If you work or have worked in a traditional corporate environment, chances are you’ve run into a narcissist or sociopath in your career. Research suggests that psychopathic personalities do climb the corporate ladder more readily and are able to charm and gain trust from other co-workers and management to do so.
In fact, one study even showed that managers had three times the rate of psychopathy than the general population (Lipman, 2018). Nathan Brooks (2016), another researcher who studies psychopathy in the workplace notes, “Typically psychopaths create a lot of chaos and generally tend to play people off against each other…for psychopaths, it [corporate success] is a game and they don’t mind if they violate morals. It is about getting where they want in the company and having dominance over others.”
These narcissistic and psychopathic personalities in the workplace undermine co-workers they deem threatening or more talented on their way to the top, however unethical their means. It is not so much their merit but their ability to covertly sabotage others and charm them which leads them to such coveted positions.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, harassment, intimidation, and covert coercion at work “is akin to domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll.” This form of covert abuse occurs more frequently than we might assume. Dr. Martha Stout (2004) estimates that 1 in 25 Americans are sociopaths, which is an alarmingly large number considering that many workplaces reward narcissistic and sociopathic traits. Research indicates that as many as 75% of workers have been affected by workplace bullying, either as a target or a witness (Fisher-Blando, 2008).
Depending on the structure of the organization where you are employed, going to Human Resources to report a workplace bully may not be an option. Some survivors may even find that it hurts, rather than helps them on the job. Not all HR departments are prepared or have the means to address workplace bullying, especially if it is done covertly.
With that in mind, it’s important to learn the tactics of toxic manipulators, especially when you are starting a new job or attempting to cope with a toxic workplace situation. Here are three ways workplace narcissists and sociopaths behave to undermine you, and tips on how to cope.
1. They get to know you, only to use that information against you.
Not unlike narcissistic friends, partners, and family members, narcissistic co-workers will get on your “good side” early on and build a positive rapport with you, only to use what they learn as ammunition against you.
It may surprise people to discover that the workers who tend to be targets of harassment and bullying in the workplace happen to be the most skilled. According to Forbes (2016), research reveals, “People become targets because something about them is threatening to the bully. Often they are more skilled, more technically proficient, have a higher EQ or people just like them better. They are often workplace veterans who mentor new hires.”
This comes as no surprise to those of us who are survivors of narcissistic abuse – narcissists are notorious for putting down people who threaten them; their envy of others is actually a part of their DSM criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Workplace narcissists will do anything they can to undermine your performance – whether it’s hurling covert or overt insults your way, treating you to backhanded “compliments” and cruel jokes, spreading rumors about you, excluding you from conversations or work-related events and/or degrading your work ethic, personality, and goals.
Once they learn about what you value and how you obtain your success, they will find insidious methods to sabotage you. They do this in order to climb the corporate ladder, to one-up you, and to assuage their own sense of resentment towards you, especially if you happen to be more successful than them, have a better educational background or work history, or have talents outside of the workplace that distinguishes you. They may use your assets and ride your coattails in the beginning with starry-eyed admiration, only to try to surpass you later.
If you can, write down and document any incidents of harassment or bullying for future reference. Even if you choose not to report their bullying behavior to HR, it is important to keep track of conversations and any attempts at sabotage should you need these records in the future.
Try not to divulge excessive personal information to co-workers, especially if you’re just meeting them for the first time. Your recent successes, family life, and even weekend adventures can easily evoke envy in a pathological person. Keep it brief and simple if you are asked about your personal life and focus on redirecting the conversation to professional matters. Another trick you can use is asking the narcissist or sociopath about themselves – they sure do love to indulge in that, as that is their favorite activity.
Remember: anyone can be sweet and kind in the first few interactions, but you never know who is using a kind façade to learn more about your weaknesses and strengths. If you’ve already divulged information to these toxic co-workers, stop now.
Avoid pathological co-workers as much as you possibly can. Limit your contact with them and restrict your conversations only to business related matters. This will allow you to control what information you give out, which can potentially be divulged to others in a way to depict you in a negative light.
Instead, be vaguer in your responses and misrepresent what you truly care about. You’ll be astonished to see how quickly any false information you give workplace bullies about your likes, dislikes, desires, and goals get used against you – and that’s how you’ll know you’re dealing with a covert predator.
2. They feed their superiors and other co-workers false or misleading information about you, your work ethic, and your competence in any projects you might be in charge of.
Much like narcissists in romantic relationships, narcissists in the workplace like to manufacture “triangles” where they appear to be the innocent, concerned party that passes on false or misleading information about you to their superiors or peers.
This is a sort of smear campaign they stage so that they can prevent you from getting ahead. They may also develop a hyperfocus on any mistakes you make and dismiss any efforts you’ve made to improve as a way to depict you as less hard-working or somehow less competent or professional than they are.
