Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work)

Reading this on the subway gets me some odd looks

Years ago, when I began learning about psychiatric disorders that can fuel workplace bullying and abuse, I found Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) to be quite the eye-opener. She started by suggesting that if we want to understand a condition that may be present in roughly 4 percent of the population, then we should try to imagine living and acting without a conscience. She went on to explore the dynamics of sociopathy, mainly in terms of interpersonal relationships.

Her bottom line? If you find yourself around a sociopath, then try to distance yourself from them.

Dr. Stout’s latest work, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020), builds strongly on her earlier, excellent volume. She explores sociopathy in different settings, including parental (if a child exhibits sociopathic traits), workplace (as in bullying and abuse), spousal/legal (especially custody battles), and criminally assaultive contexts. She also examines how private and public institutions can engage in sociopathic behaviors.

Although Stout’s advice on avoiding sociopaths still holds, she recognizes that circumstances may make it difficult to do so and offers guidance on how to interact (and not interact) with sociopaths in specific settings. In addition, she looks at potential systemic responses to sociopathy, including legal ones.

If you want to learn about sociopathy and sociopaths, then I heartily recommend both books. But if you have time for only one, then Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door is my recommendation. It is clear that the author did a lot more digging between the publication of these books. (Among other things, Stout incorporates illustrative stories shared by readers of her first book to offer new insights.)

Sociopathy at work

I was very happy to see Dr. Stout looking deeply into our workplaces. In a chapter titled “Human Evil at Work: Sociopathic Coworkers, Bosses, and Professionals,” she dives into sociopathic behaviors on the job. This represents a major expansion of the range of her investigations and may resonate strongly with those who have experienced bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors in their jobs. It has long been my ongoing hypothesis that the worst types of bullying and abuse at work — targeted behaviors designed to drive people out of their jobs and destroy their livelihoods — are committed by folks with significant personality disorders.

I was grateful to see Dr. Stout discussing our workplace anti-bullying initiatives in her final chapter, “The Nature of Good: Compassion, Forgiveness, and Freedom.” She mentions Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and me by name and touts our work in drafting and advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill.

In short, I highly recommend Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door to anyone who wishes to understand the nature of sociopathy, the behaviors of sociopaths, and how the rest of us can respond to these threats to our well-being. This is an important work.

A shout-out to our workplace anti-bullying work

Great literature may help us to understand trauma

Great literature may help us to understand psychological trauma. In a newly published essay (link here), “Ahab Rages and Odysseus Weeps: Trauma as a Core Concept for Humanistic Inquiry,” I summon Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Homer’s The Odyssey for that purpose. Drawing upon Moby-Dick, I consider the injured Captain Ahab as a workplace trauma sufferer and abusive boss. Examining The Odyssey, I see Odysseus experiencing grief and exhaustion as he tries to return home after 10 years of fighting a war.

The piece has just been posted to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, a fully online university devoted to Great Books and Great Ideas, where I am a 2022 “Fellow in Ideas.” In this side-gig role, I am contributing writings to HMU’s publications and taking part in various discussion groups.

MTW revisions (September 2021)

Dear readers, during recent months, I’ve revised and updated several popular blog entries. and I’m happy to share the links with you today:

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Recommended book list (orig. 2018, rev. 2021) (link here)

On peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing (orig. 2019, rev. 2021) (link here)

What is academic tenure? (orig. 2011, rev. 2016 and 2021) (link here

The costs of suffering in silence about bad work situations (orig. 2011, rev. 2021) (link here)

A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement (orig. 2010, rev. 2021) (link here)

“Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace,” 3rd edition

I’m late in mentioning publication of the latest edition of a work that I regard as the best one-volume, international, multi-author survey and analysis of workplace bullying: Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Theory, Research and Practice (3rd ed., 2020), edited by Ståle Valvatne Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf, and Cary L. Cooper. It is published by Routledge and can easily be ordered online.

I am not an objective party in recommending the book, as I have contributed a chapter on legal protections against workplace bullying to each edition, the latest being “Bullying and the Law: Gradual Progress on a Global Scale.” That said, the overriding value of this volume is its blend of depth and breadth, with chapter contributions from internationally recognized experts in the field. 

