A Psychology Today titled Beware of the Malevolent Dark Triad states:

“Think of the Dark Triad of Narcissism, Psychopathy, and Machiavellianism as the Bermuda Triangle – it’s perilous to get near it!”

Do you personally know a psychopath at work or have been forced to work with one? 

Mental Illness or Moral Illness?

First of all, psychopaths give mental illness a bad rap, and the media doesn’t help. Hollywood often portrays psychopaths as serial killers. What many don’t realize is that many of them walk among us in everyday life.

Social stigma often gives rise to the form of prejudice that sees people with mental health challenges as a liability for society, even their immediate community. Quite often, mental illness gets characterized as a moral illness. The reasoning is that somehow there is a moral failing involved or lack of character that causes their illness. When there really are real-life psychopaths that also have mental health issues, what often happens is that we tend to focus more on the latter and forget about the former.

While there certainly are personality disorders that can predispose a person to be manipulative or deceitful, it still comprises a very small subset of people with mental health challenges. There is no clear-cut way to answer if psychopathy falls under the category of mental illness or should be marked off as a sociological anomaly.

[Related: Is Psychopathy a Mental Illness?]

How is the “Cultural Immune System” of Your Workplace?

According to psychologist Martha Stout in her book “The Sociopath Next Door,” sociopaths often work their way up in organizations quite successfully and often land in positions of leadership. According to a 2010 study, about 3% of business leaders scored in the psychopathic range, compared to 1% of the general population.

Psychopaths are hard to spot — they can be undetectable quite often because many people that happen to be covertly narcissistic, manipulative and self-interested are often charming, witty and make great impressions. They often advance up the corporate ladder. Many find themselves in Wall Street and politics. They cause untold damage within organizations, families and communities. The Enron scandal attests to that fact. In this case, one person’s psychopathy in the position of leadership destroyed thousands of lives and livelihoods in the process. 

Among other traits of grandiosity, a lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy and callousness toward those to whom they cause suffering are traits of psychopaths. Psychopaths have little regard for safety, especially other people’s. They often lie, cheat and steal to get ahead. This behavior can be especially toxic. 

The mental health fallout of such people is often underemphasized in terms of the total loss they can cause the workplace and individuals within that space. Left undiagnosed and untreated, these malignancies can wreak havoc and destroy individual lives.

I had an experience at a company I worked for in which one person nearly led to the demise of the entire organization and more than one suicide attempt. 

A Matter of Life or Death

We don’t have to wait until it gets as bad as it did in Enron or in Wall Street preceding the mortgage bust in 2008 to realize the large-scale damage a psychopathic individual can cause an entire company or team. One person’s ill-intentioned actions can disrupt and even destroy entire lives. The larger the company, the larger the fallout. It takes a strong cultural immune system to prevent one person’s wayward actions from negatively impacting an entire community or agency. The greater the trust level across the length and breadth of the organization, the greater the protective “bulwark” against the intentions of even a small psychopathic minority.

This is why the quality of culture is very important toward the mental well-being of the workforce; it affects far more than just productivity. It can make the difference between life and death.

Let me ask you again: Can you spot a psychopath in your workplace?

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