The truth is, workplace narcissists are the ones who are less competent. They are incredibly unprofessional, vindictive and the only way they feel they can get the best of you is by degrading your assets to whoever will listen. They do this because they are threatened by you, and in order to ensure that people will doubt your skills and abilities.
Focus on representing your best self in all of your projects. Use anything your toxic co-worker has misrepresented or said about you as incentive to showcase all of your amazing talents and skills in the workplace. Keep calm and meditate often. Act as professionally as you possibly can under the circumstances. Keep a neutral tone and facial expression whenever possible. Your superiors (if they are not narcissistic or in cahoots with your toxic co-worker) will notice that there is a discrepancy between that toxic co-worker’s claims about you and your true performance as well as demeanor. Your actions and character will speak for you.
If time and time again, you find yourself being targeted by a narcissistic co-worker with your superior or even HR unable to defend you or see your side, it may be time to move on.
As Dawn Marie Westmoreland, HR Consultant and Subject Matter Expert on Workplace Bullying, writes, “There comes a time when even strong people can be “beaten down” from workplace bullying and discrimination.”
Redirect your energy toward finding a better job, with a better position in a workplace that has a more supportive and validating culture. If you feel you cannot possibly leave your job at this moment, bide your time. Find creative ways to regroup and replenish your reserves during any well-deserved breaks or vacation days you have, as you keep an eye out for better opportunities.
Above all, remember that the best revenge is success. While it may seem daunting now, the energy of a toxic workplace can overwhelm you to the point where you are no longer productive. “Over time, targets will spend more time protecting themselves against harassment by bullies and less time fulfilling their duties” (Fisher-Blando, 2008). If you can, it is better to cut your losses and take the ‘risk’ of freeing yourself to other opportunities.
Many survivors who do so find that they are happier and even more successful because they did so with full faith in their abilities. Remember that these types of personalities can only play the game for so long before they are exposed. Meanwhile, your talents and drive to succeed come from a genuine place of authenticity, which makes you a natural leader. I have witnessed many survivors of workplace bullies turn it around and become even more abundant than their workplace bullies. Remind yourself that one day, you’ll be more financially successful and have a more fulfilling career than any co-worker who has tried to sabotage you. It can and will happen.
3. They’ll steal your ideas and pass them off as their own.
Narcissists feel immense entitlement to be the center of attention and reap the rewards of success that they do not earn. This includes stealing ideas from those they feel can do the work for them. The same ideas they might downplay and demean in your presence are the same ones they’ll later eloquently explain in your next business meeting.
Document, document, document! I can’t stress this enough. If you have amazing ideas, find ways to immortalize them via e-mail instead of through the conversation at the water cooler. This will allow you to leave an electronic trail. That way, you always have a reference point for when that idea emerged and the fact that you came up with it.
Approach your superiors first with your ideas rather than your co-workers, who might be competing with you (unless, of course, your boss is the workplace bully taking credit for your ideas). If any co-workers attempt to ask you what you’ve been thinking about when it comes to a certain project, be brief in your responses or pretend you have not yet given it much thought. Do not allow people to talk about your ideas as if they were their own. Be the first to speak at any meeting when ideas are discussed, to ensure that you stake your claim.
Working with a narcissistic or sociopathic co-worker is incredibly challenging and can drain your resources as well as productivity in the workplace. Be sure to assess whether or not the job that you’re being bullied in is worth the toll it takes on your mental health.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Comaford, C. (2016, September 20). 75% of workers are affected by bullying – here’s what to do about it. Forbes. Retrieved July 1, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2016/08/27/the-enormous-toll-workplace-bullying-takes-on-your-bottom-line/#1c6c83a45595
Fisher-Blando, J. L. (2008). Workplace bullying: Aggressive behavior and its effect on job satisfaction and productivity (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Phoenix. Retrieved February, 2008, from http://www.workplaceviolence911.com/docs/20081215.pdf
Lipman, V. (2018, December 03). The Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy And Leadership. Retrieved June 21, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/04/25/the-disturbing-link-between-psychopathy-and-leadership/#610701084104
Pearlman, J. (2016, September 13). 1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths, study finds. Retrieved June 21, 2019, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/13/1-in-5-ceos-are-psychopaths-australian-study-finds/
Stout, M. (2004). The sociopath next door: The ruthless versus the rest of us. New York: Broadway Books.
Workplace Bullying Institute. The WBI definition of workplace bullying. Retrieved July 1, 2017, from http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/definition/
Westmoreland, D. M. (2017, May 29). I had become my worst nightmare – landing in the mental health ward. Retrieved July 1, 2017, from http://www.workplacebullyingsupport.com/2017/03/18/become-worst-nightmare-landing-mental-health-ward/