Dr. Paul Babiak on the crisis of psychopaths in the workplace

Work can be difficult enough, but psychopaths can take this to an entirely new dimension. Dr. Paul Babiak explains how and why. Photo: Is there a psychopath in your work place?

FLORIDA, December 1, 2012 — Whenever people feel that they have been manipulated or short-changed, there is a good chance that they will call their perceived wrongdoer a “psychopath.”

The term could very well be one of the most overused in our society. It is thrown around so casually that more than a few have probably ceased to take it seriously.

Needless to say, this is most unfortunate. When a real psychopath crawls out of the woodwork then the situation becomes all the more difficult to manage.

Even worse is that psychopaths are attracted to positions of power. This means that the workplace is especially vulnerable to the schemes of individuals who prey on the weakest among them.

Paul Babiak is an industrial-organizational psychologist who has done a great deal of research on this disturbing pattern of behavior. The co-author of “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work,” he has devoted much of his career to raising awareness about how mental and emotional predators have found their way into the business world.

Dr. Paul Babiak

In this first part of a detailed discussion, he explains how “psychopath” might be defined, whether or not one can be easily spotted in the workplace, and much more.   

Joseph F. Cotto: People use the term “psychopath” very often in casual conversation. In your opinion, how might “psychopath” be defined?

Dr. Paul Babiak: Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by twenty well-documented traits and characteristics. The most visible are glib/superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self worth, a strong need for stimulation (that is, psychopaths are easily bored) and impulsivity. 

However, there are others, which they successfully hide from view, in particular pathological lying, conning, manipulation, a lack of empathy, remorse and guilt. Over time, one might begin to see examples of irresponsibility, lack of realistic, long-term goals, and their failure to take responsibility for their own actions.  

Cotto: Generally speaking, can one easily spot a psychopath in the workplace? Or does this take a considerable amount of time and effort?

Dr. Babiak: It is actually quite difficult to spot a psychopath in the workplace. The reason is that psychopaths have the ability to “wear a mask” that often fools others into thinking they are ideal employees and leaders. It is only those that have been targeted, typically subordinates or peers, who begin to sense that they (and the organization) are being manipulated. 

Complicating the matter is the fact that many managers and employees are problematic for other reasons (usually lack of training or experience), so the psychopath’s abusive and other dysfunctional behavior is misinterpreted as a need for training or coaching. 

Cotto: Are there any reliable indicators that one’s boss or associate might be psychopath?  

Dr. Babiak: Although there are instruments available to researchers to assess psychopathy, the layperson often relies on what he or she finds on the Internet to “assess” the personality of their boss or associate, which in the absence of training and experience, is suspect. Another issue that many do not consider is: “What do I do now?” If you confront a true psychopath you are inviting their wrath and will suffer the consequences. If you try to inform those in upper management of your suspicions, your claims may very well be met with disbelief (which could severely damage your own reputation in the organization).  

Cotto: From your research, what motivates workplace psychopaths? 

Dr. Babiak: We know very little about the actual motivations of the psychopath as they lack insight into themselves and lie when asked about almost everything. However, in my work I have identified three motivations, which I believe characterize the psychopath: 1. a need for stimulation, which we know (from fMRI research) is based on physiological factors; 2. they like to play “head games,” meaning they seem to enjoy conning and manipulating others, including those high up in power and influence; and 3. they need to “win,” and they define winning as “you losing.” Whereas seasoned athletes, for example, likes to compete and win events, they are typically motivated by “personal achievement” within their sport, that is, competing against their “personal best.” The psychopath has no such sense of competition (or personal achievement motive).             

Cotto: How might one go about avoiding a suspected psychopath in professional environments? 

Dr. Babiak: Ideally, one would not become a target in the first place. Psychopaths are “parasitic-predators.” They are very opportunistic and seek out individuals who have something they value, such as money, power, prestige, and so forth. 

Because they are so good at interpersonal manipulation, they can easily influence their targets into trusting them, even feeling they have a true friend or “soul mate,” which leads to a lowering of their defenses.  Once the target is hooked, the psychopathic parasite begins to siphon off resources for his or her own gain — the target is now a victim. 


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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