Houston, You Have a Problem

Tips for approaching a disturbed manager

Back Article Jan 1, 2013 By Allen Young

The boss must be crazy. 

It may be the riskiest and most difficult conversation to bring up at work, but what other option does an employee have when a manager becomes abusive, disturbed, withdrawn or otherwise damages the workplace?

Leave? That may be an option, or it may not be. The same goes for visiting the human relations department. If H.R. can’t — or won’t — fix the problem, here are some tips on how to address your boss’ behavior and keep your job. 

If possible, corroborate your grievances beforehand with one or several colleagues. Complaints are always more powerful coming from a team, says Stephen Walker, a Sacramento psychotherapist who has counseled businesses on mental health. Make a list of specific examples of misbehavior to bring to the boss. Keep in mind that judgmental language makes people defensive, while descriptive language encourages self-examination, Walker says. 

“You have to have a lot of evidence,” he says. “It’s true when you counsel an employee, but it’s even more true when you approach a superior. You have to say, ‘You weren’t in this meeting, you walked out of this meeting, you were screaming at this meeting, you were drunk at this meeting.’ 

Before the meeting, plan how you would like the encounter to end. Instead of making ultimatums, like threatening to quit, lay out a vision for a healthy workplace, adds Walker. Gently ask the boss to articulate how they want to work toward that goal and how they should be held accountable. 

If the boss opens up about their personal problems, don’t be afraid to listen. Nobody is responsible for being the manager’s shrink, but the best workplaces are ones in which everyone feels comfortable sharing personal issues. If the discussion turns too intimate, Walker suggests saying, “‘Wow, this is rough. This is an uncomfortable conversation, isn’t it? Maybe professional advice would be helpful.” 

Methods to Madness

We can all use a little crazy

Kevin Dutton’s “The Wisdom of Psychopaths” is quite possibly the only self-help book that can induce nightmares. Within the book’s 261 pages are grisly murder descriptions and a strong case that most of us could benefit from taking on more psychopathic tendencies. 

It’s not a lever that separates the sane from the insane, writes Dutton, but rather a multi-dialed switchboard of emotional qualities. Psychopaths show higher levels of ruthlessness, fearlessness, charisma, focus and lack of conscience. Crank all those tuners to maximum volumes, and the result may be a knife-wielding thrasher. But far more often, the combination of those attributes create a class of alpha supermen (they are mostly men) who never turn red in the face in a high-stakes environment or feel the pangs of fear and anxiety. The world of the psychopath is usually closer to James Bond than John Wayne Gacy. 

“One of the reasons I wrote the book is to debunk the myth that psychopathy is all or nothing, that we’re either a psychopath or we’re not,” says Dutton, a research psychologist at Oxford University in England, speaking by phone. “If you turn some (dials) up high and some down low, depending on the circumstances — that’s key, the circumstances — the result might be a method psychopath in the same way that you might be a method actor. Then you might have a personality combination that might predispose you to great success in various professions.” 

In the book, Dutton highlights one study that found psychopathic behaviors to be more prevalent in business leaders than “so-called disturbed criminals,” though the criminals showed higher levels of impulsivity and physical aggression. That is the chief distinction for successful psychopaths: They are less likely to seek instant gratification and typically come from more civilized, educated backgrounds than murderers, rapists and terrorists. 

One definitive trait of the psychopath is a lack of “hot” empathy, explains Dutton, which is found in the brain’s emotional headquarters, the amygdala. Hot empathy enables people to absorb the feeling of pain in others and attempt to alleviate it. 

Psychopaths do sense emotional discord in others, often better than the rest of us, but they also feel detached from it. “Cold” empathy, on the other hand, enables people to be highly persuasive in social interactions and makes them better gamblers. “If you know where the buttons are and don’t feel the heat when you push them, then chances are you’re going to hit the jackpot,” Dutton writes. 

Curiously, the top ten professions for psychopaths include CEO, surgeon, police officer, civil servant, journalist and member of the clergy. 

In “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” readers take a cerebral journey with Dutton as he cradles the brain of John Wayne Gacy, interviews killers about what makes them tick, reveals brain wave studies linking psychopathy to spiritual enlightenment, and even undergoes electromagnetic induction to give his own brain a temporary psychopathic boost. Dutton suddenly experiences freedom from his neuroticism and transforms into a more aggressive driver with the confidence to ask a nearby research assistant out for a drink. 

That experiment lasted only about half an hour, but after more than two years of researching and writing the book, Dutton claims to have successfully incorporated some of the more useful psychopathic traits into his life. “I don’t tend to procrastinate as much as I used to. Psychopaths don’t procrastinate; they tend to just get on with stuff,” he says. “And I tend to focus on the positives of situations a little bit more. That’s another psychopathic trait: They don’t beat themselves up when things go wrong, and they don’t take things personally.” 

Dutton has, however, retained his impulse control. (He never asked out that research assistant, and is still happily married.) But the author is not beyond seduction. Each chapter of his book evokes this question in an introspective reader: ‘What more could I have achieved in life had I been less anxious and acted more like a psychopath?’

Depending on your intelligence, impulse control and background, the answer could be a larger house or a small prison cell. 

“The Wisdom of Psychopaths” is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Dutton also encourages readers to visit wisdomofpsychopaths.com to take the Great American Psychopath Survey and discover how crazy they are.

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Jan 1, 2013 Allen Young