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Emotional Vampires at Work
Dealing with Bosses and Coworkers Who Drain You Dry
By Albert Bernstein
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2013 McGraw-Hill Education
All rights reserved.
Who Are They?
Vampires stalk you even as we speak. They're in the next cube, down the hall, or upstairs, in the corner office. It's not your blood they drain; it's your emotional energy. We're not talking about everyday annoyances here: the surly, clueless, and unmotivated folks you learned about in the Handling Difficult People workshop. These are authentic creatures of darkness. They have the power not only to aggravate you but also to cloud minds with false promises and to hypnotize everyone into believing they are the best person for the job, whatever that job might be. They draw people in, then drain them, leaving everyone burned out and exhausted, yet lying awake at night wondering: Is it them, or is it me?
It's them, emotional vampires.
The organizational world is full of emotional vampires, even at the very top. Their ability to change shape and cloud minds allows them to thrive in cultures where what something looks like is more important than what it is. In fact, as we shall see, it was emotional vampires who created these cultures.
No matter where you work, you cannot escape them. How you handle the emotional vampires in your organization will have a profound effect on the course of your career and the quality of your life.
So, who are these predatory, mind-clouding, shape-shifting creatures of darkness who wield such power in businesses, nonprofits, the military, and politics? Actually, they are people with a particular kind of psychological disability.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, I first used the term emotional vampires to describe people with personality disorders. The melodramatic metaphor is merely clinical psychology dressed up in a Halloween costume, but it does fit. Vampires are dangerous predators who are evaporated by sunlight, but aside from that, they are much more exciting and attractive than other people. These days, everybody wants to be a vampire, date a vampire, or at least read books and watch movies about them. The same is true of people with personality disorders. They may be immature and dangerous, but we fall in love with them, elect them to office, hire them to run major corporations, and watch them on reality TV.
People with personality disorders, like vampires, are, first and foremost, different. They seem so much better than regular people, but often they act much worse. Vampires certainly do things that hurt other people, but that's not what makes them so dangerous and draining. It is our own expectations that, over time, cause the most harm. If we assume that they think and act in the same way we do, we will usually underestimate the risk, thinking that surely this time they will listen to reason. They won't, and they will get us every time. Knowledge is the only protection. To keep from being drained, we must know that emotional vampires are different, and understand exactly what those differences are.
In graduate school, I learned this simple distinction: When people are driving themselves crazy, they have neuroses or psychoses. When they drive other people crazy, they have personality disorders.
What a personality disorder is and what it should be called are a matter of some political dispute within the psychiatric community. A new diagnostic manual, DSM 5, is in the works and may well be out shortly. The new manual collapses 10 more familiar personalities into 5 larger categories. Over the years the names of personality disorders have changed several times for political reasons, but the ways of thinking and acting that the diagnostic labels describe have remained consistent. The nomenclature I'm using here is from the manual in current use at the time of writing, the DSM IV, published in 1994 by the American Psychiatric Association. According to that manual, this is what a personality disorder is:
An enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture. The pattern is manifested in two or more of the following areas:
1. Ways of perceiving and interpreting self, other people, and events.
2. Range, intensity, liability, and appropriateness of emotional response.
3. Interpersonal functioning.
4. Impulse control.
This description makes it clear why people with personality disorders might be difficult, but it does not explain why these same people are so devilishly attractive and how they can often be quite successful in the organizations in which they work. To understand that, we have to look a bit more closely at the symptoms and where they come from.
Liability, which means rapidly moving from one emotional state to another, poor impulse control, and distortions of perception, like seeing yourself as the center of the universe, are characteristic not only of people with personality disorders but also of normal infants. Here then is the first thing we need to understand: emotional vampires, these children of the night, are indeed children. They have not matured enough to feel empathy. Like infants, they believe other people are not people like them, but instead are objects created to fill their needs.
Infants are pretty good at getting their needs met, but infantile adults are even better. One minute, they can be as charming and ingratiating as children; the next, they can be just as heedless of other people's feelings and just as intolerant of anything that stands between them and what they want.
People with personality disorders can be successful in all sorts of endeavors because they are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Compared to normal people, they are less hampered by shame, embarrassment, or worry about the effects that their actions may have on others. Their main, and often only, concern is their own bottom line.
