Unless you're self-employed, at some point you probably thought your boss was crazy. Maybe you've muttered to yourself, “That guy is a psychopath.” Or perhaps you've whispered to co-workers, “Seriously, is our boss a sociopath, or is it just me?”
If you're like most people, you use words like “psychopath” and “sociopath” almost interchangeably, as if they're synonyms. But do those words really mean what we think they mean?
“Psychopathy is someone who is sadistic or whose main intention is to manipulate others and gets satisfaction from doing that,” says David M. Reiss, M.D., a psychiatrist based in San Diego. “That's their way of life, that's how they see themselves and they don't have any compunction about it, and often there's some enjoyment they get out of it.”
To put it more simply, a psychopath chooses to “live on the evil side,” says Dr. Reiss. By contrast, sociopaths have problems differentiating good from evil, right from wrong.
“They may have even more difficulties differentiating right from wrong since if it's serving their needs, by definition [that] makes it right,” says Dr. Reiss. “Whereas a psychopath can acknowledge that something is wrong, evil, or bad, and doesn't care.”
If your boss is on a spectrum of sociopathic tendencies, you may only notice it occasionally. “Sociopathic bosses may do fine for 80 percent of the time,” says Dr. Reiss.
A true sociopath will only turn harmful out of need. “They may act decently as long as it's in their best interests,” he says. “But when push comes to shove, they're going to do what they need and don't care who they screw.”
In contemporary Corporate America, such behavior might be seen as an attractive trait for a CEO, “though it may not make you a good person,” Dr. Reiss adds.
On the flip side, there's psychopathy, which is extremely rare–psychopaths represent about 1 percent of the general population–so the chances are fairly slim that your boss is an actual psycho. Psychopaths are often loners, more likely to be in the basement than the boardroom.
But it does happen. How do you know if your boss is a true psychopath?
“Mental health and ethics are interconnected,” says Dr. Judy Rosenberg, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming Be The Cause: Healing Human Disconnect. “It's hard to work for someone where you don't matter. They have what I call a âhole in the soul,' and in order for them to cope, they cut their feelings.”
Dr. Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author most recently of The Midas Complex, takes Rosenberg's metaphor a step further. To him, psychopaths are “black holes.”
“Black holes are a metaphor, in nature, for what the psychopathic psyche is like,” says Kipnis “All the energy and vitality and creativity and life and humanity that surrounds them gets sucked in to their bottomlessness–their infinite hunger for power, money, drugs, sex, influence over others, whatever it is.”
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Kipnis adds that psychopaths have a “vampiric” relationship to the energy of others. “They're like empty vessels. They're very adept at sucking it out of their environment–manipulating people and putting them into positions of subservience.”
Kipnis' advice for dealing with such a boss is blunt. “Run,” he says.
Dr. Reiss suggests the same.
“You have to cut your losses,” he says. “You're not going to win by directly confronting them. You can't reason with them because their reasoning ends with âWhat's in my best interests?' “
In this case, your best interest is to look into self-employment (unless you're a psycho, naturally).