I am definitely not a psychologist, although my wife has suggested I get a degree in psychology. The views behind today’s post on working with sociopaths in business results from dealing with a variety of bad personality types and managing relationships with them in my career. A few of these individuals could only be described as corporate sociopaths. If you happen to be working for one directly, they definitely make horrible bosses.

What are the characteristics of a sociopath in business?

Here’s an official description of what a sociopath is, but from an organizational perspective, the behaviors below suggest how to spot a sociopath in business. To gauge if you’re working with one, ask yourself if the person in question:

  • Superficially compliments an individual then quickly attacks and/or criticizes them in much greater depth?
  • Displays a sense of superiority and talking down to others?
  • Addresses and subsequently changes topics in an apparently random fashion?
  • Displays a micro-focus on topics of intense interest to them which don’t relate to significant (or even real) organizational issues?
  • Repeatedly undermines progress by creating havoc and disruption within the organization?
  • Appears to live in a “fictional world” where their intentions, behaviors, and actions appear to have little relationship to reality?
  • Accuses others of the very detrimental behaviors they display?
  • Is tremendously contradictory in their behavior without any apparent rhyme or reason for their actions?
  • Spreads falsehoods for no obvious reason, including lies which don’t seem to even directly benefit them?
  • Alternates between showing another person intense focus and then completely ignoring them?

Sound maddening? It is when you are dealing with a sociopath in business.

If you see an individual demonstrating a majority of these sociopath traits coupled with a general sense they’re hard to do business with, you are likely dealing with a corporate sociopath (at least by my definition).

What are steps to dealing with a sociopath in business?

One key I’ve found to accomplishing things while working with horrible bosses and other sociopaths in business is to skillfully work around them. If a sociopath thwarts progress, it’s vital to maneuver them away from important initiatives that will move the organization forward. Let sociopaths in business wreak havoc on efforts which won’t make huge differences one way or another.

The following suggestions are premised on you not being able to take formal steps for dealing with a sociopath in your organization. If you can’t act formally, from personal experience (including reporting to at least one corporate sociopath), these 7 steps will help you be more successful in working with sociopaths in business and horrible bosses despite their negative behaviors.

1. Determine the individual’s underlying motivation as best you can.

If you can determine this accurately, it becomes your backdrop for anticipating a sociopath’s potential actions. For example, after a co-worker suggested the ego of a senior leader in our business was his Achilles’ heel, the proper strategy was clear: “blow smoke” to steer his attention whenever he was around. Hint: The motivation is typically going to link to personal attention or affirmation.

2. Don’t believe anything you can’t independently corroborate.

Operate with the understanding you can’t believe anything a corporate sociopath says. Because of this, continually gather information you’ll need to assess what’s going on. Be seen as a confidant within the organization. Ask open-ended questions, listen, and observe what’s actually happening.

3. Minimize one-off conversations and avoid decisions during them.

If you’re working with a corporate sociopath, to the extent you can, use one-on-one conversations to ask questions and engage in harmless small talk which may help you better understand the individual. Avoid using one-on-one conversations as decision making opportunities because you want witnesses for the decisions a corporate sociopath makes. Push decision making to meetings where others are present who can corroborate decisions and direction setting when they’re inevitably changed later.

4. Continually hone your flexibility and scenario planning skills.

When corporate sociopaths try in some unanticipated way to disrupt efforts where you’re making progress, you want to be able to adapt and keep going as readily as possible. It’s critical to do the strategic thinking that allows you to stay several steps ahead at all times.

5. Make smart trade-offs to keep the corporate sociopath placated and occupied.

If your boss is the offender, you can’t play the “avoid” and “small talk” cards all the time. Decipher what’s important and what isn’t to the organization – not to the corporate sociopath. What that insight, placate sociopaths on all minor things you can to ideally buy a little room for quiet defiance on things that really do count. If you’re in a position to do it, pair a lower impact team member with the sociopath to provide attention and crank through the busywork sociopaths create. In exchange, offer strong support and counsel to the person assigned to this role.

