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Is your boss manipulative? Intimidating? Totally lacking in remorse? Yet superficially charming? Then you could be working with a workplace psychopath. The latest figures suggest one in ten managers are psychopaths, and this week Catalyst goes deep inside their minds - what makes them tick, how do you spot them; and how do you avoid being crushed by them. We'll also run a handy test - tune in to find out if your boss is an office psychopath.


Narration: It begins as a phone call - and then a meeting - usually late at night.

A corporation has a problem and they need Dr John Clarke's help. They need a psychopath- buster.

Dr John Clarke: The common misconception with psychopaths is that they're all violent extreme kind of criminals. The majority of them are living and working around us in jobs psychologically destroying the people that they work with.

Narration: There's a growing realisation psychopaths are thriving in today's workplace. According to the textbooks, every large company has them.

Jonica Newby, reporter: This is where I work. It's the ABC building in Sydney. Now the figures are that 0.5% of women are psychopaths, and 2% are men. So that means there are up to 25 corporate psychopaths somewhere up there.

Narration: But who are they? What makes them tick? And how do you avoid being the next victim of the workplace psychopath.

Psychologist John Clarke started out profiling criminal psychopaths, but four years ago, he began to realise there was a much bigger problem.

Dr John Clarke: I was giving a lecture on criminal psychopaths and someone came down after that lecture and said that their boss had the same characteristics as what I'd just described for a criminal one.

Narration: "Annette" knows just what he's talking about. Like most victims we contacted, she would only tell her story anonymously.

She was a confident, career minded public servant when she first met her new boss.

Annette: I got a shock when he took me into his office and shut the door - he just exploded. It was sort of like well what do we want you for. And then when he let me out again it was all smiles.

Dr John Clarke: There are 20 characteristics to define a psychopath. Really the fundamental factor is an absolute lack of remorse or guilt for their behaviour, pathological lying, manipulative, callous, egotistical, very kind of self centred individual, glib and superficial charm

Narration: The workplace psychopath's textbook strategies feature in a new David Williamson play, Operator.
Psychopath: Francine. They tell me that you're the person who really runs things here, so I thought I'd better say hello as quickly as possible.

Francine: Now you're just trying to flatter me.

Psychopath: Not at all. Three different people have told me that with your capabilities you could step straight out of a support role into top management.
David Williamson: They are so devious. They're so good at saying things you want to hear to your face at the same time they're knifing you in the back.
Psychopath: Could you do me a big favour?

Francine: What?

Psychopath: Write me an email that sort of recounts what happened here today.

Francine: I don't like putting things in writing.

Psychopath: I won't ever show it to anyone without getting your permission first.

I know I shouldn't be showing it to you ...
Dr John Clarke: They steal other people's work. They spread rumours about people, character assassination. A range of different strategies they will use to move up through the company.

David Williamson: They are worrying. I mean, if you strike one you may not realise it for quite a while until they do some devious act that stabs you in the back and can quite psychologically crush you.

Narration: Annette's boss was typical - charming his superiors and acolytes, while isolating and undermining his victims.

Annette: I wasn't allowed to have a phone when I was working, you know, my phone calls were monitored just this constant wearing down and harassment and you know, it was just awful.

Narration: By the time she complained, she'd been so discredited behind her back, no one would support her.

Annette: They didn't believe me. They're going, "He's such a funny guy, he's so nice"

In the end I had to go in and, and see him. And I was just crying my eyes out and I was just tears running down my face. And he walked me out through the chairs, through the desks, out through the long way through the office in case anyone had missed the spectacle of me just breaking down. I was devastated. I was just broken.

Narration: But how can someone act in such a seemingly inhuman way?

The truth is, psychopaths are fundamentally different to the rest of us.

Research is showing they're deficient in a crucial skill that evolved to ensure we don't abandon our friends and family - empathy.

Dr John Clarke: Empathy really is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It's very very important in terms of survival of the human species because if nobody really cared or understood what other people were feeling it would just cause breakdown of society.

Narration: Empathy is not just an abstract idea ...

... it's something you can measure physiologically.

Jonica Newby, reporter: Well, I'm about to be tested for one of the key characteristics of a psychopath.

Dr John Clarke: Now I'm just going to show you some pictures. Sit back, relax, and we'll see what happens.

Narration: As I watch the pictures, probes are detecting whether I release minute traces of sweat - whether I have an emotional response - empathy.

Psychopaths generally don't react.

Jonica Newby, reporter: So how'd I go?

