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'Psychopath' or 'Narcissist': The Coach's Dilemma

By Paul Babiak, PhD

Coaches are sometimes presented with a client whose narcissism, self-centeredness, arrogance and insensitivity to others makes them wonder if they are, in fact, dealing with a psychopath. Some clients may arrive with notice from their organizations that they are 'snakes in suits.' How can you tell if your client is a psychopath? How can you be sure?

A proper diagnosis is a complex affair. Psychopathy is a personality disorder, which we now know comprises 20 traits—some readily observable and some not—as measured by the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), a forensic assessment instrument developed by Dr. Robert D. Hare. Identification is not straightforward or easy, and requires in-depth interviewing of the subject, verification of behavioral data as contained in written records (360 degree feedback and personnel files for the case of the corporate psychopath; criminal records for those incarcerated) and much experience. It is also customary to seek a second opinion or bounce your suspicions off a seasoned colleague when making this determination.

Psychopathy vs. Narcissism: Two Personality Disorders Often Confused
Both psychopaths and narcissists, unfortunately, come across as self-absorbed, arrogant and insensitive—making differentiation difficult. However, there are some clues to the difference that the coach can look for.

The Psychopath
The most obvious traits of the psychopath are charisma, charm and a grandiose sense of self-worth, all somewhat positive traits. Many people actually like and are attracted to psychopaths whom they have just met, only to discover conning, manipulation and deceit—the dark side of this disorder—down the line. Unfortunately, in business coaching situations, it is quite common to find a blend of these traits among executive clients—in the form of self-confidence, assertiveness and influence skills—and to misinterpret them.

The Narcissist
Narcissism is a personality disorder, one of ten documented in the psychological literature. The common understanding is that narcissists are 'in love with' themselves and see the world as revolving around their thoughts and needs. To narcissists, the world is their audience, and everyone they meet—and everything that happens—is centered on them. Thus, we describe narcissists as self-centered, selfish, demanding and self-absorbed; yet, they can also be quite charming as well, having learned how to please their audience. True narcissists make up only about one percent of the general population—the same base rate as psychopaths. They are drawn to careers that allow them to receive the attention and power they crave, and to exert influence over others, reinforcing their perceived self-importance, the same as the psychopath; hence, it is not surprising to find a large number of both drawn to executive-level jobs.

The 'Normal'
The diagnostic problem (and subsequent coaching problem) is further complicated by the fact that most 'normal' (non-narcissist) executives also possess some feelings of superiority, entitlement and need for attention. But, these are typically at moderate levels and, while they may be viewed as narcissistic, they can better be described as narcissistic tendencies, rather than full-fledged narcissism. In fact, some degree of ego strength and self-efficacy is a good trait among executives and can lead them to success.

Clarifying Muddy Waters
How is the business coach to avoid the confusion? If you suspect your client has psychopathic tendencies, look for other signals. To separate the narcissist from the psychopath, one must go further into the traits and characteristics that they do not share. Of the 20 psychopathic traits and characteristics of the psychopath, those that can be gleaned in the context of a normal coaching session include:

  • Pathological lying: Psychopaths can and will lie about many things, even those things you or I would not waste time lying about. Lying can often be uncovered through the many inconsistencies in their 'story' as it evolves over the course of a coaching engagement. If you tape record your sessions, try to follow their patter as it twists and turns in response to your questions and challenges. At some point, it no longer sounds like resistance, but rather game playing. While the psychopath will talk a good game about integrity and honesty, his or her behaviors will speak of pathological lying.
  • Emotional poverty: Psychopaths are unable to feel, express or even understand normal human emotions (there is physiological evidence supporting this). Thus, they will be unable to express the range of emotions (except anger and rage) you would find in others. Even though some successful psychopaths can mimic some emotion, they do not do a good job of it. Many display a very flat affect while describing events that others would be hard-pressed to discuss without some emotional display. Or, they will overact the emotion, going beyond what is 'normal' for any given emotional situation. Look for remorse and empathy; you won't find them in the psychopath. They are cold inside and have no conscience as we understand it.
  • Blaming others: This is a very common trait that becomes more evident as sessions go on. While most clients who blame others for their difficulties will eventually 'get over it' and take responsibility for their own actions, psychopaths will not. (Note: If they seem to, watch out for the lying and manipulation as noted above.)

