Figure 1: Four key areas that can help a change consultant succeed (Quadrant, 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.
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
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.
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.
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 “ BUT “. 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.
If you’re still reading, it’s because you want to know what a psychopath is.