6. Carefully identify others who understand there’s a problem person in your midst.

Be on the lookout for others who hint at frustration or exasperation with a corporate sociopath. Probe, without saying or revealing anything self-incriminating, and see where their loyalties are and what perspectives they’ll express. It may be someone you can work with more closely to get things accomplished. Again, be careful it’s someone you can ABSOLUTELY trust.

7. Protect yourself at all times.

Keep yourself above reproach. This makes it more difficult for corporate sociopaths (especially horrible bosses) to try to throw you under the bus. Protect yourself by:

  • Putting your ego to the side. Your objective should be making good progress for the organization. Concentrate on a personal sense of accomplishment because corporate sociopaths aren’t going to make you feel GOOD about YOUR efforts.
  • Consciously trying to get out of the working situation you’re in, if at all possible. This isn’t destined to be rewarding work. Try to minimize how much time you have to deal with this person and ignore them as much as possible.
  • Never depending on a corporate sociopath to do real work. Cover your bases by minimizing any dependencies on them completing tasks. If they do own a task, figure out how to make sure someone else is backing them up.
  • Always thinking, but never saying everything you think, even to those you really trust.

Are you dealing with a sociopath in business?

If you have had to or are currently dealing with horrible bosses or other sociopaths in your organization, what have you experienced in dealing with a sociopath and still trying to do good work? – Mike Brown

If you’re facing a challenging organizational situation and are struggling to maintain forward progress because of it, The Brainzooming Group can provide a strategic sounding-board for you. We will apply our strategic thinking and implementation tools on a one-on-one basis to help you create greater organizational success. Email us at brainzooming@gmail.com or call 816-509-5320 to learn how we can help you figure out how to work around your organizational challenges.

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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31 Responses to “Corporate Sociopaths and Horrible Bosses – 7 Ways to Survive Them”

  1. Fantastic post. I actually worked for a man with those very qualities–though brilliant and successful, he made life a living hell for a lot of people. A few years after I moved on it turned out he was under investigation for embezzlement and other misconduct. It did not end well. Go figure.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” is such a trite phrase, but I guess it’s over-used because it’s so often true! Thinking about your example, Alex, maybe another motivation for people with extreme personalities is to distract attention from other bad stuff they’re doing. That fits somebody else I used as a reference point for this post who is part of my personal life. That person always seems to have some bizarre behavior going on to pull attention away from negative activity.

      Thanks for expanding the perspective on the post!

  2. How about firing them? How about moving on to an organization that has no tolerance for people like this? How about starting a business of your own? I think that almost anything is better than having to deal with sociopaths on a daily basis.

    • Anonymous says:

      As I mentioned in the post, Stephen, these recommendations are premised on you not being able to fire them.

      There are obviously a whole variety of actions you can take to leave. That’s not in the cards for everyone to do for any number of reasons – some under an individual’s control and maybe others not.

      For the couple that I have had to deal with where my near-term flexibility to do something was limited, these ideas have been effective in both getting things done and minimizing the personal stress associated with working with them.

      Thanks for adding the “get out of Dodge” options not listed in the post!

      • The steps that you outlined are well thought out and make good sense to me. At the same time, I’m suggesting that once you know that you’re stuck working with a sociopath it’s time to begin the process of evaluating your options. As a headhunter, I’ve seen the damage that these people can do. 

        • Anonymous says:

          I definitely agree about the importance of evaluating options – it should be going on all the time (I say as a planner). Guess it would have helped to know you then; I could have used a call or two from a headhunter!

    • blahhh says:

