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Dealing with Psychopaths and Narcissists during Agile Change

Key Takeaways

  • Psychopathic or narcissistic toxic employees can slow down the adoption of change
  • Psychopaths don’t have emotions like you; most of the feelings you see on these people are simulated to manipulate you and those around you
  • Change consultants need to have skills in four areas to build healthier and more resilient organizations: mechanical, emotional, mental agility, and organizational health
  • When a psychopath or narcissist leaves the company, work with the remaining employees to re-affirm healthy interactions and allow teams to regain confidence
  • Techniques to deal with psychopaths or narcissists should always be designed in collaboration with the mental health professional in your company

No matter what position you have in a company, I believe that anyone can initiate change. Some people say that the company’s culture is the operating system of an organization. Despite being an excellent metaphor, software and culture are very different things. Influencing a change implies that you know how to break several rules and help repair broken relationships between people or teams; whereas in an operating system, you always try not to break anything!

In more than 20 years I worked as a change consultant, I learned that in order to influence a change, the way we connect with others is crucial; also, how we can see problems from different perspectives—even if we do not agree with the values and principles behind them—and how we understand other people's emotions. Daniel Goleman has a lot to do with this since he is the one who proposed in the mid-'90s what we know today as Emotional Intelligence.

There are crucial moments in the life of a consultant that make us grow as professionals. I still remember a company I helped in London which had a very toxic person. He was working for that organization for years and knew how to pull the right strings to get what he wanted. One thing that surprised me was how he controlled other people's emotions during the Scrum retrospective meetings—a time where individuals were more vulnerable. 

I remember doing a health check at the beginning of every meeting to see if things were going well. To my surprise, everyone always agreed that the group was working fine, even though at one-to-one meetings individuals constantly complained about this toxic person.

On one occasion, they even asked me to facilitate a meeting to talk to this person and let him know what they were thinking of his abusive behavior. During that hour, no one spoke, and finally, they agreed that everything was moving in the right direction. Clearly, when people don't feel safe, no one wants to talk about their problems.

Over time, all team members, including myself, ended up quitting. At the time I didn't know what a psychopath or narcissist was, nor did I have the skills to deal with them. 

One of the most important things that many professionals don't talk about and that slows down the adoption of change in the company is the number of psychopathic or narcissistic toxic employees. 

What are toxic psychopathic or narcissistic people?

Toxic psychopathic and narcissistic individuals are folks who have a personality disorder (usually not recoverable) which does not allow them to feel empathy, guilt, or remorse. As you will see, they have more impact on the speed of change in your company than any framework or practice you are thinking of implementing.

Psychopaths don’t have emotions like you—assuming you’re not a psychopath! Most of the feelings you see in these people are simulated to manipulate you and those around you. They always see others as objects to help them to achieve their personal goals.

You should keep in mind that someone with psychopathic or narcissistic traits is not the same as a psychopath; in contrast to the psychopath, the former can change their attitude towards positive behaviors and be part of a healthy team.

Psychopaths can usually be recognized by the following patterns:

  • They lack empathy, guilt, conscience, or remorse
  • Their feelings and emotions are superficial, and they switch quickly between often-contradictory emotions when they observe that the current emotion does not get the expected benefit
  • They are impulsive and try to defer gratification toward others to create an emotional dependence on them
  • They have a superficial charm—especially the first time you meet them! 
  • They generally do not accept responsibility for their actions
  • They look like they have high self-esteem

Other indirect signs that could give them away in a company include reduced visibility, excessive intimidation, conflict, stress, staff turnover, and absenteeism.

Psychopaths have different patterns of brain activity than non-psychopathic individuals, according to a study led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (see Psychopaths' brains show differences in structure and function). Specifically, they exhibit less activity in the amygdala—where fear is processed—and in the frontal orbital cortex or regions where decisions are made. They also prefer companies where they can accumulate more power or money, so more psychopaths can be found in financial, insurance, and other such companies.

These toxic individuals makeup about 1 percent of the population and are usually men. Studies show that in managerial or executive positions, they can account for up to 20 percent (see Corporate psychopaths common and can wreak havoc in business, researcher says and The psycho gene). In my experience in dealing with managers and CIOs, I find this number quite feasible. 

Establish the right strategy for change when dealing with a psychopath

Many of the techniques or practices you use with healthy people do not work well with psychopaths or narcissists. For example, if you are using the Scrum framework, it is very risky to include a toxic person as part of a retrospective meeting. 

Countless consultants also believe that coaching works with most folks. However, the psychopathic person normally ends up learning the coach’s tools and manipulating him or her for their own purpose. This obviously aggravates the problem. 

