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Your Boss Isn't Just A Psychopath—It's Way Worse Than That

Winners at office politics tend to be psychopathic—as well as narcissistic and Machiavellian. These "triads" fly up the corporate ladder, but there are ways to minimize their effect on your success and happiness.

It’s estimated that 3 million Americans are psychopathic—meaning they display callous or non-empathetic tendencies; that, perhaps one in 10 on Wall Street are; and it’s even suggested that a touch of psychopathy may be necessary to reach the top.

Psychopaths are also likely to be narcissistic (self-loving) or to have a Machiavellian streak (detachment, liking for games-playing). These days, more and more people are "triadic," says British psychologist Oliver James—meaning the people in your office have all three disorders at the same time.

James blames the changing nature of work. In the past, jobs were straightforward: you made stuff, and you were compensated accordingly. Now, in many service industries (PR, finance, TV) it is hard to say who should take credit. Triads thrive with such ambiguity, mastering how to accentuate their part in the positive, while downplaying their negatives.

"The perception of what you’ve contributed becomes as important as what you’ve actually done," James says. "Whether you get promoted and how much you get paid depends largely on the subjective valuation of your boss. That means that office politics becomes more important. Making your boss like you, and encouraging them to believe you are doing a good job, is as important as actually doing a good job."

In his new book, Office Politics, James says we need to be better at spotting dangerous types (dangerous to our careers), and understand that such people are likely to lie and say nasty things behind our back. "Whether you work in the corporate sector, a small business or a public sector job, the system you are in is liable to reward ruthless, selfish manipulation," he says. "The likelihood of your daily working life being sacrificed by a person who is some mixture of psychopathic, Machiavellian, and narcissistic is high. If you do not develop the skills to deal with them, they will eat you for breakfast."

James interviews 50 people, including narcissists, psychopaths and Machiavels, and people who play office politics well. For example, James profiles a New York broker who deceives his boss into thinking he understands a complex financial instrument (it sounds familiar). The broker’s method is to use phrases like "correlation co-efficient" (that we think we might understand, but don’t), and drop that he has an old-money background. "Jan" a respected professor, has a second-rate mind, but "a great talent for acquiring, and taking credit for, others’ ideas."

James says people need four skills for office politics:

  • Astuteness: "being able to read others, your organization, and yourself" (helps size up the lay of the land)
  • Effectiveness: finding the right tactics, and "choosing the right moment and performing the words and deeds effectively, always with … deliberate pretenses and acting"
  • Networking: maintaining relationships, so you have allies, and can move into another position, if necessary
  • The Appearance of Sincerity: you want to be yourself. But sometimes you create an impression that just seems sincere.

In other words, you need to be just a little like the triads to work among triads. "The people who are pious and say 'I don’t believe in that kind of thing’ are just lying to themselves," says James. "We are all office politicians. One in five communications are untrue."

"It’s no good if you’re acting all the time. There needs to be a connection between who you are and who you are acting. But, at times, you need to put on a performance."

James reckons that people who are able to play office politics not spitefully, but consciously, deliberately, and playfully, stand the best chance of survival. He believes in fact that the art is strongly related to emotional health (his main interest). If you don’t play the game, he says, you’re liable to get steamrollered—in your career, and emotionally speaking.

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  • omg8221 lity

    I always knew something is very scary about this man, my ex with a high IQ and evil. Who is also a president 'infidelityinvest' he ended up with so many promotions while others got fired,that was no coincidence.He did one of his "best works" in our divorce trial and had told me he has the power in our courts! (I didnt believe him at first) you can bet this firm hob nobs with all judges all the way up. All his lies became the truth and I was objected to for every truth which I tried to tell.He turned the abuse completely around, ultimately got to control the marital assets worth millions and gets to keep all the dividends on my share, while I get the depreciation only. They should have cameras in our courts to see what really goes on and how judges are blinded by these psychos...its a psychopaths playground and they love the brutal caos they cause.I am in debt, but wonder if his threats will lead to greater harm. At least he's out of my house!! Watch out abby!

  • lou

    I have a theory on how a person becomes psychopath. There could be a few examples but it comes down to some sort of emotional pain that they cannot get away from (this would happen mainly in early childhood when they don't know how to deal with pain). The emotional pain is so great that they cannot handle it. One example would be continuous rejection from parents. The pain is raw and day in and day out they feel this pain till one day they just let their emotions/conscience die. The pain is gone. Or.....they're putting their parents through pain over something that is not their fault and they cannot handle the pain they feel over their parents grief so again the child lets his emotions/conscience die. The pain is gone.

  • Jackie

    read the theory of positive disintegration by Dombrouski. levels of emotional development.wonderful material.

  • Coachypno

    Thx Jackie, very helpful reading! It is tightly related to gifted children by the way, how about that... ;/

  • Coachypno

    Why would those managers act this way?  You could probably figure out a sub-personnality that is controlling them that moment by observing them in action: their behaviour, as irrational as it seem, is in fact the ways of a brillant spoiled rotten child, on a mission to get something or get at someone. They can act in a "relatively" strategic way, but show irrational and low-morality patterns. It snaps in when there is a signal to do so.

