5 min read
05 Jul

If you dance with the devil, then you haven’t got a clue, for you think you’ll change the devil, but the devil changes you.
J.M. Smith  


The science and the art of conflict resolution is generally premised on a rational understanding and application of various multi-disciplinary fields and studies, ranging from psychology, behavioural sciences, neurobiology and several others. Conflict management techniques assume some level of rationality in the conflict participants, and best practices are then derived from probable reactions and assessments by such conflict participants. Even conflicts with the seemingly or temporarily emotional or irrational presupposes and predicts certain probable reactions and conditions. But is that true when we enter into conflict with the psychopath? 

As we will see, we need a different set of tools and lenses when we enter into conflict with the psychopath, and one of these new rules will tell us that the old rules are of little use here. This article will focus primarily on workplace conflict involving psychopaths. 


As a general working definition sufficient for our purposes we can regard psychopathy as a personality disorder manifesting such characteristics as an inability to learn from experience, showing consistent patterns of non-attachment, a grandiose view of the self, callousness, extreme selfishness, disregard for the wellbeing of others, a lack of empathy, a tendency to manipulate others, above average charm, an absence of guilt and a list of others. The term has been associated in the popular mind with serial killers like Ted Bundy and it is a popular “diagnosis” that people sling in the direction of their enemies, deservedly or otherwise.   A variety of recent studies cautiously place the prevalence of psychopaths in the general population at approximately 1-2%, but as we will see, psychopaths gravitate towards specific workplace environments where their numbers could approach 10% of such a group. 

This disorder is often co-existent or practically difficult to distinguish in practice from sociopathy, narcissism and a few other traits. We must therefore be very cautious in regarding any such provisional assessment as being correct, and this should only be used when absolutely necessary and dictated by our professional or personal situations. We should only attempt these diagnoses and engage with the psychopath when it is absolutely necessary and even then we should limit such engagement to its minimum. Where appropriate expert advice should be obtained. The conflict techniques discussed later in this article will therefore omit some of the more advanced conflict skills that are best acquired under conflict coaching supervision. The psychopath has little or no social conscience, and generally feels little or no remorse, so conflict with them can be very prejudicial and even dangerous.  


Research by psychologist Paul Babiak indicates that up to 4% of US business leaders could be psychopaths. This unusually high prevalence is mirrored globally, and even higher percentages are recorded in certain specialized environments. Psychopaths are attracted by power, money and the potential of vulnerable people open to abuse. To further skew the conflict parameters, psychopaths are rather uniquely skilled in some business environments, where their lack of empathy, absence of attachment, inability to correctly assess dangerous situations and an absence of remorse is often misdiagnosed as drive, focus, ambition and business skill, an asset to management.    

As briefly alluded to previously, the psychopath is very difficult to diagnose. Most of us will show several of the attributes of a psychopath at different stages and under different conflict stressors, for example a lack of empathy or remorse, selfishness, callousness, struggling to learn from experience and so on.  The true psychopath is distinguished in practice more by repetitive patterns, by a continued display of a large spectrum of such behaviour, often without justification. The psychopath is serving him-or herself, and in that campaign they could prove to be extremely charming and likeable. 

In addition to patterns and unprovoked behaviour, the workplace psychopath can in time be identified from a combination of behaviours that include unusual ambition, deferential behaviour towards equals and seniors but abusive behaviour towards juniors, they tell people what they want to hear and often seem to have multiple personalities, unusual levels of impatience and they consistently show an inability to accept responsibility, and they can be very unreliable and unpredictable. They threaten colleagues with dismissal, have no problem in accepting credit for the work of others, they lie and spread harmful rumours even intentionally, they will set unrealistic goals for others in the hope that they fail, all conversations must be centred on them, and they often struggle to accept and implement appropriate ethical boundaries. People are generally pawns and numbers to be used in the pursuit of their own agendas. Needless to say, the psychopath can be a destructive influence at the workplace, leading to unnecessary internal conflicts, litigation, loss of productivity and high staff turnover, demotivation and team underperformance. How then to effectively deal with the conflict caused by the workplace psychopath. 


Given the above caveats we can improve our conflict results with this unique type of colleague in the following practical ways. 

  • Of course, the best strategy is not to have them at the workplace at all, to avoid appointing them in the first place. This however takes a skilled and experienced eye.  
  • Ensure appropriate and correctly designed processes to make the objective assessment and management of projects as evidence based as possible, so that accountability can negate opinions and manipulation. This includes objective reporting and recording of relevant events, and need not descend to micromanagement.  
  • The psychopathy causes and triggers of emotional detachment and social deviance mean that this behaviour can, at best be contained and managed, not changed. There is no “fixing” the psychopath, and conventional threats and sanctions (even dismissal) may have unusually adverse reactions and consequences. Try to assess individual triggers and work with that as behaviour modifiers, such as public perception, own interests and so on. Be very cautious with trusting these individuals when in conflict situations, as they do not have the same ethical or societal constraints as most people may have. We often see the results of this on social media.
  • It is a misconception to hold that the psychopath cannot be motivated. Studies using the Prisoner's Dilemma game clearly show that when properly managed psychopaths can co-operate, tolerate boredom and anticipate and respect the feelings and interests of others, even if that requires a different approach to motivational triggers.
  • Understand that conventional arguments, heated shouting matches, threats and even violence all just play into the psychopath’s perceptions and elevation of himself and his narrative. This battleground is different. The psychopath may simply not be interested in conventional conflict resolution parameters, and it is up to you to redesign those lines.
  • Be alert to the fact that the different wires (psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism) running into this time-bomb may at times be difficult to tell from each other, but that the correct assessment and management thereof could lead to different results. Obtain expert advice and assistance where necessary.
  •   Keep an eye on those affected by the daily behaviour of the psychopath. You will normally be required to manage more than just the psychopath herself. This is a complex conflict field, and not everyone will understand the rather unique features involved here.
  • Given the fact that the conventional workplace conflict behaviour models simply do not work with the psychopath, it will become apparent that these measures will not (cannot)be fruitful, and once such an accurate assessment has been reached, management should use the pertinent workplace disciplinary processes to manage the rest of the conflict process, bearing in mind that progressive discipline, as laudable a workplace practice as it may be, simply will not work here, unless management can find appropriate alternative behaviour modifiers.


Having a psychopath at the workplace is a serious management challenge.  The potential for direct, consequential and reputational damage is unusually high with this type of individual. Normal rules and strategies simply do not work, and are often counterproductive. The workplace psychopath often skilfully uses our best instincts and attributes, such as empathy, caution and social sensitivity against us, and few senior management members are really properly equipped for these events. Three levels of effective management of this conflict type have shown to be effective to various degrees, if skilfully employed, that being avoidance (not to employ, avoiding or minimizing engagement), finding alternatively structured and designed motivational behaviour modulators or stern and consistent disciplinary actions that may include the termination of the working relationship as a higher priority than what may normally be the norm.   

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information

July 2022

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