Administration and Leadership

How to Tell if You Have a Sociopath in Your Workplace

Issue 11 and Volume 37.

One of the things I treasure is listening to books and podcasts on my iPhone while driving. You’ll never find me listening to Fifty Shades of Grey. Fiction is not my friend! If I listen to something, my goal is to be productive with my time and educate myself about something real. Depending on the size of the book, I’ll usually listen to one book every one or two weeks, and I have a bunch of books on my wish list.

I just finished The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. Its lessons are worth sharing.

I thought sociopaths were limited to such people as Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and other tyrants who had murdered people throughout history to achieve their goals. But Stout claims that one in 25 people (or 4% of the population) are sociopathic. A sociopath is usually defined as someone who doesn’t have a moral conscience, and it doesn’t matter who they hurt to achieve their goals. They don’t necessarily have to be a murderer to be a sociopath, but a sociopath can kill your career.

As I continued to listen to the book, it became apparent I had dealt with sociopaths several times in my career. You might commonly know them as backstabbers. These aren’t the people who you might have a disagreement with from time to time. Usually these backstabbers see the organization as something to serve them instead of them serving the organization. They’re usually the person who has no trouble lying, and they’ll stab you in the back when you’re unable to defend yourself. They’ll throw you under the bus at a meeting and step on you if it means them advancing themselves even in the most incremental manner. They’re excellent at lying to get themselves out of trouble.

If you have 25 or more people in your EMS organization, chances are you might have at least one sociopath within the group.

The sociopath who is the backstabber can easily be spotted. They’re usually selfish and self-centered; they think they know how to beat the system and feel fulfilled if they can step on someone and benefit. Often, they’ll engage in underhanded tactics. You need to be cautious of these people in your EMS organization because they can seriously damage your career as a manager. They can lie to your face and never blink. They’re quick to blame others for mistakes and seldom take responsibility for things that go wrong. They can be belligerent and have bully tendencies.

According to Stout, sociopaths are often easy to spot because they manipulate people through sympathy.

My experience has been that these backstabbers are manipulative and will try to influence circumstances or events by spreading rumors or dropping little bits of false information in your boss’ ear in an attempt to influence them. The backstabber in your EMS organization may even be the one dropping little tidbits in your ear in an attempt to turn you against someone else.

So if you have a sociopath in your EMS organization, what can you do? In all my travels and readings, I’ve never seen an EMS organization have a written rule against sociopaths. You need to guard yourself against them. Although I’m not suggesting that you ought to go through life afraid everyone is out to destroy or backstab you, you need to be careful what you say to the backstabber because they may use whatever you tell them against you.

Stay professional and above the fray. My experience has been not to trade blows with them. My experience also has shown me that you shouldn’t try to befriend them, thinking they won’t harm a friend. Understand that they don’t care about anybody but themselves. They most likely will see this as a sign of weakness and will be even more emboldened to destroy your reputation or career for their benefit.

Sometimes confronting the backstabber in a public forum is good. A city fire chief told me that his assistant chief was undermining him behind his back. The fire chief called a press conference about what the assistant chief was stirring up behind the scenes and made the assistant chief defend him publicly at the press conference. It was the only option the backstabber/assistant chief had.

Unfortunately, I’ve been backstabbed by sociopaths in my career. Looking back, all the warning signs were there. I thought some of these people were close associates. In one case, I thought he was a longtime friend. It can be a shock when you really find out what has been going on behind your back. You don’t have to live in a fortress, but as it was said in another book I listened to by Andrew Grove, co-founder of Intel Corporation, “Only the paranoid survive.”