      Trying to get them fired for an employee under them is virtually impossible because sociopaths are very calculated in their methods. If they decide you are a threat or just feel like screwing with you that day or want to one up themselves they will purposefully use you, down talk you or even praise you in public if they think it will better their ego or position in the company; everything is a strategy for praise and external value and they don’t care. They are also very good at making themselves look like a victim and throwing you under the bus when they have done something wrong. For example, my boss the sociopath, didn’t turn off a laminate machine before he left the office and forgot to lock the doors. I had to leave early so I was not there, he and I had a tiny little disagreement (really the most petty thing) the day before and so he left me a note indicating that in order to keep things consistent we would do things his way. He was trying to call me on insubordination in order to make himself feel better for screwing up.
      I am typically a very positive, emotional and caring person and sociopaths love to make these their victims because they love to get a rise…so I am the person he is beating on right now. No, there is no recourse in the agency because he does only what he needs to do in order to use his bosses in a very PR way and seems like the shining star right now. The ED (Executive Director) is right up his butt right now because he makes himself to be larger than life and they don’t see what’s happening. The agency is going under and he is making himself look good by schmoozing. If I went to the ED I would look like I was making excuses for myself and trying to get him in trouble or worse yet like I was creating drama. There is no recourse, he is my boss and the worst thing is, I unwittingly recommended him for the job because I have several other commitments to attend to. We were both new at the time and they were going to give me the job but I declined it…he wants me gone and there is no one else to do my job. That’s the only thing I have going for me right now. The best defense is a “you win” but I will do everything I am supposed to do but better, approach until I can find another job.

      • Mike Brown says:

        I’m sorry for your situation. It’s the classic situation described in the blog post. It definitely makes sense to be aggressively looking for how you remove yourself from this work situation. This may be easier said than done, but for your own mental health, the best thing you can do right now is to emotionally disinvest from your current work. That ways you have the mental energy to look for something new and network/interview with as positive a frame of mind as possible. All the best to you, and keep yourself healthy – mentally and physically – during this very challenging time.
        Sent from my iPad

  3. Cheri Allbritton says:

    The things one could say if they didn’t work WITH, but rather FOR such a person. Does the book Management By Intimidation ring a bell? Good times are not had by all. All being anyone at ANY level beneath the person.

    • Anonymous says:

      The problems aren’t just for people under a sociopath. I’ve seen them cause challenges laterally and upwards as well, Cheri. As the phrase I stole from my friend Tony Vannicola (and used above) goes, they are simply “bad for business,” among other things.

      • Anne-Marie says:

        They are bad for everything. And yes, they work laterally as well, although she (the one I work with) pretends to have authority in any way possible. Luckily she hasn’t. But of course, when I try to talk about her behaviour to my superiors, they all think I’m paranoid in some way. They don’t believe that unreasonable people exist. I think gaslighting is one of her favoured pass-times. Keeping up your pokerface in front of them helps. When I don’t react to any of her crazy outings, she starts to feel nervous, because she needs emotions of others to feed on, and keep control. My ultimate goal though is leaving. Because dealing with a sociopath sucks the life energy right out of you, and that’s just a shame. Although, it’s also sad to leave a workplace where you felt really happy, before the socipath was there to turn your professional life into a living hell.

  4. The key to working or dealing with a sociopath as you said above Mike is to leave the ego at the door. You’ll never be right and you can’t reveal your position. You can’t ever  challenge directly because this type of individual is usually very good with rebuttals-they’ll never admit they made a mistake. Integrity is nowhere to be found or the ability to feel remorse for their actions. Setting boundaries is critical in dealing with these types and as little contact as possible.

    • Anonymous says:

      The avoid direct confrontation piece is an intriguing one, Marguerite. I had a situation where a client was exhibiting what, in retrospect, was probably sociopathic behavior throughout a project. In trying to address an issue the person raised, I was called out as being “defensive.” It immediately put me in the corner – to continue standing up for my point would make the person seem correct, and the alternative (shutting up) took my out of the discussion. Arghhh – the perfect argument! Client 1, Mike 0.

  5. Valkyra1969 says:

    One strategy that I have found helpful is to be flat emotionally – have no emotional response to whatever they say or do then they do not know how to read you anymore and will start to go through their psychopathic reprotoire in a effort to get a response of some kind.  Very predictable and revealing as well as helpful in helping you to profile them better.  Once you can profile the psychopath/sociopath you are force by circumstance to interact with, you can continue to develop better strategies for interaction.  Always pretend as though nothing is wrong and never show any fear – ever.  They feed off of fear.  Practice being fearless.

  6. Cpwhyte says:

    I work at a small accounting firm and my boss (the owner) is a socio path and I learned the hard way. I confronted him on his lack of structure in the workplace and he told me a good workman doesn’t complain about his tools. He constantly verbally abuse all the staff, we are still there because the finding a job is hard. This info will help me to better deal with him because I’m a no-nonsense and I really feel at the end of my rope with that man.