I’m going to take the liberty of simply pasting in the entire table of contents, from the Routledge website:

Part A: The Nature of the Problem. 1. The Concept of Bullying at Work: The European Tradition. 2. By Any Other Name: American Perspective on Workplace Bullying. Part B: Empirical Evidence. 3. Empirical Findings on Bullying at Work. 4. Individual Consequences of Workplace Bullying. 5. The Organizational Cost of Workplace Bullying. 6. The Measurement of Bullying at Work. Part C: Explaining the Problem. 7. Individual Antecedents of Bullying: Victims and Perpetrators. 8. Organizational Causes of Workplace Bullying. 9. The Role of Leadership in Workplace Bullying. 10. Bullying and Conflict Resolution. 11. The Role of Discrimination in Bullying. 12. Harassment in the Digital World: Cyberbullying. 13. Cross-Cultural Issues in Workplace Bullying. Part D: Managing the Problem: Prevention and Treatment of Workplace Bullying. 14. Prevention and Treatment of Workplace Bullying: A Taxonomy and Overview. 15. An Occupational Health Perspective to the Prevention of Workplace Bullying. 16. Managing Workplace Bullying: The Role of Policies. 17. The Role of HRM in Dealing with Bullying. 18. Investigating Bullying Complaints. 19. Bullying and Individual Coping Strategies. 20. Managing Workplace Bullying: The Role of Counselling. 21. Rehabilitation and Treatment of Bullying Victims. 22. Legal Remedies Against Workplace Bullying: An Overview. 23. Strengths and Limitations of Legal Approaches to Bullying.

***

While I’m at it, for those seeking an encyclopedic review of research, analysis, and practice concerning workplace bullying and mobbing specifically in the United States, I am happy to tout the two-volume set co-edited by Maureen Duffy and me, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2019), published by Praeger/ABC-CLIO. It includes chapters by over 20 of the leading U.S. authorities on bullying and mobbing at work, including Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

***

Folks, these books are expensive, priced for practitioner/academic audiences and for library purchases. Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace lists at $130 (paperback ed.), and Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States lists at $131 (hardcover ed.). For practitioners and scholars specializing in these general subject areas, I believe they are worthy additions to one’s professional library. However, for those on tight budgets who seek authoritative, affordable introductions with a practical focus, I happily recommend:

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009);
  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011); and,
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014).

Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

Understanding workplace bullying and mobbing: Some lockdown resources

Especially here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic is compelling many of us to shelter-in-place in our homes, or at least to judiciously limit our trips outside. For those who wish to use this time to do a deeper dive into understanding workplace bullying and mobbing, I’ve gathered together a handful of links that serve as portals to a wealth of resources.

Workplace Bullying Institute (link here) — Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of WBI, has given their information-packed website a welcomed facelift and streamlining. There is a wealth of information, expert advice, and research material here.

Workplace Bullying University (link here) — Dr. Namie facilitates an intensive, interactive, graduate-level seminar for those seeking advanced understanding and training about workplace bullying and potential avenues toward addressing it. Now available via Zoom, this is simply the best source of advanced instruction on this topic.

American Psychological Association, Center for Organizational Excellence (link here) — I served as a subject matter expert to assist the APA in developing this webpage of resources on workplace bullying. There are valuable listings and links for both employers and workers here, as well as a short animated video that can be used for training sessions.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Recommended book list (2018) (link here) — For those who want to engage in the serious study of workplace abuse, these volumes will provide considerable food for thought.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (2019) (link here) — If you are experiencing, or recovering from, bullying or mobbing at work, then I strongly recommend these four books.

“Disastershock”: A free handbook for coping with disaster and trauma

Disastershock: How to Cope with the Emotional Stress of a Major Disaster is a free handbook (link here) for individuals and communities, co-authored by Drs. Brian Gerrard, Emily Girault, Valerie Appleton, Suzanne Giraudo, and Sue Linville Shaffer. First appearing in 1989, this valuable book has just been updated to include mental health challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a brief description:

This Disastershock book is intended to help families and communities to cope with disaster related stress such as that caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Part I describes ten effective methods to be used to reduce stress. Part 2 describes 12 stress reduction methods to be used with children. Although Part 2 was written primarily for parents, teachers and other adults working with children will find it useful. A unique feature of Disastershock is that its practical stress reduction methods are described in an explicit manner making them easy to learn. 

You may freely download Disastershock by clicking here. It has been translated into over two dozen languages.

Disastershock has been praised by mental health professionals and educators from around the globe. Practicality, accessibility, and brevity (under 50 pp.) are among its key strengths; you won’t feel overwhelmed by it. I became aware of the book from one of its co-authors, Dr. Brian Gerrard, emeritus faculty member at the University of San Francisco and chief academic officer and core faculty member at the Western Institute for Social Research, on whose board I serve. I recommend it enthusiastically.