Emotional vampires may be immature and psychologically impaired, but they are not dysfunctional people who never get anywhere. Often, because of their almost supernatural ability to look good, they are first on the list to be hired or promoted. Your boss and the president of your organization might even be emotional vampires.
Not only will you have to deal with them directly, but you will also discover that when emotional vampires are in positions of authority, the cultures of the departments and organizations they control take on aspects of their personalities. You cannot escape them. To protect yourself, you will have to recognize them and understand how they think.
The present diagnostic manual describes patterns of thoughts and behavior for 10 different personality disorders, of which we will consider the 5 most likely to cause you trouble at work: Antisocial, Histrionic, Narcissistic, Obsessive-Compulsive, and Paranoid.
A few more words about nomenclature might be useful here. Everything human is distributed along a continuum, including the traits that make up personality disorders. Everybody has some symptoms, but most people do not have enough to warrant a diagnosis. Even normal people have a few little quirks. The people I refer to as emotional vampires qualify for a specific diagnosis or come close. The checklists will help you to identify them. You may also find some that score high in more than one area. If so, watch out!
At the far end of the personality disorder spectrum are people who are popularly referred to as psychopaths, a term that is imprecise and sometimes overused. Psychopaths are the worst of the worst. Most often they are extreme Antisocials, but they can also be Narcissistic or Paranoid. I hope you won't find any of them at your workplace. If you do encounter people with perfect scores on any of the checklists, my best advice is that you stay as far away as possible. They can be extremely dangerous to your health, wealth, and sanity.
Emotional vampires are people you probably will find at work. They are not psychopaths, but still they are dangerous enough to cause plenty of trouble if you don't recognize them as playing by a different set of rules than you do.
The most useful way to understand people with personality disorders is to recognize the hunger that motivates them. Each of the types we will discuss is driven by a particular immature and impossible need that, to them, is the most important thing in the world. Their singular drive is the secret of their success—and of their failure. There may be some consolation in knowing that though emotional vampires may be successful in some areas, they are generally not very happy. There is never enough of what they need to satisfy them. In the end, they often self-destruct, but the process can cause a tremendous amount of collateral damage.
Emotional vampires themselves are not necessarily aware of the irrational needs that animate them. Like young children, they don't do much self-examination; they just go after what they want. This is the area of vulnerability you must exploit. If you know the need, you know the vampire. If you know what to expect, then you can defend yourself.
Knowing the vampires is necessary, but it's not sufficient for protection. You must also know yourself. As we will see throughout this book, your own personality style will offer its own particular strengths and weaknesses in dealing with the various vampire types. In Chapter 3, you will have an opportunity to know yourself a little better.
For now, let's get to know them.
Antisocial emotional vampires are addicted to excitement. They're called antisocial, not because they don't like parties, but because they're heedless of social rules. Antisocials love parties. They also love sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, gambling with other people's money, and anything else that is thrilling or stimulating. They hate boredom more than a stake through the heart. All they want out of life is a good time, a little action, lots of money, and immediate gratification of their every desire.
Of all the emotional vampires, Antisocials are the sexiest, the most exciting, and the most fun to be around. People take to them easily and quickly, and, just as quickly, they get taken. Aside from providing moments of fun, these people don't have much to give back.
Ah, but those moments! Like all the vampire types, Antisocials present you with a dilemma: they're Ferraris in a world of Toyotas, built for speed and thrills. You're apt to be very disappointed if you expect them to be reliable or to tell the truth.
Vampire Adam, the top sales rep for Nosferatu Software, is meeting with prospective clients: the regional VP, local manager, and representatives from the IT group. The meeting is an extravagant dinner, full of laughs, flattery, a few too many bottles of wine, and lots of talk about sports. Even though he is from out of town, Adam has always been a big fan of the local team. (Actually, he's never seen them play, but he did visit their website.) Everyone agrees that this year's prospects are good, if there are fewer injuries and better coaching.
Finally, the conversation drifts to Adam's product.
"Our system is so far out on the cutting edge that only a few select companies are using anything like it," Adam says. "Since you are an early adopter, we can offer you a much better deal than we will be able to once it becomes the industry standard." (Really, the system has been out almost a year, but it isn't catching on. It's pretty much the same as what's on the market now, with a few bells and whistles that sometimes freeze up the whole system.)
