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BLOG: So your boss is a sociopath. Now what?

Robert L. Mitchell | July 16, 2013
What should you do if you personally have to work with — or for — a sociopath?

Frank Wander knows firsthand what it's like to work for a sociopath. And the former Former Fortune 500 CIO and CEO of the IT Excellence Instituterecently opined the fact that senior management tends to misinterpret and even reward sociopathic behavior as "tough, but effective." Unfortunately, it's a destructive productivity killer that management needs to recognize and deal with, particularly in IT organizations, where collaboration and teamwork is critical to success, he says.

That's all well and good for the overall organization, but what should you do if you personally have to work with — or for — a sociopath?

The first thing is to correctly identify the behavior, Wander says. He describes psychopaths as people who

tend to manipulate colleagues, especially those above them, to achieve selfish goals. They are capable of both kissing up, and kicking down. They can lie without wincing. They are capable of turning their charm on and off to get what they want. They can be confrontational, and use bullying tactics to control those around them, since collaboration and sharing are foreign to them. They are socially corrosive-and cruelly destructive.

Unfortunately, he says, few people understand the behavior well enough to realize that they're actually working for a psychopath. "What they would say is my boss doesn't care about people, he or she is nasty and uncaring, selfish, cruel, etc." Corporate psychopaths, Wander says, are more common than you might think. For those who want to do their research, he suggests picking up a copy of Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers.

So let's say that you have determined that you do indeed work for,  or with, a psychopath. What now?

If you're a senior IT leader or CIO, you need to act as a "toxic handler" for your team, Wander says. First off, do everything you can to keep the sociopath out of your area and away from your people. Second, create a healthy and productive organizational climate within your area. And finally, do damage control every time the psychopath does something negative that affects morale and productivity.

"I have worked two levels below [a sociopath], and I made sure all of my stuff got done, and never got on the kill list," Wander says.

If you're not in management, however, your options are more limited. Complaining won't work, Wander says, "because HR just goes to the sociopath, and now you are a danger to them." His advice: Keep your head down, never disagree with a sociopath, and when they over-commit to something, work to rectify the error behind the scenes.

Of course you could leave, and many people do just that. But if you truly love the work and the overall organization, consider waiting them out. The good news, he says, is that corporate sociopaths don't stick around long because they are not good leaders. "Things fall apart. Many people wait and outlast them."


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