“Coaching a psychopath is as dangerous as giving a loaded weapon to an orangutan”
Leading Exponential Change

In general, psychopaths and narcissists are embroiled in constant conflict, and conflict management techniques do not seem to work on them. They tend to be more aggressive than their peers, and often use threats of passive or active violence against others as a means of controlling behavior. These significantly diminish psychological safety and organizational health.

“Organizational health is high psychological safety and the ability for that organization to deliver high business value in perpetuity” 
Leading Exponential Change 

Several firms I have helped presumably had psychopathic people in charge of executing their business transformation strategy. This was so because they usually appeared excellent executors of strategy. In reality, they managed to execute almost anything—at the cost of destroying, in the medium term, the health of the people or teams around them.

From an organizational point of view, these toxic people are excellent professionals, because they look like they perform almost any task successfully. This helps a company to “tick off” necessary accomplishments in the short-term to increase agile maturity, managers to get their bonuses, and the psychopath to obtain greater prestige. Obviously, these things are not sustainable, and what seems to be agility is transformed in the medium term into fragility and loss of resilience.

Agile also requires—apart from good organizational health—execution with purpose and visions and goals that involve feelings and inspire people to move forward. In companies where organizational change is taking place and there is a psychopathic leader in charge, the focus is more on processes or structures. So, this may be the initial "smell" that gives them away.

Here are some recommendations to keep in mind if you are trying to influence change in companies like these:

  • Never point them out as psychopaths or narcissists 
  • Understand their impact on the organization
  • Be self-aware of how this person affects you emotionally and be conscious of your limitations
  • Don’t coach a psychopath unless agreed upon with your company’s health professional 
  • Make sure teams impacted strictly follow their values and working agreements
  • With the assistance of a health professional, screen new candidates, and existing employees
  • Make a correlation between agile and good organizational health when teaching new frameworks or practices, and give individuals clear examples of this

I strongly recommend that you always pair up with a mental health professional in the company if you believe there is a toxic person in a team. They will certainly help you create a good strategy to deal with the situation. Remember that not every aggressive or manipulative person is a psychopath or narcissist, so generalizing is never a good idea.

Empower your strengths by reinforcing four areas of competence

As a change consultant, you need specific skills to deal with this kind of complex scenario. Let me stop here for a moment to explain what abilities are needed to influence change, and in what areas of competence narcissists and psychopaths exert the most pressure.

I will use a quadrant that identifies four areas of improvement that can help a change consultant build healthier and more resilient organizations.

Figure 1: Four key areas that can help a change consultant succeed (Leading Exponential Change).

Many people prefer to talk about soft and hard skills, but this can be somewhat tricky. Negotiation is a soft skill, although many of the techniques are very mechanical. That is why I prefer to use the terms "mechanical skills" and "emotional skills" instead.

Mechanical Skills

The first area of the quadrant focuses on mechanical skills. These include techniques, practices, frameworks, and tools. Knowledge here usually reuses ideas and practices developed by others who have experienced similar situations to yours. Teaching the Scrum framework, a specific practice such as cost of delay, or how to prioritize a backlog are some examples. In general, here I include practices that have a low emotional impact on the consultant.

More traditional organizations tend to pay more attention to this quadrant when hiring a new employee.

If you are dealing with psychopaths or narcissists, it is important that you have some of the following mechanical skills in mind:

  • Check that teams have clear working agreements in place
  • Use non-violent communication techniques
  • Set clear and explicit boundaries about what is right or wrong in terms of healthy behaviors, to limit their influence
  • Work with other professionals in the organization (e.g., human resources) so that the environment and processes make it harder to engage in unhealthy behaviors and easier to engage in healthy ones

Emotional skills

The second area of the quadrant focuses on emotional skills. Here you mainly find abilities related to understanding, using, and managing emotions in a positive way, or help others manage their own emotions to relieve stress, communicate more effectively, empathize, or overcome challenges and defuse conflicts. The focus is on skills that require strong emotional management. 

Emotional skills help to better manage expectations and build alignment. Self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management are part of these skills. 

While emotional aptitudes may come naturally to some people, to others they require constant work and a lot of dedication. 

This area is critical in situations of conflict inflicted by toxic psychopaths or narcissists, as they usually manipulate emotions to achieve their goals. They generally use the power of words and passive or active aggression to press your emotional buttons to obtain their goals. 

In my experience, statements made by psychopaths during discussions are not subsequently actionable. They may say that you will be fired or that your work has extremely poor standards, but this will have no real effect and will only be used as a form of intimidation.

I remember myself using the gray rock technique in a situation where a narcissist became extremely aggressive during meetings. This is a practice where you become emotionally unresponsive, boring, and basically act like a rock. This emotional detachment and self-control serve to undermine attempts by the person to attract and manipulate you, causing them to become disinterested and reduce aggression. The gray rock method takes away what the psychopath needs and desires most–attention and control.

