if they are indeed modifiable), but for any other purpose I can think of, it is sufficient to recognize the signs of potentially abusive employees and chart one’s course to steer clear wherever possible. I’ve chalked my experience up to incomprehensible non-sense that I am better equipped to recognize in the future.

    Having a label to attach to someone else doesn’t help. I can function without having to “understand” the peculiar incomprehensible lack of humanity that characterizes so many destructive workplace stories. In an analagous domestic violence situation, how helpful is it to know why an abuser is abusing? You still need to prioritize your own safety, get out, and stay out if you value your own life. Accord the perpetrator a similar level of responsibility for managing his/her own life and circumstances and individual “quirks”.

    For me, it was enough to recognize (after many unsuccessful efforts and requests for assistance on multiple fronts) that I couldn’t fix some of the the problems I identified. Hard thing for a problem-solver to accept, but there it was.

    • Thank you Kachina for your elequant way of explaning this type of person. I know that the truth always comes out and that God knows.

  3. I wonder how the authors define an “almost psychopath.” Would that be a score less than 30 on the Hare checklist?

    I suspect a lot of manipulative people with successful careers are psychopaths, not almost psychopaths. Most psychopaths are not violent or in jail, although all are destructive. The majority are family members, neighbors, and co-workers living and working in our communities and they can be very successful.

    The prevalence of psychopathy is estimated to be around 1% by Dr. Hare (i.e., 1/100) and 4% by Dr. Stout (i.e., 1/25). Either way, these creatures are going to be found in large institutions. If you consider that the rate of psychopathy may be higher in leadership positions, as some researchers suggest, then I suspect a lot of us have worked under psychopaths. One article I read suggested that 1% of corporate psychopaths were responsible for 26% of workplace bullying: http://www.springerlink.com/content/n530369754351084/

    I’ve read that average people score about a “4” on the psychopathy checklist, but that there are people who score well above 4, but below the cutoff for a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy. Are these the people the authors are referring to? Seems to me if someone scored a lot of points for narcissism, deceitfulness, and lack of empathy and conscience, that person could definitely make the workplace hellish, whether or not they racked up enough points for a full diagnosis.

    I guess I’m wondering how the authors determined who an “almost psychopath” is. Somebody who scored below 30? And do the authors acknowledge that full-fledge psychopaths exist, in the workplace as well as everywhere else in our lives?

    A lot of people are in denial regarding psychopaths. I used to be one of them. Now I know that Psychopaths are not only orchestrating abuses in the workplace, but in governments and countries as well.

    Watch out for them! They are clever, persuasive, and predatory. They use charm to entice victims. One little game being played out right now is convincing normal people that psychopaths can be “pro-social,” good guys, hero CEOs. Here’s the thing – the guy who is actively promoting this concept to the media is Dr. Fallon, a self-admitted psychopath.

    When I read psychopath blogs, I see how psychopaths think. What they ache for is to destroy “normals” or “empaths,” terms they describe us with. Causing us pain cheers them. Destroying us (mentally, physically, or on the job) is their delight. Quite simply, they hate us and will hurt us whatever way they can, as long as they don’t get caught in the process. They enjoy the game of destruction. Yes, these creeps are responsible for much of the workplace bullying.

  4. This looks like a ‘must read’ book. Over two years ago, after hearing me talk about my experience with bullying and the primary bully, my psychiatrist said that this person sounded like a sociopath. At first I thought that was an extreme comment. But then I did a little research on sociopathy and found many similarities between characteristics of a sociopath and the primary bully in my case (who, of course, continues to bully others). And then I wondered if maybe I should feel some compassion for the bully … who may truly have a mental health disorder.

    • I couldn’t help feeling some compassion for the bullies I have met. I pray for their happiness from a safe distance when I think of them. I feel more compassion for their families…

  5. Psychopaths consider themselves superior because they lack a conscience, which they think unnecessarily holds people back. They are predators and proud of it. In their view, the natural world is made of predators and prey, and, given that predators are typically considered the higher animals, they consider themselves superior to “empaths.”

    Psychopaths view compassion and empathy as weaknesses to be exploited. They will never appreciate the compassion we feel for them, which is wasted emotion. Instead, they consider us fools for being “weak.”

    How do I know? I read their blogs. Why? I had to understand what happened to me. Nothing made sense until I learned about psychopaths.

    Their blogs are literally sickening. There is nothing good about psychopaths – they appear incapable of even understanding the concept of “good.” For them, anything that benefits them, and them alone, is “good.”

    • I followed this area of investigation for a while. It lead me to a new understanding of the term “human resources”. From a narcissistic respective. humans are simply resources to exploit like any other for the enrichment of entities that lack compassion and empathy…like psychopaths and corporations.

