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Working with psychopaths in media and advertising

By Charlotte Austin Talbot | executive coach

November 12, 2014 | 5 min read

In the final part of our series on wellbeing in the workplace, behavioural psychologist Charlotte Austin Talbot offers some advice on working with psychopaths in media and advertising.

Charlotte Austin Talbot

A common perception of psychopathy is of a crazed murderer or ‘psycho’, but not all psychopaths are killers or criminals; unlike their box-office equivalent they are business people, teachers, parents, partners, policemen, lawyers, doctors and academics. Some experts believe that one in 25 people is a psychopath… and the advertising and media industry is crawling with them!

The confusion surrounding the disorder is largely due to media representation where the term is used as an equivalent to ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’. The word ‘psycho’ is common in much of our language to describe people who are unlike us, or who we perceive as being morally questionable, difficult or just an asshole. Not all psychopaths are assholes and not all assholes are psychopaths, but they are certainly ‘difficult’.

Some psychopathic traits are good and mean that the person will work very hard to achieve success. But for some, it means that they will do anything, back-stab, cheat or lie, on their way to success.

Many people will come into contact with a psychopath at some point in their working lives. As part of my role as a behavioural psychologist and executive coach at Chat, we help people deal with these personalities, whether you’re on the receiving end of them, or you play host to these tendencies yourself.

I do have some affection for the psychopaths that I work with, especially the ones who work very hard to appear more 'human'. These humane psychopaths, although single-minded in the pursuit of their own success, genuinely don’t want to purposefully hurt anyone along the way. The success in working as, or with, a psychopath lies in first understanding ourselves, and then each other – to find a way to work together better.

It can be extremely stressful to work with a difficult person, whether they are a psychopath, a bully or just plain rude. So reducing this stress is paramount. One of the best ways to deal with difficult people is to realise that it's not about you. They would behave like this whether it's to you or anyone else in your place. So the less personally you take their behaviour the better. You will remain emotionally detached as far possible and be able to focus on your work and success.

If you are the target of a difficult person, who is using you for their own means, then you will experience three phases: Assessment, Manipulation and Abandonment. They'll assess how useful you are to them as quickly as possible, then will use you for their own gain. Once you're of no more use, they will abandon you and move on.

If you can identify them first and stay under their radar, that is usually the best way to avoid the stress and mess of being caught in their web. If you can't avoid them, well that’s where practical resilience building tools come in, which you can use no matter what phase you are in. It’s these tools that I have been speaking to the industry about at Nabs’ WellFest this week, helping those in the industry learn how to deal with difficult people, whether it's clients, colleagues or your boss.

Charlotte Austin Talbot is an executive coach at Chat and spoke this week at Nabs' WellFest, a travelling roadshow of workshops, entertainment and activities which toured agencies on 11 November.

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