Personality disorders at work: When you see this person coming, run

Business man with hand extended to the viewer

Personality Disorders at Work

Nearly everyone I encounter when I have my I/O psychology hat on claims to know somebody at work with a personality disorder. “My boss is Narcissistic and OCD.” Or, “I can’t even ‘borrow’ her computer, she’s so Paranoid.” C’mon. Right? (there’s something about that word, “right” that’s beginning to bug me in today’s lingo) Can everyone possibly know someone – at work – that’s crazy?

They probably do. Really. (I bet that surprised you.)

But I don’t mean they’re right regarding the arm-chair clinical diagnosis they usually share with me in hope that I’ll “fix” the deranged individual. Most just happen to be right in a statistical sense that I’ll explain in a sec.

Time Out: I AM NOT A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST. I do not specifically diagnose or treat mental illness in my capacity as an I/O professional. Neither does any other I/O psychologist that doesn’t also have a PhD in clinical psychology. But I do deal with it – probably more effectively than the average person. “Psychological types” is really a misnomer because all expressions of psychology operate within a range, not at discrete points. And so do clinical disorders. Experts in psychology know how to work with a range of “types.”

Almost all of these amateur psychologists are wrong regarding their “remarkably precise” assessments. The person they work with that they think should be “taken away” probably does NOT have a clinical condition personality disorder. And if they do, the assessor frequently misdiagnoses the given disorder.

Breaking News: “Schizo” does not actually mean split personality and “Psychopath” is no longer used as a formal diagnosis for a personality disorder anymore. My advice, stay in your lane.

Where they’re right is in recognizing and calling out dysfunction at work, just not the specifically dysfunctional.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any clinically affected people at work.

There are.

It doesn’t mean that they (and you) needn’t fear the behavior of some nefarious colleague.

You should.

Prevalence of Personality Disorders at Work

over 4% of people have a personality disorder

Data: A Serious Mental Illness (SMI) is one whereby an individual’s behavior is disruptive to the point of interfering with a significant life activity. Based on findings from a 2016 national survey, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that about 4.2% of US adults suffer from SMIs. Yes, over 4% of people have a personality disorder. (The estimate includes all forms of mental illness beyond personality disorders, but personality disorders are much more prevalent than the rest.) This is higher than the January 2019 unemployment figure of 3.9% (and that was up .2% versus the previous month).

Do the math.

Dangerous Types at Work

Most instances of mental illness at work are not the kind that others need to fear for their safety – especially the personality disorders at work. But this isn’t always the case in an environment where legitimate power by authority is the norm. Here the individual with an SMI can do harm to others – especially, but not exclusively, to direct reports.

There is one clinical personality type (I use, “type” but this type is exclusively a disorder) that should be feared, not for physical safety but for psychological safety. When you see this type of person at work, RUN. These are the folks that can hurt you. These are people of the dark triad type.

The Dark Triad

This “type” is actually a combination of several personality disorders, or traits (“traits” are the behavioral form of “type” and these become “disorders” when they become SMIs.) For this reason, it’s called, “The Dark Triad.” And it’s THE most dangerous of all personality disorders at work.

The three personality disorders that comprise the dark triad include Narcissism, Antisocial, and Borderline. (The original conceptualization of the dark triad specified “Machiavellianism.” Other than Antisocial, “Borderline” is the next closest – but not equivalent – type by conversion of Machiavellianism to the new terminology.)

Here I provide a brief summary of the corresponding behaviors typical of each of the three disorders:

Narcissistic Personality Disorder – Extraordinarily self-confident; grandiosity and entitlement; preoccupation with self; over-estimation of capabilities

Antisocial Personality Disorder – Enjoy taking risks and testing limits; manipulative; deceitful, cunning, and exploitative; disrespectful of people and normative values

Borderline Personality Disorder – Moody; intense but short-lived enthusiasm for people, projects, and things; instability in relationships; hard to please

Essentially, the dark triad individual is self-absorbed, malevolent, and callous. You don’t want to bunk with this person on your team building adventure.

