Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

We've all worked with a difficult boss or two. You might even have come across a manager so unpleasant, you think they must be a psychopath.

"Only about one in about 170 people in the community, 0.6 percent, would meet the criteria for a true psychopath. So, the likelihood is that your boss is not a psychopath," according to Mark Freestone, a senior lecturer in psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London—and consultant on Killing Eve, the U.K. drama about a psychopathic assassin.

Don't let your guard down too quickly, though. Freestone also told Newsweek: "People in management positions are more likely than others to have psychopathic traits, so it's not an impossibility."

Below, mental health experts list signs that your boss is a psychopath and explain how you can cope with their behavior.

Jodie Comer Killing Eve
Psychiatry lecturer Mark Freestone advised the makers of "Killing Eve," a drama about a psychopathic assassin played by Jodie Comer. BBC

What Is Psychopathy?

The American Psychological Association states that psychopathy is another term for antisocial personality disorder, which it defines as "a chronic and pervasive disposition to disregard and violate the rights of others."

MedlinePlus, a website of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, explains that some doctors believe psychopathy is a similar but more severe condition than antisocial personality disorder.

People with the disorder have a long-term pattern of manipulating, exploiting or violating the rights of others without any remorse. "This behavior may cause problems in relationships or at work and is often criminal," according to MedlinePlus.

Psychopathy is one of the most heavily researched personality disorders but also the most difficult to treat, said the APA.

Why Are Managers 'More Likely' To Have Psychopathic Traits?

Research published in the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, by Paul Babiak and Bob Hare, found that around 1 percent of senior management positions in business were occupied by psychopaths. "That's about twice the rate we'd expect elsewhere," Freestone pointed out.

Another study, published in October 2021 in the Journal of Purchasing and Supply Management, suggested that "up to 12 percent of CEOs might be psychopaths, or the higher up the chain you go, the more psychopaths you are likely to encounter."

Psychopaths are good at making decisions that other people may find hard or impossible "because their bandwidth for considering other people's emotions is much more limited," according to Freestone. So, the mentality of a psychopath in a corporate setting might be: "I don't care if X and Y are worried this will ruin us, they're cowards—we're doing it."

Psychopaths are also poor at estimating risk, so they'll take "very big gambles that may well pay off." This means "a corporate psychopath is likely to either crash and burn very early on with some unlucky decisions, or hit the jackpot and be quickly promoted," Freestone said. But a lot of other workers will likely suffer as a result of their decisions, he added.

Signs Your Boss Is a Psychopath

Not Acknowledging Others' Feelings or Judgments

"Psychopaths differ from other people because they don't process or perceive emotions in the same way," said Freestone.

A psychopathic boss would never admit to being wrong because "they don't recognize the judgments or feelings of others as valid reasons to change their approach."

If a psychopath is challenged with contradictory information during a meeting at work, they will always have a "plausible reason" for claiming that the information isn't valid or appropriate and that they should follow their own course of action.

"They won't hesitate to tell outright lies to support," Freestone said.

Being Extremely Charming …

A psychopathic boss will likely be "very charming and welcoming initially" to a recruit. Then you may notice a switch in their stance, which could be very sudden. They could display much more intimidating or aggressive behavior to get what they want, Freestone said.

This change usually occurs when they believe you stand in the way of them getting what they want or you're "simply not good enough at delivering what they need from you."

They're also highly unlikely to be interested in investing in you as a person or in your skills.

Two men shaking hands and smiling.
A man smiles while shaking hands with another man. A psychopathic boss will likely be very charming and welcoming to a recruit—at first. iStock/Getty Images Plus

… and Manipulative

It can be harder to spot this, but psychopaths are known to be highly manipulative and cunning behind the scenes—sometimes by convincing others to do their "dirty work," Freestone said.

"They will often spread misinformation or personal accusations around with the intention of promoting people they see as useful to them and denigrating those that they don't."

