by Davia Temin –
Evil in the office. If you think about it, you’ll probably realize you’ve seen it play out at least once in your career.
All of a sudden a well-running, friendly, effective group or company begins to disintegrate for no apparent reason. People start to become demoralized and dysfunctional, efficiency plummets, client service and sales suffer and convoluted mistakes are made, up to and including illegal behavior such as fraud and larceny. Employees begin to develop psychosomatic illnesses, sick time rises and the best talent starts to leave.
What used to be a great work situation turns into a nightmare.
More often than not this dysfunction can be traced to the entry of one new employee, perhaps the boss, his or his assistant, the head of HR or a new shop steward. And when you start to explore, you find that, though the person may look and act apparently normal–even charming–all those around him or her are suffering.
Four (4) percent of the global population is made up of sociopaths, Dr. Martha Stout, psychologist and clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells us in her book The Sociopath Next Door. That means one out of every 25 human beings has no conscience, no sense of right or wrong, no empathy, no ability to understand emotion–no soul. Worse, while they can mimic emotion, they see other humans as mere pawns or saps, to be used for their benefit or amusement, or both.
Add that to the fact that science now is questioning whether there is any difference at all between sociopaths and psychopaths, and that those with narcissistic personality disorder also have some of the same characteristics (an inability to care about anyone but themselves), it means that “evil” is all around us, even at work.
Sociopaths lie with impunity
Sociopaths lie with impunity, cast blame where it does not belong, humiliate and berate their direct reports or colleagues. They set up coworkers, betray confidences and undercut good work because it is a threat to them.
Some start life by killing small animals, while others are not that obvious. Regardless, they progress to more mayhem as they go. And, while some go on to become full-fledged serial killers, or Bernie Madoffs, others channel their efforts closer to home or the workplace.
Picture a new boss who comes in to head the sales department of a high-tech company. At first he seems too good to be true. Attractive, well-spoken and suave, he says all the right things and makes all the right promises.
Then things start to go off a bit. He starts blaming and humiliating individuals in public for mistakes they claim they did not make. He may target one or two individuals, or start playing team members against once another. Talk starts to turn sarcastic and hurtful. Jokes become nasty, profane and mean-spirited, while tempers begin to flare as shouting becomes more acceptable. Rumor and gossip flourish where little had existed before: “Did you know that X has a drinking problem? Y is leaving his wife? XY is really having a homosexual affair?”
People are rarely praised. And if they are, it is hollow. Client requests and needs start to be flagrantly ignored. And so it goes.
At first it is almost impossible to believe that one person is causing all of this trouble. And some people never believe it. One friend of mine described a coworker who his team named “Mephistopheles,” because he did seem to be the “second coming of the devil,” and everyone saw it.
Wherever he went, trouble followed, but he skirted just above the ethical line. And he was successful in what he did. So, when I asked my friend if Mephistopheles was ever fired, he answered, “Oh, not for a very long time. They just let him pass. Eventually, though, he was caught up in a round of layoffs, because no one would defend him?”
And this is the problem: The smarter the sociopath, the harder it is to catch him or her. And, the more destructive they can become to individuals who interact with them and the organization as a whole. Who knows, you may have come in contact with them in your job already. I know that in my work as a crisis manager, I have. In fact, these individuals are often ground zero in creating the ethical crises that companies get caught up in.
Is there anything that can be done?
Is there anything that can be done? Psychologists now think such behavior is prompted in large part by brain dysfunction, and that neither medicine, talk therapy nor any kind of treatment will ever work. (See the September/October issue of Scientific American, “Inside the Mind of a Psychopath.”) The best thing that you can do when face to face with a sociopath is to avoid contact–distance yourself, as far and as fast as you can.
Other suggestions, some adapted from Martha Stout’s work, include:
- Trust your instincts. If you think a colleague is a sociopath, don’t go into denial; accept that this may well be so.
- Keep records. Many of these folks do their most damage one-on-one, so that if reported, it becomes “he says” vs. “she says.” If legal in your state, you can capture some of this behavior on tape. At least save all your e-mails, phone messages and the like. Whether or not your use it, it will shore up your own sense of reality, if you start to doubt yourself and your perceptions.
- Call the person out. In very savvy and careful ways, of course. If he or she has been lying about you, talk to others about it in a smart fashion: “I have no idea why he is lying so blatantly, but he’s been going around saying X about me, and here is evidence that this is completely false. Why would he be lying so much? Have you seen other incidences of it?”
- Never, ever trust that person again. They will not change.
- Don’t buy into others’ excuses of them.
- Defend yourself. If you are targeted, talk powerfully with the truth. Never let a lie that you know of stand.
- Leave. It is a final resort, but if your organization does not see the light quickly, or if the sociopath runs the organization, do not wait too long. Justice does not always come swiftly, and this is why you have saved your money–so you can leave a bad situation before it takes a terrible toll on you.
- Help and support others. You can be a beacon when they find themselves in similar situations.
We are used to fighting evil on the battlefield. But good people rarely can anticipate, or even recognize, evil behavior up close in the workplace–until it is too late. One of the benefits of Martha Stout’s book is that it helps us accept the fact that at least one out of 25 is a sociopath.
And the more we can accept that this does play out in the workplace, the more we can fight it on that front and the more we can minimize the damage. A good goal, I think, when faced with unconscionable behavior.