"What about support?" the IT manager asks.
"Twenty-four seven by phone and remote, and onsite, in person within 24 hours of your request. (The tech support folks at Adam's company would be surprised to hear this, but don't try to tell them now; they're closed. You'll just get voice mail.)
"And the price?" the VP asks.
Adam hesitates a beat, and then he quotes a number. When there is no immediate response, he goes on. "The whole deal comes with a money-back guarantee, so there's no risk. We can send out a tech to set you up tomorrow morning, if you sign tonight." Adam slides a contract out of his Vuitton attaché case. He looks hopeful. (Needless to say, the guarantee is not exactly in writing.)
The VP, sensing a bit of desperation, leans back in his chair and suggests a number about 40 percent lower.
"Done!" Adam says as he proffers the contract.
Have you ever wondered why so many companies get stuck with bad investments and crappy software that doesn't work? Often, it is because of the seductive charm of antisocial salespeople like Adam.
On reading this, you might be thinking that Adam is not so different from other sales reps—aside from the fact that just about everything he says is a lie. Even then, we expect sales reps to be persuasive and to exaggerate a little. How would you recognize Adam as a vampire if he came to call on you?
The indications are there, and we will discuss them in greater depth in Chapters 4 to 7. The biggest clue is that the entire package he—or she—offers, his stories, his regular-guy friendliness, and the deal he offers, is all a little too good to be true. If you did some fact-checking, the whole charade might fall apart. But, like most people who are taken in by Antisocials, you just don't want to spoil the mood by checking facts. Antisocials offer an alternative reality tailored to what you want to believe. They are natural hypnotists, using, as we shall see, some of the same techniques as the folks up on stage who make people act like chickens. Hypnosis is emotional vampires' stock-in-trade. Antisocials are the smoothest hypnotists, but all the vampire types draw people in by offering alternative realities that are a little too good to be true. This brings us to the most important thing you need to know about personality disorders:
Antisocials and all the other emotional vampires communicate differently than normal people. For most of us, communication is a way of conveying what we think, how we feel, or the specifics of a situation. When emotional vampires communicate, everything they say is directed toward achieving an effect in the person who is listening. The truth, as we understand it, is almost irrelevant.
The main thing Adam is selling is himself. He's a nice guy, a fan of the same team, so he must be selling a good product. He's exploiting the fact that we tend to like people we perceive as similar to us, and without real evidence we tend to attribute positive qualities to people we like.
Adam's main target is the decision maker, the VP, whose interest is deal making rather than software. The whole presentation is aimed at him.
Just a few paragraphs ago, I accused emotional vampires of not having empathy, yet Adam seems to be good at figuring out what's going on in the minds of the people at the table. What gives?
There is a huge difference between knowing and caring. Hunters know quite a lot about the behavior of their prey, but they do not see their quarry as being like them with respect to feelings and basic rights. This is how emotional vampires see the people in their lives: as a source of sustenance, but not having much of an existence beyond that. If vampires want something from you, they may say and do whatever it takes to get it. They may be able to read you well enough to figure out what that might be, but they give no thought to how you might feel about the process. If you expect them to think in the same way you do, you will be taken every time.
Antisocials are very good at discerning what feeds other people's egos and offering it up on an illusory silver platter. Adam sensed the VP's desire to be seen as the smartest guy in the room, and he played to it the whole evening. His feigned hesitancy and clearly inflated figure lured the VP into believing he was a big-time deal maker.
Later, when the system doesn't work, the VP will probably blame his subordinates for not doing their homework. We'll be discussing his personality type in a few pages. For now, the important thing to recognize is how skillful Antisocials like Adam are at picking up on hidden desires. To keep from being used, you have to know them well—and yourself better. As we will see in the next chapter, different types of people in every organization have different vulnerabilities that emotional vampires, especially Antisocials, recognize and exploit.
At work, Antisocials are not just sleazy sales reps. They are book cookers and con artists who lie for fun and profit, bullying bosses who love to see people cringe, con artists who run Ponzi schemes both legal and illegal, and everyone else at your office who makes a living or gets his or her kicks from seduction in all its forms.
Excerpted from Emotional Vampires at Work by Albert Bernstein. Copyright © 2013 by McGraw-Hill Education. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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