Surviving and thriving amidst workplace sociopathy
January 4, 2014 10:01 PM   Subscribe

What are some techniques and strategies for not only coping with, but thriving and getting the upper hand in dealings with the conscience-free?

My new-ish lateral colleague in another department, with whom I work closely in developing strategy for yearly projects, has revealed himself to be a multipurpose Prince of Darkness. Manipulation, backstabbing, intimidation, and sabotage are the order of the day. He has no respect for professional or personal boundaries and lacks a conscience. Times are hard.

Those who work with him have seen this behavior, so convincing my management of what he's all about isn't the issue. For various reasons, the behavior is supported by our workplace and culture. Also, for various reasons, I can't go work somewhere else. Nor will he be going anywhere any time soon. We are in this together like Lecter and Starling. At least for another six months.

My goal for this period: less fuzzy black psychic lint after email/phone/live encounters. Just being around the guy engenders visceral repulsion. For the sake of saving my own ass, I need to be able to come away from these sessions not only sound of mind, but smiling and skipping merrily on my way.

I'm well aware that dealings with the conscience-free are held on an asymmetrical court, and that I do not have home advantage. That said, I'm sure that someone must have come out on top in a similar situation. What techniques and strategies are applicable here? I'm open to pretty much anything at this point.
posted by Occam's Aftershave to Human Relations (26 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Trying to "come out on top" with a sociopath is a losing strategy.

How to deal with a sociopath productively is a different matter. From my own experiences/anecdata, I keep it entirely work-related and let very few personal details slip, thus giving them less room for manipulation/etc. Limiting contact, especially in less structured settings that include lots of other people can help a lot. Also, make a point of walking away and taking breaks frequently, especially when you feel anger rising, so that you don't lose your composure or say something you shouldn't. For something that is inappropriate or boundary pushing, I also will repeat things back at times, such as, "Did you just say, 'blahblahblah'?"

And when in doubt, walk away...smiling if you can.

Beyond that, I'm not sure exactly of what you're looking for with this question. Sociopaths are not all the same - it's a spectrum, from what I understand. So this person may be a sadist who would sell his own children for an ice cream cone, or he could be someone who lacks a strong sense of empathy and uses people for his own gain (traits that MANY non-sociopaths have, actually). And if this person is as you describe him and the situation as rigid as you describe it to be, I'm not sure there is much you can do. Make sure you have someone who will listen to your frustrations about the situation, but who is not personally involved. Venting to a neutral party is essential when dealing with difficult people. Good luck.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:37 PM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Here are a couple of links on dealing with sociopaths, written by an (alleged) sociopath. More food for thought than definitive guide, but they may be of some use.

How to fight a sociopath - and win

"Dont's" list for dealing with sociopaths
posted by Broseph at 10:40 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and needless to say, document everything.
posted by Broseph at 10:41 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have never once worked in one of those offices people claim exist which are not full of sociopaths, so I have a fair amount of experience surviving, if not thriving.

The best advice I can give is that it's good to distance yourself from it as much as possible emotionally. I like to pretend that work is actually a devised piece being performed by maniacally devoted surrealist method actors. They aren't actually the savages of the suburban wastes one would assume at first encounter, but rather they are thoughtful and sensitive artists dedicated to exposing the modern workplace as an inherently hollow and cruel absurdity.

It works best when you make it your aim to be as good a method actor as the rest of your office.
posted by winna at 10:44 PM on January 4, 2014 [37 favorites]

I haven't come out on top yet but here is what I try to do/remember:

* Eyes and ears open, mouth shut. Especially around this person, and especially with personal stuff.

* Learn how this person "operates". What annoys them, what bothers them, what is it that they are looking for when they engage in manipulations etc. What's the end goal that is sweetest to them.

* Know what you can and cannot control. What are the things you absolutely need to tolerate (albeit not for a lifetime, just for now) and what are the things you can definitely avoid?

* Accentuate what works for you at work, and try to minimize anything that makes you feel miserable. Arrange your work space so it makes you happier. This will sound ridiculous but I have a hand cream I absolutely love the fragrance of. Every time I wash my hands, for five minutes, that cream teleports me to heaven. Sometimes when things are tense, I wash my hands and use it anyway. Anything that is comforting to you and easy to have at work.

* In a similar vein, guard yourself and your space from this person. Sometimes I have a hard time not responding to comments and statements so I imagine myself to be surrounded by this invisible and impermeable 12" thick bubble in that all the annoying comments bounce off before getting to me.

* Try to be focused like a laser. Why is it that you chose to join this position. What were you aiming to learn or take away from here? What is salvageable about this position? How will you look back on this period five or ten years from now?

