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.