Almost a Psychopath
They’re our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and family members. We interact with them daily, even as they manipulate, lie, cheat, and steal, all without showing empathy or remorse. They’re not quite psychopaths, but they’re not quite right, either. Something about them is just a little bit off — and they can make our lives a living hell. In a new book, excerpted here, two local experts take us inside the world of these hidden predators.
CASE STUDY #3
The Office Bully
Greta was a star. Since early childhood, she rarely failed at anything. Extremely bright, talented in multiple fields, athletic, and attractive, she was always the center of attention growing up. And when she wasn’t, she did whatever was necessary to change that. When she was young, that could include manipulating adults, telling tales about other children, and sometimes outright lying. Everyone in the community knew little Greta — it was hard to ignore such a talent — but very few could say that they liked her.
Some children grow up but really don’t change. Greta was one of those. She was enthusiastically courted by and then admitted to a top college where she charmed the professors and alienated her classmates. In graduate school, where she earned both an advanced science degree and an MBA, it was more of the same. At one point in her science graduate school career, the laboratory notebook of one of her classmates (who happened to be Greta’s top competitor for academic honors) went missing. One classmate quietly warned Greta that she was a suspect; not long after, the notebook was found on a shelf in the supply room.
In business school, Greta again wowed the professors. She was articulate and persuasive, both when she responded to questions in class and when she presented group projects — which she invariably insisted on doing. Greta’s expert social skills prevented her from claiming sole responsibility for all of the group’s ideas, but she definitely represented that she was involved in the creation of all the ideas presented, even those that had not been hers. At graduation, she received a special award for leadership in the classroom. Classmates who knew her well were dismayed.
After business school, Greta got a job with a top consulting firm. She “managed up” very well — winning over the senior partners of the firm, or at least the males, with her charm and intelligence. As friendly as she was with the male partners, she was far more distant from the female partners, as if she viewed them as competitors. She treated support staff terribly, making unreasonable demands. She got along a bit better with peers, at least until she felt the need to “throw them under the bus.”
Clients were often enamored of Greta, but the honeymoon didn’t last long. On one trip to visit a client, she complained about the food in the company cafeteria and the midrange hotel they arranged, insisting that they send out for meals and move her to a more expensive hotel. All of this, of course, went on the client’s bill. When Stephan, the chief financial officer of the client company, saw all the additional charges from Greta’s demands, he called Maria, the managing partner at Greta’s firm, and gave her an ultimatum: if you ever send Greta back here again, we’ll find new consultants.
By this point, Maria was not surprised; this was just one in a series of complaints she had received about Greta over several months. Maria had planned to discuss these issues during Greta’s performance review the next month but now felt she could not wait.
When Greta was summoned to Maria’s office, she arrived a few minutes late. Greta smiled and apologized, saying that she had been on the phone with Stephan to talk about the next steps in the project. Maria was astounded; she knew Greta was lying because she had just hung up the phone with Stephan. Maria decided to confront Greta with her obvious untruth. Greta didn’t miss a beat, apologizing for the confusion and explaining that she meant to say Pete, a client with whom she had just started to work and still had a good relationship. Maria wasn’t sure what to believe now.
Maria asked Greta if she knew why she had asked her to come in for the meeting. Looking at her directly — almost through her — and with her trademark smile, Greta said she knew it was time for her performance review, and she assumed that Maria was calling her in to give her a raise and a promotion. “No, not quite,” Maria answered. “I just have to tell you that, while your technical skills are excellent, your people skills are so poor that no one — colleagues or clients — wants to work with you.” She ran through a list of complaints and problems. Greta’s smile never wavered. When Maria finished, Greta responded by saying that she appreciated the feedback and looked forward to her raise and promotion. Then she stood up, gave Maria a big smile, and left the office.
It was no surprise (or disappointment) to Maria when Greta left the firm shortly thereafter, when a headhunter sought her out for a competing consulting firm. Nor was she surprised when she learned of Greta’s lawsuit against the firm, claiming that she had had to quit because of the hostile work environment, discrimination, and harassment of all types.