* Find something like a hobby to pursue religiously in your time off so you keep this person out of your head.

* Take it a day at a time. Six months may feel like a long time but its really not when you keep yourself absolutely busy and focused on completely tasks- either at work or at home.

Not every trick works every time. Always remember that you always have options. Sometimes they are hard options, like finding another job but you always have options as an adult.
posted by xm at 11:13 PM on January 4, 2014 [11 favorites]

Sociopaths see most confrontations like a Tom and Jerry cartoon and will always pull out a bigger gun. Keep a work journal and be really obvious about it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:24 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

That said, I'm sure that someone must have come out on top in a similar situation.

Why do you need to come out on top? What does that even mean? I have a feeling that the reason this guy bothers you so much is because you're more like him than you care to admit. Perhaps the reason he makes you feel so bad is not just because he is repulsive, but because he makes you suspect that you yourself are repulsive too.

In my experience, the best way to deal with the bad feelings and intellectual insecurity a sociopath produces are to check in with people you trust, tell them what's going on, and get confirmation that your bad feelings are valid. After that, you can share some small talk, some jokes, or maybe listen to their own issues for a minute if they like. That positive human interaction should help.

Connecting with good people and forming a community around you are the antidotes to sociopathy, because while sociopaths can drift through communities, they can never really be a part of them. Sociopaths thrive on secrets, so the more honest and open folks are with each other, the less effective a sociopath's manipulations will be. It is easy enough for someone to see an individual's blind spots and capitalize on them, but when that individual has a bunch of trustworthy people around him pointing those blind spots out then he becomes much more difficult to manipulate.

So my advice is to always check in with other people after encounters with this person, especially if he is trying to get you to do something, even if it seems innocent enough. If your office culture specifically discourages personal interaction, then I think you should either re-evaluate your belief that you can't go work somewhere else, or else come to terms with the idea that your life is pushing you to become more sociopathic.

If you do decide that you're okay with being a sociopath, then I guess you should start by forming a more specific idea of what it means to 'come out on top.'
posted by sam_harms at 1:28 AM on January 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Start by reading to stop you from outright putting your foot in it.

I don't know why you have no choice but to stay for six months, but don't let anyone at work, or any mutual contacts, know that this is the case. In any event, assume that you will be pushed out sooner than you think, so start tunneling out now. Don't do this using any company networks or resources, do it at home and on your personal cell and keep your search completely separate. If management supports a sociopath, assume that you will get a bad reference. Observe your peers and start making a list in your head as to which of them you could ask for a peer reference when the time comes, but don't open your mouth about it, because another thing you have to do is assume that nothing you ever say is private.

Instead, be supportive to your peers without incriminating yourself. Watch it: if Ted comes to you to vent about Judy, support Ted, but don't acquiesce even silently to any bad thing he says about Judy. If Ted says to you "judy is a poo poo head," and you sit there silently with a blank look on your face, Ted may then tell everyone that you said Judy is a poo poo head because qui tacet consentire. Instead say "well I think Judy is really smart actually but let's look at the problem you're having with her, it must be very frustrating for you, how can you respond constructively," etc. Ted can of course always lie and make stuff up out of whole cloth, just don't do anything that could help him to misrepresent you.

Write everything down, but don't assume that when the chips are down that showing this to management will help. If they approve of sociopathic behaviour they will smile and nod and fire you anyway. There will be other procedural reasons why you need the paper trail - you may have false accusations levelled at you, for example - but don't expect a paper trail to save your job.

Take the emotion out of every interaction (you should frankly do this in business anyway). Be a machine. You are at work, so in the nicest possible way, there are no friends, only enemies who don't have the guts to kill you. Try to be a grey rock, a person of no noticeable interest to the sociopath. Try to observe what it is they want out of various interactions.

Always lock your computer when you leave it unattended and take your personal effects with you everywhere, even to the bathroom. You don't want them rummaging in your purse and finding your keys or bills or reading your text messages. Keep a pin code on your phone and use it. If you have to slim down your everyday carry and wear pockets in order not to be lugging a bulky purse everywhere, do so.

Read The 48 Laws of Power so you can spot manipulation when it is levelled at you. Think carefully if you're tempted to use any tactics in return, and remember you're dealing with your enemy's choice of weapons if you do so. Keep all of your words and actions plausibly deniable. The safest tactic to use is probably the mirroring tactic as it quickly leads to the sociopath's having no more moves.