***

Along these lines, I’d like to reiterate my earlier recommendation of the John Hopkins University’s Psychological First Aid course (link here) taught by Dr. George Everly and offered for free by Coursera, a leading provider of online, continuing education courses. As I wrote in a blog post last September

Dr. Everly developed his PFA model to provide first responders who are not trained as counselors with knowledge and training to assist those who have experienced traumatic events, such as displacement due to wars, severe weather events, and other man-made and natural disasters.

In addition to completing the course myself, I assigned it to students in my Law and Psychology Lab course at Suffolk University Law School, and they responded very favorably to it.

***

Information updated, November 2021

Ten popular MTW posts from 2019

Dear Readers, I’ve collected ten of the most popular MTW posts written during 2019. If you missed them before, I hope they will prove interesting and enlightening to you this time around. Here goes:

Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival and gave him a toe tag (link here) — When Charlie Bowlby faced heart surgery, his co-workers placed bets on the likelihood that he would survive and gave him a mock toe tag before he went off to the hospital.

Speaking truth to power: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing (link here) — Bullying and mobbing are forms of abuse, not bad manners, and we should treat them accordingly.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (link here) — Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s conceptualization of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — applies to many workplace bullying and mobbing situations.

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down? (link here) — One study suggests a link between kissing up to one’s superiors and picking down one’s subordinates.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige (link here) — The burgeoning college admissions scandal has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no) (link here) — A workplace aggressor should not be given a free pass simply because they happen to be creative.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here) — I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I repeatedly recommend to others.

A short speech in Rome (link here) — The text of my acceptance speech after receiving the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, at the International Congress for Law and Mental Health.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying (link here) — Discussing two feature articles, one a piece on a former corrections officer who faced savage bullying and sexual harassment, the other a piece on bullying of resident physicians.

On following evil orders at work (link here) — What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker?

On living an “undivided life”

Parker J. Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life may have been published originally back in 2004, but it seems to have a special significance for today’s world.

Palmer suggests that many folks are living a “divided life” that can manifest in several ways:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve”;
  • “We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it”;
  • “We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits”;
  • “We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people”;
  • “We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change”; and,
  • “We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked”

Palmer says that we’re living in a “wounded world,” and it sure feels that way at times. (U.S. readers who wake up each morning to news of the latest mass shootings may specially agree.) Much of his book examines how to do inner work in response to these outer realities.

If this sounds interesting to you, then I recommend the paperback edition that includes a very detailed reader’s guide and a DVD with interviews of Palmer.

Authenticity

The themes contained in A Hidden Wholeness also resonate with the notion of personal authenticity, which I have commented on in previous entries. The professions, especially, can foster an emphasis on posturing as opposed to authenticity. As I wrote back in 2014:

What do I mean by posturing? In the context of meetings and conferences, posturing is the practice of saying “learned” things or raising “clever” questions primarily to make an impression, rather than to enrich a discussion. The two fields I am most familiar with, academe and law, are positively rife with posturing.

I’ve also suggested that inauthenticity at work can plant the seeds for an early midlife crisis. From 2013:

As a law student, lawyer, and law professor, I’ve spent a lot of time around people whose career ambitions are largely defined by others. To some extent, I have internalized some of those messages myself.

But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success. It’s an easy recipe for a midlife crisis.

In sum, it’s hard to be true to one’s self by living an inauthentic and divided life. Here’s to more wholeness for all of us.

MTW Revisions: July 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

After being bullied at work, what next? (orig. 2009; rev. 2016 & 2019) (link here) — “Oftentimes, workplace bullying leaves a target’s head spinning. Whether of the overt or covert variety, or perhaps both, work abuse can be quickly destabilizing. It’s hard to get one’s bearings. …All of this boils down to the fact that targets must often consider their options on their own. For those who are in such a position, here are several questions to ask and answer, ideally earlier rather than later….”

The sociopathic employee handbook (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. . . . Heh, among my reactions was that this handbook read like the handiwork of a sociopathic lawyer!”

What is at-will employment? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “The legal rule of at-will employment is the presumptive employment relationship in the United States. It means that an employer can hire or terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, so long as that action does not violate existing legal protections. . . . Outside the U.S., at-will employment is not the norm. In many industrialized nations, workers can be terminated only for just cause, which usually means inadequate performance, serious misconduct, or financial exigency.”

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Today, tribes may form and sustain with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible.”

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