Other Warning Signs

Adam Borland, a psychologist from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, listed some other markers that can indicate your boss is a psychopath:

  • Lack of empathy for others or remorse for their own actions
  • Difficulty displaying tender emotions, such as an inability to cry
  • Bullying behavior
  • Maintaining unrealistic goals for themselves and others
  • Driven by financial success
  • Easily bored, highly impulsive and impatient, difficulty maintaining focus
  • Irritable or easily agitated
  • Intimidating and/or threatening employees.

Causes and Risk Factors for Psychopathy

Borland told Newsweek that the causes of psychopathy include genetic or environmental factors, a family history of psychopathy, family trauma (parental neglect, extreme poverty, abuse or an incarcerated parent) or a traumatic brain injury that damages the prefrontal cortex.

Freestone said: "There is some evidence for a genetic or inherited component to psychopathy, but in my experience psychopaths almost always have some very disturbed attachments."

These attachments are the psychological bonds we form with others early in life. In psychopaths, they are disturbed usually because one of the parental figures was very dominant and psychologically abusive or overly attached to their child and unwilling to set proper boundaries for behavior, he said.

"Either way, there will be some disturbed or disturbing behavior in the psychopath's past—most likely problems with crime, violence or bullying as a child or teenager," Freestone added.

Woman in office with hands up.
A woman at a desk tries to ignore a man showing her some papers. Psychopaths don't recognize the judgments or feelings of others. iStock/Getty Images Plus

How Do I Deal With a Psychopathic Boss?

Remain Calm and Avoid Direct Confrontation

"The first and most important thing to remember is that psychopaths don't usually have insight into the fact that they are psychopaths," said Freestone.

As a result, confronting them directly about their behavior is unlikely to work as "they will believe that what they are doing is 'how the game is played.'"

Borland advised trying to remain calm and not allowing "the boss to see that they are getting to you." However, he also suggested "carefully" defending yourself from personal attacks.

You should keep detailed records and document conversations and instructions given by your boss, he added.

Be Sure the Work Culture Doesn't Foster Psychopaths

Instead of confronting your boss, evaluate the company and be sure that it "operates a culture where it is difficult for psychopaths to flourish and manipulate others," Freestone said.

It's crucial for an organization to have regular meetings, honest feedback and direct communication. For companies that are more serious about establishing a positive work culture, "a flattened hierarchy where no individual has too much power is also a real safeguard," he said.

Offer Incentives …

There's "very good evidence" that psychopaths are not adept at processing decisions relating to risk and/or punishment for their behavior, Freestone said. So, if you're working with a psychopathic boss, it's important to "offer incentives rather than negatives."

If you receive an unreasonable request from your boss, rather than replying, "I won't do this because it's not in my job role," say something like, "That's a great suggestion. I would be much more productive if I could do it this way."

Woman with hands raised in office setting.
Angry woman in an office. If a psychopathic boss is challenged during a meeting, they will always have a "plausible reason" for claiming that they're right—and they will not hesitate to lie. iStock/Getty Images Plus

… and a Bit of Flattery

"Normally I wouldn't recommend flattering a psychopath," said Freestone. However, "if you really want to keep your job, then most psychopaths have quite a narcissistic personality and a bit of flattery will reassure them that you are on their side."

Seek Support From Other Colleagues

It's important to have another person with whom you can discuss the difficulties you're having with your boss, such as a senior person who acts as a mentor.

"We've learned these lessons from many years of working clinically with psychopaths in the U.K. and use these principles when we set up new services," Freestone said.

Borland advised forming a "united front" with your colleagues and providing emotional support to each other.

Leave the Company if Necessary

If you don't feel your employer is serious about maintaining a positive work culture, Freestone recommended that you "rethink whether it's somewhere you really want to work."

If necessary, Borland said, you should leave to prioritize your own health.

A person holding box with office supplies.
A man leaves his office with his belongings. You must prioritize your health, which might mean quitting a job. iStock/Getty Images Plus