At first, Martin (not his real name) could not believe what he was seeing. A senior manager asked a junior staff member to stand in front
of a meeting and account for a minor indiscretion by justifying why
her role should not be terminated on the spot.
Clearly terrified, and choking back tears, the junior employee
apologised profusely and promised never to repeat the mistake - then
ran from the room.
"And then it was as if nothing had happened," Martin says. "Everyone
just went on with the meeting as though this were normal. It was like
the manager was two totally different people. That's what it was like,
always living in fear that you were going to be the next one to be
attacked. You get to the point where you forget how abnormal it is
until you see the shock on new people's faces."
In the ensuing months, Martin watched as this bizarre behaviour
wreaked havoc through a team of high-achieving professionals. One by
one, they were targeted, asked to perform seemingly impossible feats,
only to be criticised openly even when they completed the task
On one occasion, Martin received a telephone call on a Saturday
morning, asking why he had not attended a meeting on a key project on
the Friday afternoon. He was threatened with dismissal, only to
discover on the Monday that the meeting in question had never taken
On another occasion, everyone in the team was called to an emergency
meeting, handed a piece of note paper and asked to write a dummy
resignation based on their failings.
"You can take really well-educated, smart, strong-minded people and
turn them into victims with someone like this in management," Martin
says. "You see it happen to people around you and even then you don't
realise how debilitating it is until suddenly you realise you are
being targeted and then the only way out is to leave."
Within 12 months, every sales target had been met and the division was
running on budget except for one area: staff retention. In a single
year, staff turnover was 100 per cent.
"There was nothing we could do about it," Martin says. "There was no
line of reporting past him and no way to get a message out to the
senior managers. The only way out was to leave, and as soon as I
could, I left."
Martin had come into direct contact with a corporate psychopath.
Usually articulate, immaculate and charming, these individuals can
rise rapidly, decimate their ranks and leave suddenly when the true
cost of their tenure begins to be recognised by more senior managers.
Like their criminal counterparts, corporate psychopaths are incapable
of empathy, totally lacking in remorse and extremely skilled at
relationship management. To their senior managers, they appear as
charming over-achievers, but for those who work under them, they are
A Sydney psychologist, Dr John Clarke, who has written two books about
corporate psychopaths, says they are surprisingly common and tend to
thrive in difficult economic environments.
Clarke, who originally specialised in criminal psychopaths until he
became aware of the workplace variety, estimates that 1-3 per cent of
men are psychopaths, "and, in my experience in the workplace, it is as
common in women as it is in men".
Every big company has at least one resident psychopath, he says. "They
can be very difficult to identify, even though they are doing a lot of
More disturbingly, Clarke suggests that attempts to reform a corporate
psychopath can be counterproductive.
"Attempts at rehabilitation can actually make a psychopath worse
because it will teach them better social skills and more devious ways
of achieving their goals."
Because the behaviour of the corporate psychopath is so irrational, it
can often take time even for victims to become aware of what is
happening, while senior management are cut off completely from what is
going on in the workplace.
Melbourne Business School program director Clarence Da Gama Pinto says
it is important that managers develop the skills to recognise and deal
with psychopaths in the workplace.
"A real key is performing 360-degree surveys and workplace-climate
surveys, giving managers training to recognise what is workplace
bullying, and empowering them to highlight borderline cases," Da Gama
"If an organisation is not taking a proactive approach to this, they
might find themselves subject to litigation for psychological injury."
How to spot a corporate psychopath
01 Lack of recognition of others in projects or achievements.
02 A sudden increase in absenteeism or illness in a particular division.
03 Attempts to isolate team members from each other and from other senior staff.
04 High staff turnover in a particular branch or division.
05 Constant questioning of others' behaviour or capabilities either
openly or privately.
06 A lack of respect for the intelligence or capabilities of others.
07 Obsession with gaining power over others.
08 Irrational requests, aggressive outbursts and rapid changes in demeanour.
Source: BRW, Fairfax Business Media
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