Beware the workplace psychopath

 

ONE of the most dangerous forms of pathological behaviour in the workplace is the long-term covert operation in which the offender uses passive-aggressive techniques that go undetected for years, says Director of North Brisbane Psychologists Jenny Laing.

Speaking at a University of Southern Queensland (USQ) Fraser Coast workshop for health professionals early this year, Ms Laing said pathological behaviour had no set definition.

“There are a lot of grey areas,” she said. “While a single event can be classed as pathological if serious enough, generally it is a pervasive pattern of counterproductive behaviour that puts a person’s health, safety and/or physical well being at risk.

“That can be shouting, offensive language, denigration, insults, ridicule, sarcasm, rudeness, deliberate silence, exclusion, sabotage, discrediting another person, unreasonable focus on mistakes, over supervision, unrealistic workload and blocking promotions.

“As well as stress, sleep disturbances, ill health, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse and the impaired ability to concentrate, sustained pathological behaviour can also cause relationship and family problems, and in extreme cases, suicide.

“The impact on business can also be huge with high levels of sick leave, poor team morale, reduced productivity, civil and legal action, and poor public image.

Ms Laing said awareness was the key to managing pathological behaviour in the workplace.

“Workplaces are at risk when there is a lack of awareness about appropriate behaviour and also during times of organisational change.

“Uncertainty is anxiety provoking. If you get anxious you don’t cope, you don’t come to work, your resilience is low and you are quick to fire.

“Wrong levels of supervision and individual personality traits can also be contributing factors, but how do we know the manager doesn’t have an anxiety problem or is obsessive compulsive or a perfectionist?

“Sometimes we attribute everything as intentional where it may not be. That’s why we need to have conversations that give others feedback and the opportunity to change. If they don’t know, they can’t change.

“However, behaviour is not pathological if management actions are taken in a reasonable way and performance feedback is given in a constructive manner aimed at improving an employees’ work performance or behaviour.”

Ms Laing said the first strategy for overcoming pathological behaviour in the workplace should happen at the time of employee selection.

“If you recruit someone who fits with the team, there’s less conflict.

“A recommended method of recruitment is behavioural interviewing, which is based on the premise that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, for example you ask questions about how they’ve demonstrated conflict resolution in the past.

“Once in the workplace, individuals should approach the offender, if they’re comfortable, and understand the informal and formal resolution processes available. They should also keep a diary of incidents, what they’ve done to try stopping it, and report to the manager.

“If you know a colleague is having issues, encourage them to speak to the offender, be supportive, listen without judging and encourage them to tell their manager.

“Team leaders can help staff by listening, empathising, and validating without judging. Get the facts about what happened, when, where, how often and who was around. Document the discussion and think about possible solutions.

“Organisations can integrate values as benchmarks in performance appraisals. They can also conduct staff surveys and exit interviews, and monitor staff turnover, absenteeism and grievances.”

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