Eight practical tactics for dealing with the office sociopath
The sociopath in the workplace brings frustration and misery to colleagues and to anyone, who tries to manage them. They are manipulative, and expert at both dodging responsibility and shifting conversations to their own agendas. It often takes time to recognise them (not least because they are good at flattery and because we don’t like admit how badly we have been taken in) and even more time to get them out of the organisation. However, it is possible as a manager to counter the psychopath’s machinations to the extent that they opt to take their “talents” elsewhere.
The starting point is to recognise that sociopaths enjoy exerting control over others and have many tactics for doing so. In particular, they keep you off balance, constantly shifting ground so that you can’t pin them down. Seen through their eyes, it’s a game, in which they have no conscience about who gets hurt, as long as it’s not them. It takes two to play a game, however, and you don’t have to play by their rules – in fact, you give them control, if you do play by their rules.
Some practical ways you can put yourself back in control include:
- Make performance targets clear, specific and unambiguous – the sociopath will turn any leeway into an excuse
- Make clear what is solely their responsibility. If they try to push the blame for failure onto someone else, point out that their responsibilities include influencing others
- Set a clear and short agenda for performance meetings with them. Stick to it. If they keep moving the conversation to their agenda, warn them once that you don’t have time to waste on items that aren’t on the set agenda. If they persist, close the meeting and walk away. Send them an unambiguous note thereafter, copied to your own boss and HR as needed, to record the fact that they would not discuss the performance issue. (Make it an official warning, if appropriate.)
- Don’t hold meetings with them in your office – it’s harder to walk away
- Keep meticulous notes of every conversation. They will, but their notes will be distorted to bolster their agenda and shift blame onto you.
- Expect them to manoeuvre against you. For example, to butter up to your boss or your boss’ boss. The most effective defence is to name the behaviour. List the characteristics of a sociopath (the book Snakes in Suits is helpful here) and place alongside them specific examples of the person’s behaviour. Where possible, draw these examples from other people’s observations and experience, as well as your own. Of course, you are not (unless you have appropriate qualifications) able to make a diagnosis. But you can ask Human Resources for advice and guidance on how to deal with an employee showing these behaviours. By doing so, you have created a marker that may make more senior managers think twice before taking what the sociopath says at face value.
- Make it easier for the sociopath to leave than to stay. Reduce their responsibilities, where you have evidence they are unlikely to deliver. Offer them the option of going through a formal disciplinary process or leaving of their own accord. Once they recognise that you are not going to be an easy victim, they are more likely to look for easier pickings elsewhere.
- Once they have gone, spend time with your team helping them to cope with the emotional confusion that often occurs in such circumstances. The sociopath may well have “befriended” a few people, who they saw as useful to them, while blanking out others. Encourage sharing of perceptions, perhaps with the help of a psychologist-facilitator.
© David Clutterbuck, 2015
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