The especially insidious thing about this disorder is attributable to two facets:

  1. Appeal. People with the “dark triad” traits are especially cunning, colorful, charismatic …. And deceitful. They are not only incredibly difficult to identify for their pathological behavior, they’re actually quite charming – on the surface. Even they have themselves convinced that they’re extraordinarily good people. Don’t buy it.
  2. Leadership Potential. Some elements of the dark triad are in fact predictive of leadership. (Guess which ones?) Narcissists tend to rise to high levels in the organization on their own coattails. The intensely enthusiastic traits of the Borderline personality, even if episodic, provide the reinforcing motivation of compliments and appreciation others are comfortable promoting.

And the dark triad is especially hard to assess. On personality tests, these types present themselves as being inclined toward leadership roles, outgoing, conscientious and likeable — all the characteristics that typically predict a high potential leader. I’ve written about how personality tests don’t tell the whole story. Well, the dark triad type comes from one of those books.

people who exhibit dark triad behaviors are attractive

This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing if ever there was one. What makes these features so dangerous is that people who exhibit dark triad behaviors are attractive (they get more dates) and ascendant (they get more promotions).

In terms of risk of impact – it’s high. If you work for someone like this you will be the primary target of attack. It’s important to watch yourself and them. They can do things that are highly disruptive while gliding along the lake like a swan, only you get kicked with their webbed feet (with talons).

Taken separately, each of the three components of the dark triad can deliver a real blow to the self and others’ psychological well-being. However, the antisocial component is undoubtedly the most dangerous of the three.

They don’t just not care about you, they want to hurt you.

People with antisocial personality disorder have a history of delinquency, whether they got caught or not. They push limits over the line not because it will offer them any actual advantage – they simply HAVE to feed an insatiable need to disrupt others. They don’t just not care about you, they want to hurt you. If this is the predominant trait you see in someone – duck and cover (not sustainable) or jump and run (also has its downsides, but generally better than hanging around).

Dealing with the Dark Triad

People with the dysfunctional types of the dark triad can’t be fixed. Even with intensive therapy the recidivism is very high where there is not a co-dependence (i.e., addiction) driving the condition. So, when you see these people coming, you need to take the wheel of your “magic bus” or, be thrown under it.

Here are some tips that may help you to deal better with a person with these co-morbid character traits:

  1. Know the enemy. Identify or validate your suspicious character carefully. There are some known flaws in their game. They tend to lie a lot — and well. Listen for evidence of contradiction or rewriting their past. One of their biggest lies is covering their tracks. They rarely keep a job for longer than 18 months but have excellent “reasons” for why they resigned – most having to do with the former employer’s unethical behavior.
  2. Be sure to include an assessment for the dark triad in your selection and recruitment systems. This assessment needs to be thorough. Simple testing or interviewing will reveal a star that knows how to interview and has plenty of impressive work experience because they’ve been fired so many times. An expert helps here. You do NOT want to hire or promote them. This is a clear case where character counts more than expertise.
  3. Avoid letting them get hyper-angry. Never fight back (especially if it’s your boss). Don’t talk when they’re ranting. Just let the bluster blow itself out. (They like hearing themselves anyway). You’ll have a better chance with them tomorrow – or even later that day. Their attitude can change with the weather.
  4. Feed their need for adoration. As cunning as they are, narcissists can’t resist the Siren’s songs of praise. This tactic can defuse an otherwise explosive situation and give you time to execute your exit strategy.
  5. Protect your actions and behaviors. These liars will stop at nothing to serve themselves and deny others. Keep a third person around to serve as a witness and confidant. Take notes of any/all interactions. Do nothing you wouldn’t do on trial.

If you know how they operate, you can best control, or at least influence, how they behave. But be warned, the Dark Triad is notoriously difficult to outsmart – especially with trickery. They know a thing or two about being manipulative and tend to think others act this way, too. They’re generally a bit on the paranoid side looking out for the types of things they would do to others. A defensive posture in attitude and behavior is the best default strategy.

Now that you’re adequately scared, I’ll remind you that all personality types, including personality disorders at work, exist in degree. I’ve painted an especially dark case to make my point. Most are not this extreme. A sophisticated and level-headed style of communication will help to keep things civil with less explosive outbursts, threats, lies, etc.

Remember, all humans are animals. Some are brutal sluggers. Don’t fight a slugger with your fists.