    • Mike Brown says:

      Wow. It’s particularly challenging to deal with a sociopath when it’s a small organization because there are typically fewer options to avoiding them or neutralizing their impact. I’m so glad these ideas look like they will be of benefit to you. Let me know if there are other things you find that work so that we can add to the list of things to help others. All the best! Mike

  7. DM5492 says:

    I know this is an old article but my fiance works for a guy like this.  He’s constantly shooting down her ideas then passes off the same ideas 3-6 months later as his own.   Additionally, he’ll tell her to stop working on a particular aspect of her duties and then when the owner asks why that area is slack he throws her under the bus like it’s her fault.  He’ll also be very kind to her face but will talk crap about her behind her back to everyone.  He makes her out to be a villain in some sort of attempt to gain sympathy from everyone else by talking about how difficult *she* is work with.  The problem is that this guy is one step below the CEO and is really good friends with the CEO.  This guy has the CEO wrapped around his finger.

    • piscesbec says:

      Then she needs to find another job. As long as he stays and she stays her life will be miserable.

      • lu says:

        Why is it so often that the “number two” guy or gal is sociopath? Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon? That the second in command is often like this?

  8. pisces says:

    Sadly, I have had the sociopath or pyschopath boss. It was a small business and he was the owner. He changed the rules often so what was the “right” way to do something one day was utterly wrong the next. There is only one solution to working with someone like that. Leave. Whatever it costs you financially is nowhere near as much as it costs you physically and emotionally.

  9. Schratboy says:

    Why would you WANT to survive or work for one? To me, sociopathy and psychopathy are to be avoided. Surviving them? Exit the situation and warn others to do the same.

    • Mike Brown says:

      As the comments note below, some people can’t always leave, especially in the near-term. There’s also the situation where the sociopath may be in and out of your business life; just enough to be a nusiance, but not enough to make you change jobs. I had one who fit that description. I avoided the sociopath as much as possible, but only had one stretch where it was a direct reporting relationship.

  10. ryan says:

    My boss is a sociopath. I worked under her at a small company for 5 years. She had a, “beat the mules that pull the load” way of managing. Amongst other things she also belittled associates and constantly contradicted herself. I couldnt take it anymore I got the district mngr and regional HR involved. Now she is history and no matter what the company will be a better workplace.

    • Mike Brown says:

      Good for you you in taking that step. And good for the company that they stepped up and did something about your boss…not every company would.

  11. Mike Brown says:

    Typically you wouldn’t use a boss for a reference on the next job anyway. In that case, talk with a peer who knows and understands what you do and the value your deliver who would be willing to be a reference. You might also look to other internal or external clients who you serve as possible references. Then in a job after the next one, you can return to these same people to vouch for what you delivered in this position. I’ve never used a really bad boss (although not a sociopath) early in my career as a reference. I used other in the corporation, especially peers, when I needed someone to be able to support my effort and results.

  12. infinite5280 says:

    Don’t let them ruin your life. I work for an extremely efficient psychopath. He’s had three divorces, weighs 400 pounds, his children don’t want him around and he eventually loses all his friends trust. The more they learn, the better they become at their profession, for being a psychopath is a full time job.
    Therefore document everything, I mean everything. Send an email to you home account after every conversation, put it on your calendar. When they go off on you, ask “Is there something wrong, I’m just trying to help”. They know about the marbles in their head and will do anything to conceal their dysfunction, anything. When you have them nailed and they know it, they’ll create one last crisis to blame their victim. Be prepared, rebut with your documentation and have faith, when they go too far their house of cards falls in on them.

  13. Help says:

    I need help. I believe the management in my company is made up of 2 – 3 sociopaths, and I’ve played right into their hand, I think they plan to destroy my career and have taken the steps to do so. I quit my job, willingly because I found a way better one, however they issued a complaint, forcing some of my colleagues to sign it and abstain from giving me recommendations. Some of my colleagues told me that they would gladly recommend me, but not on social platforms given the status of the company, but that I can give their phone numbers and email if I am going for an interview. They all are afraid of the management. And now I am too.


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