      If you can stand to look through that lens for long, it becomes apparent that workplace bullying and abuse are similar practices to strip mining and clear cut logging. All about immediate gratification, poor impulse control, and no long-term sustainable planning. To someone who lacks capacity for empathy, other humans are simply part of the environment and will be consumed with gusto!

  6. Some of your readers may be interested in the field of ponerology, which is a science devoted to studying this very issue. The person who really popularized the field, a Polish psychiatrist named Andrew Lobaczewski, put forth a theory regarding how psychopaths and various types of “almost psychopaths” as you might call them work in a patterned fashion to rise to power and influence human systems. His work sort of puts it all together. And the field of ponerology is the one that could help unravel the workings of all this.

    I have an extremely comprehensive page on ponerology here for anyone interested:

    http://www.systemsthinker.com/interests/ponerology/

    • I think discussing evil is important to this topic. Many people refuse to consider that some bullies purposely hurt people. The concept of intentionally hurting others is so foreign to many of us, that it may seem inconceivable. But, if we are ever going to end workplace bullying, we have to acknowledge that some people WANT to hurt others.

      My workplace bullying experience was painful and surreal. What was most disconcerting was sensing evil, almost as if it smelled, from the first days at work. I pushed the feeling aside because it was unwanted and seemed illogical and crazy! Nonetheless, it persisted, leading to constant anxiety and a screaming compulsion to GET OUT!

      Now I wonder, is it possible that humans have evolved an ability to recognize the “scent” of a psychopath? Evolution has afforded us other self-protective instincts, we know humans subconsciously react to other humans, through pheromones, for example, and psychopaths have biological differences, at least on MRI. There is accumulating evidence that psychopaths may have genetic distinctions as well. Is there something about them that we see / smell that sets off internal alarms?

      I have come to believe that evil is real, biologically and spiritually, and that psychopaths are the embodiment of evil on earth. They are the real-life boogiemen. Psychopaths have no conscience, no remorse, and no empathy. That is bad enough, but they can’t leave us alone. They seek to control and dominate us and thrive on our pain – it amuses them. We are nothing to them but prey to be manipulated and destroyed. Honestly, isn’t this the description of evil?

      In the west, scientific and spiritual beliefs are considered separately and I view the topic from both perspectives. Science requires objectivity and proof and we need to figure out how psychopaths differ biologically and what we can do about it. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the existence of evil because ignoring it can lead to our demise.

  7. Ponerology stems from poneros, which is Greek for evil. And in my writing on it, I do talk in terms of evil. But some people object and say evil is too subjective a term. Luckily, we can have the same conversation with less subjective terms too.

    I’ll sometimes talk about malice. And the idea you’re hitting on of people wanting to hurt others and even getting pleasure from hurting others is encompassed in the concept of sadism.

    I agree with you that, far too often, the existence of malice and sadism in our world is ignored when we look at social ills because, as you say, most people can’t relate to it, at least not beyond a certain token level.

    But for many who have experienced these things, they do relate to the concept of evil and even, as you say, how there can be a palpable sensation of its presence.

    You raise a fascinating question about what kind of detection mechanisms normals may have when it comes to the psychopathological and vice-versa. I wonder if any studies have been done on that. In my series on the topic, I talk a lot about the importance of this evolutionary race between deception and detection.

    It’s important to recognize that psychopaths are not the whole problem alone. They make up only, say, 1% of the population. Another significant percentage of people consists of those with other disorders that reduce empathy or people who are simply good-hearted, but easily manipulated. Both groups can be hijacked by the psychopaths and all of these then work together. Lobaczewski laid out a detailed schema of how his research showed that this happens.

    My hope is that the field of ponerology itself will become established so that study of these issues can flourish and be given the attention it deserves. I think that would be an excellent turn of events as it would lay a foundation for future understanding, education and solutions in this area.

  8. I can so relate to this. My supervisor at a major, very well-known company held meetings where I was excluded, would literally look past me when I was talking to her, sent emails excoriating me for supposed mistakes that she copied every person involved in a project, etc. She was also a minority, and the first person of her race to get to a management position in our division. I used to think I was looking into the eyes of pure evil. When I would confront her or talk to HR, she would look them straight in the eye and lie. Despite the fact that I produced the emails, they would not do anything about her. Being laid off 2-1/2 years ago was a relief. Now I am writing my master’s thesis about the need for legislation. It is so therapeutic!

  9. Why is this called ‘Almost.’ Just because they have been able to go to school, complete tasks, and show up for work everyday does not decrease their level of dysfunction. These people have been able to become supervisors because of their Psychosis. The upcoming Healthy Workplace Legislature will hopefully help us identify these people and remove them from places in society where they are not a danger to the health and well being of others. Unfortunately, those of us with empathy always hope that these people will regret what they have done to others, but that is a characteristic of the Psychosis, they feel a sense of achievement. I hope that when these people are identified for the dysfunctional destructive people that they are, they will be removed and placed in an environment where they cannot hurt others. I have cut and pasted a quote from an article defining a Psychopath, I do not see the ‘Almost’ in the definition.

