Sarah Boyd


The 9 most powerful questions to get perspective in a difficult situation

How To Handle A Psychopath In Business

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I wonder if you have ever had a client or a leader that you wondered might be a corporate sociopath? 

Normally they are respected externally with a reverential fear; occasionally charismatic, and often successful in business; we naively enter the relationship with these individuals believing it could actually be a positive step within our career.

And by the time we realise it’s not, we’re in too deep to easily get out.


To read previous articles about whether your client or leader may be a corporate sociopath, see my previous articles: 

9 tell tale signs you’re dealing with a dangerous individual

How to deal with a psycho at work 

7 signs of toxic leadership

Like with many toxic dynamics, outsiders look at the situation in the end stages and wonder why you don’t just walk away? 

Apart from the financial and internal risk it takes to find another job or another client, there is a much deeper dynamic going on that not too many people understand.

(Image credit @jshnaaa)

(Image credit @jshnaaa)


Entanglement with a toxic individual doesn’t happen overnight.

Most of these relationships start out at least intermittently positive.

If the first time you met your new leader or client, they punched you, verbally berated you, judged you and put you down. All of us would walk away instantly from the situation.

But its the cycle the hooks us.



There is a principle in behavioural psychology: intermittent reinforcement increases resistance to extinction. 

Sounds a bit technical but stay with me –

In an experiment, psychologists compared continuous reinforcement with intermittent reinforcement.

Continuous reinforcement: every time the rat hit the bar, they would get a food pellet.

Intermittent reinforcement – the rat might have to hit the bar 50 times to get food, or get food once every 5 minutes. But it wasn’t in a predictable pattern.

After some time, all the rats were put into an extinction period (there was no food, no matter the behaviour).

The rats in the continuous reinforcement group, recognised the change of situation very quickly and gave up trying to get food through pushing the bar.

But the rats in the intermittent reinforcement group, persisted at the same behaviour for significantly longer periods of time.

Behavioural psychologists even suggest that rats with intermittent reinforcement showed resistance to extinction. 


When put in the context of a toxic relationship dynamic, this research gives some insight into why individuals get hooked into toxic relationships and stay in them for significantly long periods of time. 


By the time outsiders are potentially aware of the toxic dynamic, the relationship is already at its end stages: an overwhelming fear has developed around loosing the leaders approval, that truly believes no one will ever believe in them or hire them again.

On top of all this, the majority of the time, the negativity is private, with the leader maintaining a vastly different exterior in public.

We become convinced that no one would believe the truth, and even if we muster the courage to speak out; it is sometimes met with outsiders saying they don’t believe it or ‘you’re overreacting’… the leader is “lovely, charismatic, gifted” or worse – “that’s what comes with genius”.


Thus the toxic dynamic is not an act or a moment. It’s a cycle, a dynamic that occurs slowly in a relationship over a long period of time.

And what hooks us into a now toxic situation, is our unwavering attempts to desperately to win the approval of an individual we believe to be powerful, influential, and gifted; and the belief, that if we don’t, the safety and security of our future is at risk. 


If you truly want to be free from this toxic relationship, you must learn to unhook yourself from the approval dynamic & the belief around their power.

Otherwise, even if you physically leave the situation and get a new job or a new client, the dynamic with this one individual will still mentally control your life.



1 What Do You Truely Admire?

Giftings, genius, & business savy are all great things to admire. In business & leadership, we often look at status, income, title, creative genius.

But what about integrity, character, treating others with dignity, kindness, & HOW you do leadership?

Often we get so enamoured by the money or status, that we loose perspective on just how important these other qualities are also.


2 Who Else Has All The Qualities?

Do you know anyone else that is a creative genius and also a nice person?

Do you know of anyone else who has great business skills & earning capacity, and also has deep integrity?

Is this individual really the ONLY power player in your company or industry? or have they just convinced you that they are? 

Find some other influential people in your company or industry that hold ALL qualities you respect.


3 Face Reality

Honestly ask yourself:

How long has it been since you have had a positive dynamic in this relationship?

How long has it been negative or toxic?

How much worse does it have to get before you do something?


4 Own Your Truth

Own your story.

Anne Lamott, author of ‘Bird by bird’ says this:

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better”.

This doesn’t necessarily mean publicly speaking out about what happened, but it does mean personally owning it. Not justifying it, taking on some of the blame, or believing that if you were different it would be different.


5 Don’t Be Fooled By Appearances

This individual has shown you their true character.

As Maya Angelou says “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.”

No matter how it looks like they’re behaving or others are interacting with them. Who they are behind closed doors, you know the truth.


No matter what type of business or leadership situation you find yourself in, you will always have the power to unhook yourself from the approval dynamic and weaken the belief that they are in control of your destiny.

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The 9 most powerful questions to get perspective in a difficult situation.