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Suspect You Might Be Working for a Psychopath? Here’s How to Cope

As new research suggests that one in 25 corporate leaders may display psychopathic traits, experts at Wake Forest University offer survival tips for employees concerned their own professional fate may lie in the hands of a potential psychopath.

“Leaders who are psychopaths are extremely charming, highly manipulative, see other people as objects and don’t feel guilty about using people to reach their own ends,” said Jamie Dickey Ungerleider, Ph.D, associate professor of Family & Community Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center “Most people at work have good intentions, but a psychopathic boss does not.”

According to Ungerleider, evaluations and reviews may not reveal a psychopathic boss – after all, these leaders often are seen as charming and trustworthy. Ungerleider also warns employees that when working for such a boss, striving for higher levels of success could actually be a pitfall if the boss feels threatened by your good performance.

“These people use the skills and talents of people under them to shine for their own managers,” Ungerleider said. “If you shine a little too brightly while you’re helping them stand out, that becomes a threat. Most of them won’t hesitate to throw you under the bus.”

Taking Control

Evelyn Williams, associate vice president of leadership development/professor of practice at Wake Forest University Schools of Business, stresses that if employees understand their boss’s work style, they will have a road map to help them deliver work that will please even a difficult boss.

Williams suggests that employees ask themselves the following questions:

· How does my boss like to communicate?
· Does my boss focus on details or big-picture thinking?
· Which is more important to my boss: analysis and data or human relationships?
· Does my boss use introverted or extroverted discussion patterns?
· When it comes to decisions, does my boss like quick resolution or decision by committee?

“Knowing the answers to these questions allows you to take control of your working relationship and do a good job of managing up,” said Williams. “You won’t feel like the victim and will have control of how to manage the relationship since there are multiple ways to accomplish these tasks.”

Both Ungerleider and Williams encourage employees to seek validation from their coworkers and learn whether others share their concerns. This can include networking outside of an employee’s own department to tracking decisions and assignments so the employee and boss can agree on terms of workload and delivery.

Remember: You might have a difficult boss, but that doesn’t mean he or she is a psychopath. Employees might be quick to label an overwhelmed or nasty boss as “psycho” even if the boss truly does not exhibit psychopathic traits.

“Sometimes people put a boss in that category because they’re being treated badly, but those are bad actions or bad decisions, not a personality disorder,” Ungerleider pointed out.

The original study regarding corporate professionals with psychopathic traits, “Corporate Psychology: Talking the Walk,” by lead author Paul Babiak, was published in Behavioral Sciences & the Law.

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