Office bullies may be ‘snakes in suits’

Suited, sophisticated and suave.

These are just some of the tell-tale signs which corporate leaders use to disguise their power-hungry intentions at the expense of others.

This is according to clinical psychologist Lauren Davies, who addressed about 50 psychologists, students and human resource professionals at the Society of Industrial and Organisational Psychology in South Africa (Siopsa) Eastern Cape event hosted at Nelson Mandela University yesterday.

Davies presented her acclaimed presentation, “Snakes in Suits: Dealing with Psychopaths at Work”. The presentation aims to enable professionals to identify these individuals, how to deal with them and bringing “humanity” back to the work environment which counteracts their progress.

She said the predominate difference between these individuals and others was the disruption of the circuit linking the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex.

“The general population has two types of empathy, namely cognitive, which is an intellectual understanding of emotions, and affective empathy, which is connecting with a particular emotion,” Davies said.

“With psychopaths, there is no affective empathy. This is because they don’t have that link to the prefrontal cortex . . . Hence they feel nothing to trample on others to further themselves.”

However, Davies said in the work environment these people were referred to as sociopaths rather than psychopaths as they knew the rules and how to fit into society. “They are socialised psychopaths,” she said.

“Their mantra is ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know and how you play them against each other’.

The payoff for the office psychopath is power and control, not money or promotion. “They do it through charming their way through interviews, identifying who is useful and useless. Then they start with manipulation by setting up an influence network before spreading misinformation about themselves and others.

“This manipulation also involves charming their supporters, gaining allies, before pitting peers against each other, causing confrontation.

“Having already allied himself with the correct players, he is then able to go into the ascension aspect, placing him in a position of power, ” Davies said.

She said the workplace environment as well as schools encouraged sociopathic behaviour as both were results-driven.

“There is no law against workplace bullying if it is not of a sexual or physical nature. And with the work environment being so profit driven, these sociopaths thrive, because they are all very intellectual.

“These behaviours are a 50/50 divide between nature and nurture. In most cases, these sociopaths are born with the habits and tendencies, while 50% of it is triggered by the specific work environment. “And because of corporate culture, they get away with it.”

While the term psychopath might refer to a specific individual, clinical psychologist Lauren Davies believes they share similar characteristics, derived from a 50/50 mix of nature and nurture.

During her presentation, Davies highlighted three “crucial elements” which she said all psychopaths and sociopaths shared. These include a total disregard for others’ feelings, a total lack of remorse and absence of conscience, and poor impulse control.

Additional characteristics include:

● Tend to be hungry for admiration;

● Tend to want to be the centre of attention;

● Tend to aim for higher status and signs of their importance;

● Tend to take it for granted that other people will make extra effort to help them;

● Tend to bend organisational systems and rules to their own advantage;

● Often elicit a ‘pity’ response ;

● Generally good at blaming others for their mistakes;

● Often have a high need for stimulation and get bored easily;

● Not team players;

● Offer convincing details that do not add up;

● Once considered “too good to be true”;

●Excessive contact with higher levels in the organisation;

● Expense account issues;

● Poor corporate citizenship. These individuals potential “weapons” include:

● Unwarranted criticism;

● Nit-picking;

● Excluding people and singling people out;

● Shouting or verbal humiliation;

●Excessive monitoring and making others doubt their ability.

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