Try to secure exterior proof of achievement - in the form of publications with your name on them, or similar. This is far preferable to a set of achievements which only your boss or others at your company can verify. Without this, being "good at your job" will not help you, because you are only as good at your job as your boss/company says you are. In addition, it is legal to give negative references and people do lie in references - which can be legally actionable if they lie about matters of fact and sometimes if they are subjectively but demonstrably unfairly negative; just keep this in mind in case it comes to that. If it takes that turn, be prepared to get an employment lawyer at least for a consultation about your options; merely consulting a lawyer does not commit you to suing.
posted by tel3path at 1:48 AM on January 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Addendum: if you find a new job while still in this one, it's unlikely you'll be questioned as to why you don't have a reference from this job; obviously you want to keep your search discreet. More reason to start looking now.
posted by tel3path at 1:50 AM on January 5, 2014

Besides clearly documenting each professional step/interaction with this dude, keep every single email, and reply to verbal interactions with a confirming email of your own (also, of course!, kept on file): "Hi George, I just wanted to confirm that you'll be doing a,b and c, while I'm doing x,y and z."

Also: don't let him into your personal life, don't give him an opening to dig away at you there; keep all communications with him strictly about your mutual professional matters only. Don't go out for lunch or drinks with him, don't discuss your family or hobbies or mention if you're going to your mother's house for her birthday dinner, don't even mention if it was cold waiting at the bus stop this morning: when it comes to him, you have zero existence outside of the office. Keep your private life sociopath-free!
posted by easily confused at 5:22 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can I suggest Coping with Difficult People by Robert Bramson? It is an oldie but goodie.
posted by 99percentfake at 6:21 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The answer to how to deal with a sociopath is that you can't. They're better at it than you are and have made manipulation and intimidation the work of a lifetime.

Sociopaths lie as naturally as they breathe. They don't notice it. They sabotage the company or department.

I've worked for two of them. The only way out is to leave, as soon as possible.
posted by KRS at 6:32 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Those who work with him have seen this behavior, so convincing my management of what he's all about isn't the issue.

So you're in a good position. As workplace rats go, this guy is relatively harmless. He's not going to be able to blindside you with anything. If it comes to a situation where he tries to sabotage you, people know what he's like and you can appeal to that. In the meantime I would avoid complaining to anyone about him (not saying you are, just avoid it) and just keep a journal of anything shady that he does.

My goal for this period: less fuzzy black psychic lint after email/phone/live encounters. Just being around the guy engenders visceral repulsion. For the sake of saving my own ass, I need to be able to come away from these sessions not only sound of mind, but smiling and skipping merrily on my way.

Practice detachment. Easier said than done, I know. But this too shall pass. One day you won't be working with him anymore, and he'll still be him and you'll get to be you. I'm with winna, there is always going to be someone like this. Once in a while you find out something that makes it possible to have compassion, even. Calling people sociopaths suggests that they have no feelings, and it may be that they are simply ruthless about doing what's good for their own advancement. But it may also be that they are struggling much more than you expect. I think treating them with some benefit of the doubt on a personal level, while covering your ass on a practical level, is ideal.
posted by BibiRose at 6:36 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would try to be cheerful and unruffled by all your interactions with this person and just know what your own boundaries are (esp in negotiations.. figure it out in advance, not on the spot where it's easy to get flustered by his behavior). And politely draw the line if he tries to barge across them. I feel like it's easier than you'd think to do this with difficult people, as long as you do it in a friendly/polite way and allow them to save face instead of making it obvious that the two of you just butted heads and the other person lost, that's what they can't handle. And look on their behavior when it gets really manipulative/pushy as kind of entertaining and kind of sad. I mean, being a multipurpose Prince of Darkness and still working in a mundane professional enviroment is sort of an absurd use of superpowers, isn't it?
posted by citron at 7:35 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I feel your pain. Sounds like you've got a good understanding of what you're dealing with. I found Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door to be helpful in a similar situation.
posted by macinchik at 7:48 AM on January 5, 2014

The only way I've found successful in working with sociopaths or people who exhibit sociopathic behavior is to imagine myself to be an anthropologist when working with them. In meetings or in one-one-one interactions, you can take a notebook even if you don't have to take notes, and put tickmarks in the margins every time he does something you identify as sociopathic. (Some people might find this despairing, but I found it sort of empowering when I imagined myself as an anthropologist. YMMV.) If he asks what you are counting, you can just cheerfully say, "I am keeping track of our work together." If he specifically asks what the tickmarks are for, you can cheerfully reply, "It is just my way of taking notes. I would not expect you to understand!" He will likely think this is really dumb; after all, you're not even taking real notes! That's great.

