I have been listening to David Gillespie’s Taming Toxic People: The Science of Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths at Work & at Home (2017). It is one of those books I wish ‘normal’ managers and executives would read/listen to.
This has become a repeated theme for me – the harm done to staff with disability by managers who lack empathy, and why organisations should act promptly to respond to reports of their abuse of staff with disability. Here I will lay out the argument in a more specific way, in the context of psychopathy.
Who is the Psychopath?
Gillespie does a good job of summarising what we understand of psychopathy. I will not repeat his work here. Please read the book. But he does make several points critical to my argument here:
- Psychopathy, like other psychological states in a scale, a spectrum – from mild to severe. The only important question is: “When does it become a danger to the wellbeing and welfare of others?”
- Psychopathy is characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse. Other people become objects subject to manipulation, control, and abuse.
Gillespie cites a 2008 study by Clive Body from Middlesex University which embedded a psychopathy checklist in a survey on 346 middle and senior managers. The survey was responded to by staff in government agencies, businesses and NGOs in Perth, Western Australia. The results were instructive:
- 83% of respondents worked with ‘normal’ managers – they scored low on the psychopathy scale.
- 11% worked with managers who showed some psychopathic tendencies. These Body referred to as dysfunctional managers, but Gillespie preferred terminology used by other researchers – moderate psychopaths.
- 6% worked with managers who were assessed as being more fully psychopathic.
The survey yielded some concerning data about instances of bullying:
- With ‘normal’ managers employees experienced bullying less than once a month – 9 times a year.
- Moderately psychopathic managers bullied staff more than twice a month – on average 29 times a year.
- Psychopathic managers bullied staff more than 5 times a month on average – 64.4times a year
This data indicated that:
- The 6% of psychopathic managers perpetrated over 50% of bullying.
- The 11% of moderately psychopathic managers were responsible for 26% of incidents of bullying.
- Thus only 17% of managers were responsible for over 76% of claimed incidents of bullying.
Gillespie observed that when Body repeated the study in the UK, the incidents of bullying by moderate psychopaths was as high as 36%.
- This is only one study, of course. But there are safe take ways:
- There are managers on the moderate to severe end of the psychopathy spectrum.
- They are significantly, and disproportionately, responsible for a higher percentage of the incidents of bullying than ‘normal’.
What are the Consequences?
Bullying can include verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and psychological manipulation and abuse.
Gillespie argues that bullies are psychopathic. Some conduct described as bullying can be put down to a stress reaction. Its still not okay; but it is not driven by a persistent unempathic state of mind; and expressed as repeated acts of bullying and victimisation. Managers who ‘snap’ under stress are likely to feel remorse; and apologise.
Bullies target vulnerable people, who are subjected to repeated abusive conduct, unless they can escape.
One of the much touted ‘virtues’ of staff with disability is that they are ‘loyal’ – they do no change jobs often. That’s not a virtue. Its fear, and sometimes entrapment. Staff with disability have poorer career progression prospects. They often have a sense of vulnerability about their continued employment. That fear includes questions of competence, and exposure to forced medical retirement processes.
Here are some quotes from a lengthy document detailing experience of persistent bullying by one person with disability:
- “I have never got over the bullying incidents and I had a lot of paid and unpaid leave. After the bullying incident and the ongoing issues with parking I just wanted to resign but for financial reasons I kept going to work when I was an emotional mess.”
- “In early 2018, I reduced my working hours down to 7 days a fortnight. I did this because as a direct result of bullying. So yet again I was financially disadvantaged.”
- “I have become obsessive about trying to stop [name] from bullying staff. She is a serial bully and usually picks on people that she considers vulnerable. I have witnessed her harm so many people over the years. This haunts me‚ and keeps me awake at night. I have spoken to many people about her and nothing is ever done.”
- “I live in fear that she may start to bully me again by rejecting my work for no reason. She has done this a few times to me. Earlier this year I spoke to my Manager about this and they said that they would ensure that [name] did not approve my work. This did not happen and she is still approving my work.”
- “Because of my disability I have been the victim of bullying many times at the [workplace] and this started when I was in training. At no stage was I offered any support and the complaints that I put in were either mishandled or forgotten. I am not alone as I have seen this happened to many people. This may be debilitating for anyone who is vulnerable. Even now I regularly hear about people who work here who have been victims of bullying and this goes unreported.”
- “Bullying is counterproductive; it robs the victim of their dignity; it affects their health and emotional well-being. After I was bullied I used all my leave and because of this I lost financially. I was an emotional mess for many months.”
- “I have been to several Counsellors but I can’t seem to move on. I feel like I have to try to do something about this so nobody else has to be humiliated and hurt like I have been. But bullying is like ‘the elephant in the room’ that nobody wants to talk about and no action is taken.”
- “There needs to be real consequences for Managers who repeatedly bully subordinates. I have asked several times for posters to be up on the walls encouraging workers to report bullying and harassment and telling them how; but my requests have been ignored.”
I know the author of these words. I do not think it is possible for a ‘normal’ person to read them and not feel the writer’s pain. But it is plain that the perpetrators of the bullying do not, and that they do not care.
