Is your boss a psychopath?

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We’ve all gone out for lunch and complained about our bosses – “Oh, my boss is such a psychopath,” we say. Usually, this kind of gripe is just a means of letting off steam after a frustrating encounter, but sometimes there’s more than a grain of truth in our words. Some bosses are indeed, if not psychopaths, psychologically unhealthy people who make working conditions difficult.

CharityVillage set out to examine the phenomenon of bad bosses in the nonprofit sector, how to deal with them, and how to get out of an abusive situation. We talked with nonprofit staff – all of whom naturally requested anonymity – and mental health and human resources professionals about the problems created by bad bosses.

What’s a psychopath?

Psychopaths are not always the criminals we think. Clinical psychologist Dr. Philip Toman says psychopaths are people who are motivated by money and power. They see people as instruments to be used and don’t think about the impact of their own actions on others. They are also charming or even glib.

Psychopaths are four times more likely to be found in senior management as in the general population, according to a 2010 study by UBC professor Dr. Robert Hare and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak.

While no such studies have looked particularly at the nonprofit sector in Canada, it is certainly anecdotally true that many people in the sector have experienced unhealthy leadership. Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada writes, “During the 10-plus years that I have been involved in the anti-bullying movement, I’ve heard dozens of accounts of employee abuse in the nonprofit sector...It would be a huge mistake to ignore its prevalence.” 

Tales of woe

With understatement, Nathalie says her former supervisor had “some communication challenges” in how she spoke to staff.” The supervisor, who came in to a nonprofit where the staff had worked happily together, would say “If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to leave,” “You’re overpaid,” and “I don’t know what you do all day.”

Nathalie lost weight and her health suffered. She says, “It was completely demoralizing and knocked the confidence out of me. When you work in a nonprofit, you really care about the mission but when you’re treated the way we were, you start to dread going to work.”

Carlos affirms this sentiment. “You always feel good when you start a job, but the approach of my boss left me second-guessing myself – I didn’t get much direction but a ton of criticism. My work should have been rewarding but there was no bounce in my step. I dreaded coming in to the office and my wife said I was more irritable. But, on the days my boss was traveling, I felt a lift.”

Beatrice says, “I was giving 300% and they weren’t meeting me halfway. My boss saw I wasn’t doing well but continued to put unrealistic expectations on me, even as I was getting burned out, getting sick and having migraines.”

How does this happen in a nice nonprofit?

David Yamada says, “Nonprofits are often hierarchical, top-down organizations, with scant managerial accountability. To add to the problem, many nonprofit boards exercise very little oversight when it comes to how workers are treated.” One person who asked not to be named said when he left his charity, he told the board how his boss had treated him. The board thanked him but also told him to keep his troubles to himself because the sector was a small one.

Often, the skills that may cause a person to be promoted are not the skills that make an effective manager. Carlos says his former boss was very good at her job but didn’t manage people well. In his popular book The No-Asshole Rule, Dr. Robert I. Sutton says abusive people aim venom at those who are less powerful than they are – exactly the dynamic between a manager and staff person – and says that “the way a higher-status person treats a lower-status person is a good test of character...”

With the financial downswing of the last four years, sometimes organizations focus on the bottom line; an executive director who can balance a budget might be praised, even if he or she leaves a trail of interpersonal destruction behind.

What can you do?

Carlos says, “I didn’t deal with it well – I tried to get direction and feedback and eventually stopped doing that and worked in isolation.” Nathalie said initially she decided she would not let her boss “get to me”, that the mission was more important than her feelings. Toman says such loyalty to the organization’s mission and trying harder to straighten things around are common but not always helpful responses.

1. Document, Document, Document. Nathalie and her colleagues began recording conversations because they felt no one would believe how their supervisor treated them. A friend advised her to keep a written record of incidents, and emails as an evidence log. She says, “If you aren’t sure what to do, keep a record of actual language and dates.” Toman says some of his clients try to use only email to talk with abusive supervisors, to create a built-in paper trail. He adds, “When it’s a situation where there’s a huge imbalance of power, there is an accompanying imbalance of credibility. If there are discrepant accounts, they tend to believe the person who is higher in status. That’s why it’s important to document your interactions.”

2. Get help. Beatrice’s therapist helped her sort out her work situation, what she wanted from it, and which issues were hers and which were the boss’s. She suggests checking your employee assistance program to see whether your benefits include therapy. Toman says “Err on the side of seeking help sooner rather than later even if it’s just talking to your family doctor.” He says “If you’re starting to really dread going to work, sitting in car crying before going there – it may be time to talk to your doctor and see about getting time off. Sometimes that in itself will give you the perspective you need to make good choices.”

3. Garner support at work. Often, Toman says, if a supervisor is mistreating an employee, he or she will isolate them from their network of colleagues. Seeking out colleagues can become a source of strength. He distinguishes between “unhelpful gossip sessions” and support against systematic mistreatment. He says an abusive boss is not very different from an abusive spouse. “Reaching out provides you with an opportunity to calibrate yourself against others’ viewpoints. You’re not nuts – it is crazy what’s happening.” Carlos says he wishes he had done just that, “In hindsight, I realized others felt the same way – it was perversely validating that I wasn’t the only one with a problem.”

4. Take it up the ladder. Toman says that the problem with abusive bosses is the extreme power imbalance. He suggests taking the issue to someone above your boss, whether his/her supervisor, a union representative, human resources manager or the board of directors – someone who can make a difference. Explain concerns in terms of organizational benefits and use your documented history. Beatrice adds, “Do it with professionalism and dignity. It’s still a pretty small world. You don’t want to be the disgruntled employee who left in a huff.” You can also consult your provincial employment standards act to understand your legal rights.

5. Let go of feelings of failure. People sometimes delay quitting, worrying they will feel like a failure, that they weren’t strong enough or that they’ve let the bad boss win. Toman says, “Maybe you aren’t strong enough – but very few people would be. It would be really harmful for most people. It’s not a failure.” Carlos says, “It was important to recognize that it’s okay that we couldn’t work together. It was no failure to move on.”

6. Get out. Beatrice says “When it starts affecting you emotionally, psychologically or physically – run!” Toman agrees. “If you can’t get support, you really have to get out. Trying to work with a situation like this is very difficult. I’ve seen people in toxic work environments who are really quite psychologically disabled.”

7. Restore a sense of competence. Toman says it’s vital for someone who has been demoralized by a bad boss to find their way to a goal-oriented task where they can feel competent, valued and appreciated. This can even be a small mundane task although a new, good job is the ideal way to do this. Carlos says, “When I got out and started a new job, I was fortunate I had a boss who rebuilt my confidence, and I realized I knew what I was doing.”

8. Learn from your experience. Beatrice, Carlos and Nathalie all speak of the importance of clarifying expectations before engaging in a new job. Nathalie says, “When I go for a new job, I evaluate more closely the people I will be working with as well as the job description.” Beatrice also applies the lessons she learned in her new role as a manager, treating staff with dignity and compassion. Nathalie adds, “It makes you appreciate when you find a good boss.”

Research says that people don’t quit jobs – they quit bad bosses. While as Nathalie says, “in the nonprofit world most people are about consensus and relationships,” this is not always the case. Boards of directors and senior management who care about the health and success of their organization and employees need to take issues of unhealthy management seriously. Rather than tolerating abusive leaders or “recruiting or breeding spineless wimps,” Sutton advocates a focus on “screening, reforming, and getting rid of people who demean and damage others, especially others with relatively little power.”

What have you done to deal with an abusive manager? Share your suggestions below.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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