Sociopaths and those who exhibit sociopathic behaviors take their cues from you in terms of their behavior so they can manipulate you better; it's not conscious. If they see you being cheerful/blithe, they're likely to change tactics and attempt to control you through simpler means because they'll assume you're too stupid to notice that they're controlling you. Since they have equal contempt for everyone regardless or perceived intelligence, they are likely to spend less effort controlling you because they'll perceive your cheerfulness as stupidity. If he's really not going anywhere and you're really not going anywhere, try hard to stop showing your emotions and giving him fuel to work with. Your best bet is for him to find you boring and not worth his time to manipulate.
posted by juniperesque at 7:53 AM on January 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

You have decided to work with this guy. This is YOUR decision. Own that. You're not his victim, you are his co-worker and partner.

1. Document everything you decide in meetings, copying your manager.

2. Use timelines with well-defined goals for all projects to manage deadlines and expectations.

3. Frequently update your manager with all on-going projects. Keep it short and sweet. What are the deliverables, what are the deadlines, who is responsible for what.

4. Keep it friendly and professional. If you are a ball of tension when you meet with him, you will always feel horrible and gross. Smile when you go into the conference room, stay happy, focus on what needs to be accomplished. The cognitive dissonance should serve you in this instance.

5. If he starts taking credit for something you did, call him out on it. "Right Bob, YOU were the one who came up with the idea to get a booth at BizCom." If you can let it slide, do so. Is it REALLY all that important? There are some things worth fighting for, be sure you know what they are.

6. Keep your work top quality, focus on an excellent final product, take pride in your accomplishments here. You should be able to look back on this as a great time in your career.

7. Six months will fly by and I'm sure that this isn't the only thing you're working on. Keep the thing in perspective.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:27 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Get yourself 'Snakes in Suits' and work by Dr John Carver (he also has a powerpoint online).

Go to Aftermath surviving psychopathy and Aftermath surviving psychopathy radio... there are podcasts by Dr Babiak about p'paths at work and surviving them.

Read up on narcissistic defence's and and control strategies so you can hold some footing with knowledge.. specifically gaslighting, the predatory/reptilean stare/projection.

When she/he mind****'s you check in with yourself "what was I actually saying to them?".. important to hold onto your identity and sense of personhood.

Try and imagine yourself in a bubble if you are visual.. bouncing off their psychological darts.

Look up the concept of narcissistic supply (the p'path harnessing attention for their feed) 'any reply is supply', so say less and try to detach.. bloody hard and they are adept at picking up very subtle body language cues.

Wash your hands after interactions, or eat (to refuel from the vampire/nurture yourself).
If there's a pattern of this hell in your past... you need to shore up your boundaries... an look at where the first betrayal lay, if you're ready too.

You can't win, so value any minor victory.

Never be like them and get out if this starts to slaughter you - nothing is worth that.

'The uncommited man' on youtube is a dated but highly perceptive film on p'paths in the workplace.

Thank f we are finally learning about this stuff.

For more great info/general interest you will be able to find the seminal book for free online "The Mask of Sanity" (Cassiopea I think) also find Kathy Krajco's book on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (a closely related pathology) she's a self taught expert.. reputedly bumped off by one of the bastards.
posted by tanktop at 9:39 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

One approach is to take up a regular meditation practice. Your sociopath is simply an external stimulus that causes an automatic chain reaction in your body and mind. Once you learn how to identify automatic thoughts and body reactions, you can start changing your responses to them and gain more control over your psychic lint).

You can start with a mindfulness based approach if you like. I started with guided exercises daily (body scan + three minute breathing space). Also journaling, noticing one pleasant and one unpleasant event each day, the body sensations and automatic thoughts associated.

Another approach is to take up a really high intensity exercise program, you will feel invisibly awesome and probably a lot calmer.

If your sociopath is causing depression, consult your physician for diagnosis and treatment. You might be able to go on short term disability, or to avoid disability you might come up with a modified work plan that has you working from home. You'd be surprised how management's attitude may change towards the sociopath once it starts costing them money.
posted by crazycanuck at 10:14 AM on January 5, 2014

You need to watch the ebb and flow of resources and results-- make sure that the sand doesn't get sucked out from under your feet --make sure that the scummy debris doesn't build up around your department.

Politics is ultimately about control of resources and prestige-- money, staff, projects, visible tokens of prestige.

The safest position with a psychopathy is to let them know that you control an important resource and they need to keep you smoothed.