Coaching Approaches to Try
The responses to coaching will be different among these three types, which can also help to clarify who they really are and further guide the coach in his or her strategy.

Coaching someone with narcissistic tendencies involves education and feedback about the negative effects these traits have on others, and helping the client learn how to better manage them. This 'normal' executive (with a healthy amount of ego strength) will, after initial resistance and pushback, move into solution-space, focusing on improving his or her effectiveness both personally and professionally. Perceived competence and self-efficacy are very important to this individual and are useful levers toward improvement and continued success.

True narcissists are more problematic, as helping them often involves delving deeper into the psyche. Underneath the bravado and attention-seeking, they are not all that self-confident or sure of themselves. Rather, they suffer with intense feelings of inadequacy with which their audience helps them cope. Because lack of self-confidence is not often a trait of successful executives, it is imperative that these feelings be hidden from peers, subordinates and coaches. The narcissist will find negative feedback demoralizing and exhibit emotional responses based upon the perceived challenges to his or her personality. Much coaching work will revolve around helping the narcissist resolve internal conflicts and regain the approval of his or her 'audience.'

Venturing into clinical areas while working with narcissists is difficult because it may be out of the comfort zone of the coach. Yet, the prognosis is good if they work with a coach and therapist who focus on helping them rebuild their self-concept in the face of negative feedback. They are often open to and can learn new behaviors which in their minds can help them regain the support from the audience they desire.

The psychopath, on the other hand, while similar in appearance to the narcissist on the surface, is not plagued by such unconscious dynamics. Rather, psychopaths do not need an audience. They are, for all intents and purposes, their own audience. Seeking and demanding power and attention is not driven by a need for reassurance, but by a means to manipulate those in the surroundings; they are consummate game players. The psychopath takes the floor and arrogantly demands respect as a way to manipulate others.

The true psychopath can be expected to react quite negatively to the feedback and begin to attack the organization, its members and ultimately the coach beyond normal expectations in such situations. Eventually though, clever psychopaths will switch their approach. They will mimic more appropriate behaviors and begin to look like they've taken the coaching to heart and are benefiting. They will try to subtly con or manipulate the coach into seeing their own point of view and seek collusion with the coach to help them convince others of their progress. Talented psychopaths—and I argue they must be talented on many fronts to have achieved their current level—want to learn more effective ways to manipulate those back at the office.

Lasting Change or Not?
In general, both 'normal' and narcissistic executives will eventually focus on the real work of improvement, while the psychopath will be more interested in how to use new behaviors to better manipulate (a typical attack pattern is: set someone up for failure, blame him, unseat or defeat him, gloat).

Unfortunately, should the coach take on the challenge, accurately assess the person and the situation, effectively resist manipulation attempts and focus on behavior change, these changes, in my experience, will be short-lived. A 'good report' from the coach is the psychopath's goal, and once attained, it's back to business as usual. And, if it suits his or her bigger purpose (long-term manipulation of the organization), a psychopathic client may ultimately attack the integrity and professional status of the coach.

Clearly, coaching a psychopath is risky business. The executive coach should think very carefully when deciding whether to continue the coaching relationship with someone he or she believes is a psychopath. It may be prudent at times to decline the 'invitation' to play the game, and instead end the relationship.

Paul Babiak, PhD is an I/O Psychologist and president of HRBackOffice, an executive coaching and consulting firm. Paul is the co-author of Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, HarperCollins, 2006. Paul can be reached by email at Babiak@HRBackOffice.com.

Photo by Joan Bedard.

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