Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse?
Is it possible that a category of individuals who can be called “almost psychopaths” are responsible for a lot of the most severe bullying and abuse in the workplace?
Ronald Schouten (M.D./J.D.), a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, and James Silver (J.D.), an attorney specializing in criminal law, have co-authored a fascinating new book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). It’s part of the Harvard Medical School’s “The Almost Effect” series, which explores the gray areas between normal health and severe, clinically-diagnosed medical conditions.
The authors describe psychopathy as a “major abnormality” marked by a lack of empathy and behaviors that are “inappropriately deceitful, aggressive, and indifferent to the rights or feelings of others.” These behaviors are “the norm, not the exception.”
Schouten and Silver have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, but there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, which they describe this way:
Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.
. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.
The almost psychopath at work
While the true psychopath may have trouble functioning in regular society, the almost psychopath often can navigate life successfully, including — perhaps especially in – the workplace. Appropriately, the authors devote a full chapter to “Working with an Almost Psychopath.”
The chapter opens with the story of “Greta,” a smart, talented, attractive woman whose skill for manipulating others becomes evident during childhood. Once she enters the work world, she demonstrates an easy knack for lying and deceit, cultivating the right supporters, stealing credit for others’ successes, and treating subordinates poorly.
Greta, the authors posit, is an almost psychopath, and their portrayal of her will resonate with many readers of this blog. (Interestingly, they dwell quite a bit on female psychopathy.) They also discuss workplace bullying, citing studies by the Workplace Bullying Institute in support of their observation of its widespread prevalance.
Alas, they offer no easy solutions. Their suggestions include directly approaching the almost psychopath, a strategy that has backfired on many individuals. More realistically, they conclude that leaving a job may be the most viable option for dealing with an almost psychopath — an ending that we’ve seen often with many cases of bullying at work.
Does this explain things?
Many people experiencing severe workplace bullying are treated dismissively when they claim that they are being targeted by a psychopath. After all, doubters ask, isn’t that status reserved for serial killers and other maniacs?
For the sake of argument, let’s concede the possibility that many workplace aggressors do not fit the clinical criteria for full-blown psychopathy.
However, if this is the case, then Schouten and Silver have given us a fitting explanation for the chilling, manipulative individuals who somehow don’t meet the checklist requirements but subject their co-workers to horrible mistreatment. Welcome to the world of the almost psychopath.
Schouten and Silver also co-host the “Almost a Psychopath” blog for Psychology Today, here.