Do Not Delegate Responsibility
Gillespie is clear that psychopathic bullies possess attributes that are alarming:
- They have no remorse.
- They are accomplished and persuasive liars.
- They will lie to protect themselves, and throw the blame onto the victim, if they dare complain.
- They will punish any victim who complains.
Organisations rely on formal complaints processes that are a trap to a staff member with disability who uses that method in an attempt to secure an end to bullying and some redress. These processes favour the psychopath. I can confirm that staff with disability who go through the normal complaints process are more often likely to have the complaint dismissed, and be blamed for making a ‘false’ allegation.
A ‘normal’ manager will usually not let a situation deteriorate to the point where a team member has no recourse but to lodge a complaint. An investigation undertaken by a person unaware of psychopathy is at risk of becoming a tool of the psychopathic manager. All too often complaints against managers are not substantiated on grounds that are often ill- founded. There is, I believe, a clear power imbalance in favour of managers.
In fact, managers are disproportionately not held accountable when complaints are raised, or incidents involving harm to a staff member come to the attention of senior management. This, alone, should be setting off alarm bells. In fact, I know of no instance of a manager being held accountable. This may because of confidentiality concerns. But it also means that no complainant I am aware of has been told their case has been upheld, or that the manager has been ‘spoken to’.
In fact, an instance where a staff member with disability took their public sector employer to the Human Rights Commission after sustained bullying did not lead to any known disciplinary action concerning the manager responsible, even when the complaint was upheld. The employee reported that bullying continued after the hearing. It took an intervention by senior executives to relocate the staff member away from the bully. The bully, who exhibited, in my view, clear psychopathic traits, remained unrestrained in their conduct, and unchastised. Why was that?
I was bullied at school. I was a tall skinny kid. I didn’t like fights for real, so I avoided them. But when my back was pushed to a wall, I could, and did, give out worse than I got. I did a lot of play fighting with friends heavier and stronger than me.
I have been bullied at work too – before and after I acquired a disability. I have been managed by psychopaths of the moderate variety who have tried to give me a hard time. Sometimes they succeed, but mostly not. I have come away bruised, but not battered the way I have seen my colleagues with disability suffer. I know the damage done. It endures for years.
It is recognised that there is a higher concentration of psychopaths in management, and the higher one goes, the greater the concentration. Maybe this explains why, despite protestations of concern, flagrantly cruel and unemphatic managers are very rarely held to account, while their victims take ‘stress leave’, are ‘managed out’, medically retired, quit, or grimly endure because there is no other viable option. Some abusers are promoted. And they are often the worst.
A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague about a manager, under whom a friend worked for a brief time. I knew my colleague had come from the same business area and I was curious to check out my friend’s description of the manager, which was so extreme I suspected strong personal bias. I have a substantial background in complaints investigation, and I had long learned to be wary of strong negative descriptions of people. I’d rarely come across an instance of the characterisation matching my experience of the person.
The look on my colleague’s face was a fair signal of what was to come. Of that manager he said that they were ‘the maddest and most dangerous person I have ever known’. Even after blatant abuse of staff that amounted to intentional persecution, involving alleged lying and fabrication of evidence in an effort to have a staff member sacked, the department did finally transfer the manager and reportedly stripped them of any right to be a manager in future. That’s mild ‘punishment’ for sustained serious misconduct. I am familiar with the specifics of this instance, so it’s not hearsay.
More recently I know, from totally reliable sources (close friends, family, and former colleagues), of conduct that fits a description of psychopathy in the NSW government agencies. One resigned because the manager’s conduct became so toxic, his psychological health became at risk. Another resigned after it became apparent there was action afoot to have her sacked by alleging corrupt conduct and potentially destroying her reputation. Another survived because I was involved in providing support.
I cannot stress enough that psychopathic managers are real and continue to do real harm to individual staff and to WorkCover premiums. I know of the injury to staff with disability first- hand because I have been directly involved in interventions. I believe reports that vulnerable people from other ‘diversity’ groups are equally impacted – because they come from staff with disability who know what they are going through.
There’s something called the 80:20 rule – e.g. 80% of crime is caused by 20% of the population. Go back to Body’s figures – 17% of managers perpetrate 76% of bullying. It’s a good fit for the rule. We act to prevent and respond to crime in our community, better than we police bullying and its associated abuses in our government agencies. That’s not okay.
The issue isn’t that there is a plague of full-blown psychopaths in the public sector. There isn’t. But there are enough on the moderate to severe side of the spectrum to give good cause for concern. Even one staff member with disability subject to the machinations of a manger whose conduct is psychopathic is not okay. Worse, you can be assured they are not the only one suffering.
The question I keep returning to is: “Why, in the face of evidence of psychopathic managers causing harm to staff with disability (and others), do the agency’s leaders not act with clarity and intent to put a stop to the abuse and harm?”
As I write this, I can hear the cheers of the victims of these managers, who read my blog. The most common comment I get is “It’s like you are telling my story.” I am.
Please read, or listen to, Taming Toxic People. It provides an accessible introduction to a much-neglected theme that is the source of so much pain.