    The study of the psychopath reveals an individual who is incapable of feeling guilt, remorse or empathy for their actions. They are generally cunning, manipulative and know the difference between right and wrong but dismiss it as applying to them.

    They are incapable of normal emotions such as love, generally react without considering the consequences of their actions and show extreme egocentric and narcissistic behavior.

    Common Characteristics Among Psychopaths
    The following characteristics of a psychopath, defined by Hervery M. Cleckley in 1941 in the book Mask of Sanity include:

    * Superficial charm and average intelligence.
    * Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking.
    * Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations.
    * Unreliability.
    * Untruthfulness and insincerity.
    * Lack of remorse or shame.
    * Antisocial behavior without apparent compunction.
    * Poor judgement and failure to learn from experience.
    * Pathological egocentricity and incapacity to love.
    * General poverty in major affective reactions.
    * Specific loss of insight.
    * Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations.
    * Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink, and sometimes without.

    • Psychopaths are both difficult and dangerous. I met some of them. My last experience it was the worst one. I had 2 of them in my team and both females. My manager and my supervisor. My supervisor was very violent and dangerous. I do not work there any more since they stopped my contract but I am still afraid of them. Yes, I am afraid that are capable to pass to the ‘extreme’. The place where I leave is close to that organisation and any time I cross that area I am afraid.

      Since then I learned a lot about psychopath Also, I became member of aftermath surviving psychopath forum.
      I feel really pity for my self and my ex colleagues (some of them managed to escape, others fall sick)
      In my case I could not do a lot because the 2 Workplace Psychopaths are supported by the senior management either because they managed to manipulate the senior management or the senior management has psychopaths too, who manipulates the board or there are psychos in the board as well.

      Yes, it is like a cancer. “Snakes in Suits” is a very good book, but unfortunately I realised that I do not deal only with snakes (that would be more less easy.) but with crocodiles. ‘Crocodiles in suites’, and I am not ‘Crocodile Dundee’.
      After my worst experience I could say:
      1) yes, you have to spot the psychopath before they spot you; How? By awareness. You can spot them if you think of the past. Can you recognise all the psychopaths you met in your life? Be certain that they meet the behavioural characteristic. Do you know which and how many psychopaths have you met? Can you name them?
      2) Remember that a psychopath is not someone we hate. He/she is someone without conscience.
      3) Psychopaths are sick people and need clinical support but there is no treatment so far.
      4) You have to confront them. Yes to face them. How? Of course not by showing compassion or sympathy to them. Compassion and sympathy are for people with conscience. To psychopaths show empathy even if it sound strange. Empathy doses not mean to donate your kidney, but to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You have to understand how they think and to think the same way but without acting the same way.
      5) Psychopaths can read your mind, so pass a message to them ,’ I know you know that I know what you are and I know you know that I want you to go, to die’.
      It will be for the best of all of us, for non psychopaths but also for psychopaths since Psychopaths live a half life. The other half is their constantly changing mask. Then pray for their death.
      Amen.

  10. Pingback: Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse? | No Workplace Violence

  11. Thank you for this useful and thoughtful blog. I purchased the book and am reading it in order to put into perspective organizational change dynamics and people’s behaviors under the uncertainty and stress that often accompanies organizational change. This is especially true during the deep recession. The economic crisis of the past decade certainly raised the importance of keeping a job or getting a promotion for many people for whom their jobs represented economic and perhaps marital survival. That kind of pressure one could argue, added to work conflict, fear and stress. Clearly as the book states, circumstances bring out pathological behaviors in people. It is sad but true, that in hard times “almost psychopaths” tend to thrive as their predatory behavior allows them to target people who are weak, scared or desperate to keep their job (getting laid-off or fired during the deep recession (some say lingering recession–especially in sectors of the economy where jobs may not be coming back). Also, during organizational change and conflict when empathetic people may be slow to move on opportunity, the almost psychopath moves quickly and decisively without the drag of remorse.

    The book leaves one thinking about the aggressive and manipulative people one has dealt with in their profession and helps one to build an analytical frame of reference for parsing out behaviors and circumstances that prior to reading the book may nave been a fog.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and caring about workplace conflict. Both reading your site and the Almost Psycho book was both enlightening and salutary.

    • Thank you for the good words, and I am glad you discovered Almost a Psychopath. More and more, I regard the book as a stroke of brilliance, to the point where I now consider almost psychopaths the most threatening cohort in the modern workplace, capturing just the “right” (heh) blend of “normality” and pathology.

      I wish it didn’t strike such a strong chord. But such is the world of work today.

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