Robert Greene's 48 Laws of Power is relatively neutral & non-judgmental. This will allow to evaluate what is going on around you, to make sure you are not in direct conflict and make sure you are not losing.
posted by ohshenandoah at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Keep all communication possible in writing. Even if after something has been verbally agreed you email him with a just writing to confirm that xyz is what we agreed upon. Because these sort of people will gaslight the fuck out of you if you let them, so having it in writing keeps them honest, and the times they are trying to gaslight you saying that you agreed to x when you know you agreed to y, but he starts planting seeds of doubt you can go back and check.

Also if he knows that you are keeping a paper trail he is likely to go onto easier targets.
posted by wwax at 11:07 AM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's true, that stuff about control of resources and power that ohsenandoah wrote above. I worked with a sociopath. I had a prestigious resource (a novel piece of data). She stole it out from under me and got credit. I lost something I'd worked on for 6 years. It was a nightmare. Keep everything locked up, do not speak with this person, avoid him at all costs. Keep careful written records with your supervisor. Do not smile at him, do not make small talk.

Psychopaths do not need to know you control an important resource. They may try to steal it. Psychopaths should simply be avoided, and anything tangible you have should be protected from them. Zero contact if you can help it. If someone tries to directly put you on a project with him, pull out all the big guns to get off that project.
posted by htid at 3:08 PM on January 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, this. If psychopaths show interest in interacting with you it's probably because they see you as having an important resource they can steal. Try to look like you don't have anything they want.
posted by tel3path at 11:42 PM on January 5, 2014

OopsI meant John Clarke.. 'Working with Monsters' J M Carver also has good stuff on the overlapping Cluster B disorders at
posted by tanktop at 9:13 AM on January 6, 2014

Response by poster: Why do you need to come out on top? What does that even mean? I have a feeling that the reason this guy bothers you so much is because you're more like him than you care to admit. Perhaps the reason he makes you feel so bad is not just because he is repulsive, but because he makes you suspect that you yourself are repulsive too.

Excellent question. For me, coming out on top would mean feeling serene after meetings and phone calls concerning our joint projects, when working with him is a lot like trying to handwrite a letter in a turbulent aircraft.

In general, things go well until they jar to a halt because he does things that undermine trust. The latest: sending an email about a sensitive joint project after successful completion and copying both his boss and mine, accusing me of withholding vital information (untrue, and I had the documentation to prove it).

We exchanged documentation following this and had a talk. Got it straightened out. Doesn't help that the takeaway from this is that he doesn't respect my department's boundaries or my activity, nor does he mind lying in order to make it look I kept him from getting the work done. Miscommunication is one thing. Bad faith is another.

And here's the thing: this last thing came out of the blue after two solid weeks of cooperation to expedite a priority project. When I ask myself why he would do this, my gut tells me that he's starting a paper trail to get me fired. (I'm preparing myself for this; have seen it in different workplaces, and it's happened to me once). One thing I've learned is that once you're a target, you're as good as gone. That's fine, but I liked this job and would have liked to stay in my org. Tough luck, but such is the way of the modern workplace.

Some backstory: he was brought in to lead my client's team because this client has had problems with everything from process to quality control to high employee turnover. They need a strong leader with the ability to manage, lead, and convince. Fine. There's still a difference between a strong personality and a malignant one.

I work transversally on a part of their overall activity. My department oversees the whole of the activity on which we collaborate at an institutional level. We have our own processes and standards; it isn't the place of our clients to impose theirs. Or shouldn't be; we're getting steamrolled because our management won't stand up to this particular one for a few different reasons.

I think my client's end goal is to install an in-house team that does what I do now, in which case I become redundant. (Like I said, I'm as good as gone; am currently preparing an exam for a professional qualification and going to the gym a lot. It could be worse.)

Interesting observation about our similarities. If I think about it, I realize that he's implementing the same changes wrt process and quality control that I've been recommending since I came on board. At my level, I'm not in a position to do that, and am still struggling with outdated tools and procedural inefficiencies. I am probably jealous that he's getting things done, while at the same time disapproving of his methods. I don't think that my colleagues are incompetent fools, and other peoples' boundaries and opinions about how they conduct their activity matter to me, especially since I haven't been in the org that long. Probably means I'm not cut out for the C-suite, but if this is what it's like on the inside, I'm not too sure I want to be there.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 12:03 PM on January 18, 2014

Response by poster: I don't know why you have no choice but to stay for six months, but don't let anyone at work, or any mutual contacts, know that this is the case. In any event, assume that you will be pushed out sooner than you think, so start tunneling out now.

Yes, yes, and yes to all this.

Six months is the amount of time remaining until I can apply for permanent residency in the country where I live. That requires a job. For better or for worse.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 12:45 PM on January 18, 2014

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