Dr John Clarke: Very well. What we can see as we scroll through is for the non-emotional pictures there is no response. And when we get to here with the pictures of people crying you can see an involuntary physical emotional response.

Jonica Newby, reporter: So I'm not a psychopath.

Dr John Clarke: Definitely not.

Narration: Psychopaths generally don't react.

This lack of emotional response extends deep into the brain.

When most of us see another persons distress, our emotional centre, the limbic system, is aroused. We feel a little of what others are feeling.

But a 2001 US study revealed the psychopath has very little limbic system response to emotional information.

Dr. John Clarke: And that's what allows them to manipulate and control other people because they're able to do that on a very rational logical level but at the same time they don't feel the emotion or empathy for the other person.

Narration: No one knows how much of this deficit is genetic, and how much shaped by childhood.

But by the time they are adults, psychopaths aren't simply uncaring. They are physically incapable of feeling other people's pain.

Annette: My hair was falling out, you know, and I uh.. you know, I had diarrhoea, I couldn't sleep, my life got that awful and black it seemed a better option to just be dead and stop it.
Man: Someone I like and respect a lot almost died last night.

Psychopath: Let's get real here. Melissa was reckless, incompetent and stuffed up in a big way. And when you stuff up big time you get depressed.

Man: She nearly died.

Psychopath: She's a loser. Who f...... cares?
Narration: But without a brain scan, how do we spot a psychopath before its too late? One answer seems to be; look up.

John Clarke suspects corporations today aren't just failing to screen for psychopaths, they're unwittingly selecting them.

Dr John Clarke: You see this advertisement here. "An ability to do whatever it takes to meet a deadline". So that would appeal to a psychopath because they are prepared to do whatever it takes whatever the cost. If we look at this one - "The opportunities are endless you just need to know how to win it" - well they know how to win everything pretty much.

David Williamson: They present very confidently. They are full of self-esteem. They have no doubts; no hesitations and so interviewing panels often find them very attractive.

That's what many corporations see as being a good executive.

Narration: But some corporations are now realising they have a problem. That's why they call secretly on criminal profiler, John Clarke.

Dr John Clarke: The companies don't like to admit they have a psychopath and so the first meeting, it's often on a Friday night or late at night after the employees have gone home.

Narration: Issues range from fraud, to broken promises, to losing staff.

Executive: I just can't seem to keep staff and it's all coming from his section.

Dr John Clarke: Which is costing you money.

Executive: Exactly.

Dr John Clarke: The first thing I do is really get an assessment from the people working below, at the same level and above the individual. And so if there are huge discrepancies in opinion that's reason to start delving deeper.

Narration: Dr Clarke then administers a standard psychopath assessment. Remember those questions you answered earlier? They're a modified, cut down version.

Here are the final two:

Is your boss opportunistic, ruthless, hating to lose and playing to win?

Does your boss consider people they've outsmarted as dumb or stupid?

If your boss scored 5 out of 6 or more, you could be working with a workplace psychopath.

Now for the bad news.

Dr John Clarke: It's almost impossible to rehabilitate the psychopath. In fact, there are studies in the United States, which suggest that rehabilitation in fact makes them worse because it teaches them new social skills they can use to manipulate the people around them more effectively.

Narration: Once identified, there are strategies to manage the psychopath or move them on.

But what if you're the victim, and the corporation backs your boss?

Stay too long, and you risk a severe psychological breakdown. That's what happened to Annette.

Annette: I loved my job but in the end I, I fell apart. I was just so, so broken and you know, I just walked out and there was no coming back.

I'm unemployable now, you know. I just, I can't take another knock like that,

Dr John Clarke: When I tell them that one of the options is to leave the company there's shock, and then they go on to how unfair it is but then there's devastation when they do realise that that might be the most appropriate option to take because the situation is not going to change.

Narration: Far from getting their comeuppance, in these days of short term goals and high staff turnover, psychopaths often rise to the top.

In making this story, we spoke to many victims, none who could be identified for fear of defamation or worse - all devastated - all with a similar message.

Annette: I think you should run, you should run. There are some bosses out there that are deadly.

Dr John Clarke: I want people to be aware that they're not going crazy. It's the workplace psychopath that's the problem, not them.

David Williamson: That's not to say that every manager is like that. But it's that one out of ten that has the potential to really wreck a company, wreck the coherence of a company and wreck lives.

Story Contacts

Dr John Clarke - Psychologist / Criminal profiler

David Williamson - Playwright

Louise Heywood - Producer

Dr John Clarke's Website