Inside the mind of a workplace sociopath
They are everywhere. They can't help themselves and they can't be cured. But you still have to put up with them, writes James Adonis.
Chances are you work with someone such as M.E. Thomas. She's a sociopath. Unashamedly dishonest, callous and manipulative, she is totally immune to her colleagues' emotions. Sure, she can tell when they're angry or upset; that part is obvious. It's just that she doesn't actually care about it. At all.
"I have to have a way to blow off steam," she writes in her new book, Confessions of a Sociopath. "So I ruin people. It's not illegal, it's difficult to prove, and I get to flex my power."
She admits, and provides psychological evidence to prove, that she does not have a conscience and never experiences remorse. The concept of morality is foreign to her, going right over her head "like an inside joke". She has no comprehension of what's right and wrong - only of what's in her own best interest.
Clinical psychologist Dr Martha Stout estimates sociopaths constitute 4 per cent of the working population. And, according to Professor Kevin Dutton from Oxford University's department of experimental psychology, these are their favoured professions:
Sociopaths are frequently successful in their career, and this success is propelled by specific traits that Dutton details in his most recent book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths. He refers to them as "the seven deadly wins".
What makes them provocative is not so much that they exist, but that the rest of us can learn something from sociopathic machinations, according to Dutton.
The seven deadly wins are: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action. Apart from the first one, ruthlessness, there's no denying the applicability of those attributes in business, with the combination of all seven probably present in every thriving entrepreneur.
Perhaps it's less about emulating sociopaths and more about staying protected. In the workplace, sociopaths are high-performing superstars, using their charisma to ingratiate themselves with the people who matter. But, if you're singled out as a target - as an enemy - they won't stop until they've torn you down, feeling no empathy whatsoever for any collateral damage that ensues.
In The Sociopath Next Door, Stout provides 13 suggestions on how to handle the serpentine sociopath. The most relevant of these include:
If anyone deceives, neglects or lies on three occasions, you should cut your losses.
Question authority, especially if no one else around you is doing it.
Be suspicious of flattery because it could be an attempt to manipulate.
Don't play the same game but neither should you be polite.
People without a conscience cannot be helped, so avoid the need to do so.
A part of me is envious of sociopaths such as M.E. Thomas. Imagine how much easier life would be - how freer you'd be of worry and baggage and tears - if you could truly live life like this:
"It's not that bad things don't happen to me; they do. But I just don't feel that bad about them. Maybe in the moment I feel some regret or anxiety, but it's quickly forgotten and the world seems ripe with promise again ... I just have an extremely robust sense of optimism and self-worth that keeps me looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses."
And yet, if you were to read Thomas' book, you'd be surprised. Genuinely surprised. Not by the vicious tales of the people she's destroyed but by, astonishingly, the sheer boredom of it. It is a staggeringly dull read. Which, in a way, makes sense. Because to live a life so clinical, so calculating, so devoid of emotion and real connection, cannot be anything other than insipid and soulless.
Not for me, thanks.
Do you work with any sociopaths? How do you deal with them?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis