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.
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.
PSYCHOPATHY DEFINED, AND A WORD OF WARNING
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.
WORKPLACE CONFLICT WITH THE PSYCOPATH
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.
CONFLICT STRATEGIES TO DEAL WITH THE WORKPLACE PSYCOPATH
Given the above caveats we can improve our conflict results with this unique type of colleague in the following practical ways.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information)