    The "proper" values we thrive for are not in the "program" they're running under... They feel they have the right motives and that casualities are not relevant. Childishly. Don't get me wrong, we are all framed like this, the difference is in the programs and the triggers.

  • disorderedworld

    The damage that triads do
    extends way beyond office politics. The workplace is where most of us living in
    developed countries will experience their damaging behaviour, largely because
    organisational hierarchies and cultures often support them. But it is becoming
    clear that every society on earth contains a small but active minority whose defective
    personalities are such that they can affect hundreds, thousands, even millions
    of other human beings in negative ways. The psychologically normal majority
    need to come up with much more effective ways of dealing with them than
    anything we have been able to devise so far. Having the good guys continually lose
    is no way to improve our workplaces or our societies.

  • Winning Faith Assembly

    Office politics exist. Mindset is important; if we decide that we want to have a good working relationship with our boss, then we would try the recommendations as started in this article

  • Jcm2323

    So become a part of the problem to deal with the problem/ psychopath? Yeah that makes a lot sense and is like saying, "kill or be killed." The real solution is to walk away from these people and way of life. Become self employed, and learn to help people.

  • lady bug

    Absolutely true.

    When I read 'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding, I thought thank goodness that doesn't happen in real life. I was so wrong.

    I had a psycho boss and fought back, I really thought that being honest and doing one's work well was the right thing to do. I was so wrong.

  • Anne Miles

    I agree with this article. I have since done some additional training to be able to spot these kinds of people and to work out how to better manage them. Depending on where they are in the command chain affects how I would deal with them. I've learned that if they are the owner or the ultimate decision maker - best move on. If they are allowed to behave the way they are and the boss is doing nothing to stop it (typical) then move on. 

    You cannot change someone else, but you can protect yourself. I think that's the key thing.

    I agree with  here - in my experience the one who is the victim is often the loudest and the one that is looked upon as having something wrong with them. My advice is to take the emotion out of it, keep a careful diary of all instances for a number of months and collect the data quietly, seek witnesses, get proof however you can (legally). Once you are armed with the evidence you can then take it to management, formally. Have a witness in all meetings where there are likely issues. It is then not just about your word against theirs. These people are very persuasive and cast enough doubt over who you are to likely win over.

    P.S. I'll add one thing to @Maxim's comment here - money is an amplification of who we are. Alone it is not the reason that problems exist, these problems will exist at any financial level. There are good people that do even better for the world because of money, but if you are that kind of person the money will simply amplify who you are including the way they behave in the quest for more of it.

  • CitizenWhy

    Good article. Neglected to mention that your boss's boss or Human Resources will do nothing to deal with this person. If you complain you will be the problem in their eyes.

  • Americus Null-Dalit

    Yes, some of the traits are needed, but more as managerial skills. But recognizing those sadistic predators has become a survival skill in today's workplace; with more complex skills needed.

    I survived both stalking and battery from a couple of predators, including being thrown over the third floor railing. Their sense of entitlement about their behavior is an unrecognized workplace hazard, and can be deadly to coworkers who don't know the behavior traits. The fact that they are, in fact, a "second-rate mind" allows them to self-justify their actions and behaviors.

    To marginalize it as just "office politics" is the same as saying you deserved to be abused, or bullied. Or, it was only "attempted murder", no one actually died; if you would just do what they want, quit doing "stuff" to provoke them, they wouldn't be like that.

  • Cynthia Rouse

    This type of sabotage happens to almost everyone, at some point during their careers. It is difficult to work with people who do not share your values, or any values, for that matter; but not to worry, the worse their actions, the worse their karmic balancing. The best thing that you can do is learn the signs and avoid this type of person like the plague, because they are a plague. The ruination these types of people can cause to your life and career almost defies description. They will do anything to maintain their delusion. Before the internet, these types could literally get away with murder; now, with all of the online ways to share the truth about them, they are more demure, but still; caution is advised. In other words, if you see them coming, get out the way.

  • Carsys

    Do what I did.  Quit the company and go into business for yourself.  Better yet, do exactly what I did.  Quit the company, go into business for yourself, go into competition with your former employer, write software which gives you a better advantage and NEVER LOOK BACK!  Remember, its not just the cream anymore which rises to the top.

  • More & Again

    I often find that, when I listen to my intuition, not only do I recognize psychopathic, Machiavellian, narcissists for who they really are, I can successfully expose them to others (and stage a coup, of sorts). Some people might choose to play their game, but there's always the option to disrupt their game entirely.

  • Woftam_

    I stumbled across this article.  How ironic.  I am currently off work contemplating my future (early retirement) as i can not handle working in the political and management ethos my business is going.

    this article to me explains all about my current situation.
    I have let it happen to me?

    statement in particular is so true:

    "In the
    past, jobs were straightforward: you made stuff, and you were compensated
    accordingly. Now, in many service industries (local government in my case) it is hard to say
    who should take credit. Triads thrive with such ambiguity, mastering how to
    accentuate their part in the positive, while downplaying their

    I don’t think i can
    play the game. Nor do i want to. I need to get out.