As you might imagine, the technique requires a lot of self-control and management of the frustration that can arise from the situation (see  The price and payoff of a gray rock strategy). If you are very expressive with your face or hands—like me—you can practice it in front of a mirror and see how not to reveal any expression at all. 

These are some of the emotional skills you would need to gain:

  • Any type of emotional intelligence to solve a problem, such as understanding, using, or managing emotions in a positive way during high stake situations
  • Self-control and awareness to recognize your own frustrations and manage them so that they do not harm you
  • Control of your anxiety during difficult times

Remember that I always recommend that you pair up with the company's mental health professional during these situations. 

Mental Agility

The third area of the quadrant focuses on the person's mental capacity to adapt to different scenarios, or mental agility. This applies not only to the consultant but also to the employees. Mental agility is part of a larger framework on business agility that I explain in my book, but I will show you the basics here.

For example, where individuals are mentally inflexible to embrace new ideas, the chances that an organization quickly adapts to new market disruptions are much lower. There is also an important correlation between mental agility and leadership. A good leader has extraordinary abilities to understand how others see their problems and switches their mindset to use a more adequate one to magnify the impact.

Psychopaths or narcissists always try to stay in control of situations, and when there is a change in the company, they feel overwhelmed and threatened. When this happens, they increase passive or active aggression to try to control the situation even more.

During these scenarios, you can analyze how to make the person feel safer and that he or she is not losing control or power. Additionally, check if there is an alternative way to help them overcome the situation.

Organizational health

Finally, the fourth area of the quadrant focuses on an external social factor such as organizational health. A workplace in which ideas flow and people collaborate in an environment where everyone feels safe is not the same as one in which there are pressures, control, and fear. 

People in companies with lower organizational health have less resilience and capacity to adapt to changes.

From my perspective, a place with poor psychological safety will have fewer chances of sustainable success over time. Therefore, the fourth quadrant is crucial in any firm willing to achieve sustainable growth, and the consultant should feel comfortable with this concept and techniques to improve it.

Any organization that has a high number of toxic psychopathic people will find it difficult or impossible to build a healthy culture, increase business agility in a sustainable way, or be more responsive. 

Having radical visibility of everything done, following the values and principles of the company or team, using non-violent communication, understanding where healthy dynamics lie in the organization, and trying to replicate them across other areas is always a good idea.

Hopefully, some of the techniques or practices that you have seen here will serve to improve organizational health where you find these toxic people.

Hire the right people to keep good organizational health 

During a job interview, psychopaths are very good at reading the interviewer’s feelings and needs, and because of this, they get high scores during the selection process. That is why I always suggest to human resources, or whoever is in charge of screening current or new roles, to do the following:

  • Understand new employees' motivations to see if they can support good habits
  • Make sure teams have clear working agreements and explicit values that promote healthy interactions
  • Try to know the team's past and present, and have crucial conversations with individuals to consider actions such as moving a person to another area or outside the organization

You must bear in mind that even specialized professionals can have difficulty detecting psychopaths or narcissists during job interviews. They might slip through because human resources have no experience, or the toxic person has earned the interviewer’s trust by appearing to be an excellent executor of business strategies.

Finally, if a psychopath or narcissist leaves the company, you should work with the remaining employees on explicit values and re-affirm healthy interactions to allow them to regain confidence. I also recommend techniques that increase neuroplasticity (mental agility) of the remaining individuals to help them reduce the biases produced by the psychopath. 

For example, with regards to a team that had lost its confidence due to the abuse of the toxic person, we helped them initially detect those areas where the psychopath had the most negative impact. Then we looked at each bad situation they had experienced in the past, and used some reframing techniques. We requested five different views for each episode to try to get different perspectives and increase mental agility. This time, we asked to reframe them in the format "<Situation> BUT <Learning>". For example:

"One day in the morning he came and hit the table and I felt very bad BUT I realized that I had learned to manage my emotions as a result of my talks with the team."

In future sessions, we covered areas related to emotions, learnings, and boundaries.

As you can see, it makes more sense to invest time and money in reducing the number of toxic psychopathic people at the beginning of any business change than it is to implement a new framework or scale the current products.

As much as possible, limit your dealings with these people or place strict boundaries, and always work with a health professional to analyze the possible strategies. 

Remember that you cannot diagnose if the person is one of them, even if you consider them toxic. The techniques suggested in this article should always be designed in collaboration with the mental health professional from your company.

About the Author

Erich R. Bühler is a change consultant who is passionate about organizational change. He has helped leading organizations around the world to drive exponential growth. Bühler is the author of the best-selling book on Enterprise Agility, Leading Exponential Change 2nd edition. He is also the author of The Organizational Pill, a free resource that aims to teach other change consultants new skills.


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