Dealing with psychopaths during Agile change

What do we do with psychopathic people during a business change? 

(If you enjoy this article, please consider buying the #1 book on enterprise agility and neuroscience of change Leading Exponential Change 2nd. edition). Para Español, clic aquí

Many Agile consultants believe that coaching works with most people. But this is not the case if the candidate is a psychopath. Because change professionals dont know about these individuals, they dont know how to deal with them either. 

If you’re still reading, its because you want to know what a psychopath is.

You can enjoy this article in a 5 minutes episode in my new channel The Organizational Pill

They are a long way from what you see in movies about serial killers, and they are surely part of your day-to-day life.



Figure 1: In a safe environment, healthy people follow generally one or more of the patterns highlighted by the green arrow. Psychopaths or narcissist follow a different pattern.

As youll see, they have more impact on the speed of change in your company than any
framework or practice you
re thinking of implementing.


What is a toxic psychopathic person?

Toxic psychopathic people are individualwho have a personality disorder (usually not recoverable) that does not allow them to feel empathy, guilt, or remorse. 

Ultimately, they don’t have emotions like youassuming youre not apsychopath! Most of the emotions you see on these people are simulated to manipulate you and those around you. They always see others as objects that help them to achieve their personal goal.

In my experience working in companies in different parts of the world, I have come across and can now recognize many of them. On several occasions, I have had to distance myself from these organizations because of the unhealthy influence of this personality type. 

Psychopaths can usually be recognized by the following patterns:

  • They lack empathy, guilt, conscience, or remorse. Their feelings and emotions are superficial, and they switch quickly between often-contradictory emotions when they observe that the current emotion does not get the expected benefit.
  • They are impulsive and try to defer gratification toward others to create an emotional dependence on them. 
  • They have a superficial charm—especially the first time you meet them! 
  • They generally do not accept responsibility for their actions. 
  • They have high self-esteem.
  • Psychopaths have different patterns of brain activity than nonpsychopathic individuals. Specifically, they exhibit less activity in the amygdala (where fear is processed) and in the frontal orbital cortex (or regions where decisions are made). 

Psychopaths make up about 1 percent of the population and are usually men. Studies indicate that in managerial or executive positions psychopaths can account for up to 20 percent. In my experience dealing with managers and CIOs, I find this number quite reasonable. 

Psychopaths also prefer companies where they can accumulate more power or money, so there are more in financial, insurance, and other such companies.

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Because the market of Agile transformation is also highly lucrative, I have seen many managers changing careers and adapting their résumés to Agile consulting. The result is that we now have several psychopathic individuals executing business transformations or change.

Several of the companies I have helped had psychopathic people in charge of executing their business transformation strategy. This was so because they usually look like excellent executors of strategy. But, in reality, they manage to execute almost anythingat the cost of destroying, in the medium term, the health of the people or teams around them.

In my career, Ive run into a lot of them. On one occasion, one psychopath tried to coerce me into giving a workshop even when the employees refused to attend. 

From an organizational point of view, psychopathics are excellent professionals, because they look like they perform almost any task successfully. This helps the company to always mark all the ticks necessary to increase Agile maturity, helps managers get their bonuses, and helps the psychopathic to obtain greater prestige. 

Over the years, experience has helped me to detect psychopathic managers or consultants. Signs that give them away include lower visibility, excessive intimidation, conflict, stress, staff turnover, and absenteeism. 


In general, they are also embroiled inconstant conflict,and conflict management techniques seem not to workwith them.

Agility requires execution with purpose and visions and goals that involve feelings and inspire people to move forward.In companies where organizational change is taking place and there is a psychopathic leader or consultant in charge, the focus is on processes or structures.

The first “smell” you’ll detect is that it is all very mechanical and empty in purpose. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why many banks or other financial institutions create big transformations with an excessively mechanical state of agility.

Since there is a lack of knowledge about what toxic psychopathic people are, many agile professionals try to coach them. However, the psychopathic person normally ends up learning the coachs tools and manipulating him or her for his own purpose. This obviously aggravates the problem. 


Coaching a psychopath is as dangerous as giving a loaded weapon to an orangutan. 


Its also very dangerous to include a psychopath as part of a retrospective meeting. In a company I helped in London, the psychopath controlled the emotions of others during those meetingswhere individuals were most vulnerableto serve his personal interests. Unfortunately, all the members of the team ended up resigning in the medium term.

Perhaps a good option wouldve been to add the following line to the Agile manifesto: 


Non psychopathic People OVER Psychopathic People


In general, they are very good at reading the interviewers feelings and needs during a job interview, and because of this, they notch high scores during the selection process. That is why I always suggest to human resources, or whoever is in charge of hiring new roles, to do the following:

  1. Screen all new candidates for management positions (or current employees/internal consultants) by a professional (psychologist or psychiatrist specialized in psychopathic personalities).
  2. Evaluate the current management positions with which the new candidate will work.

You must bear in mind that even specialized professionals can have difficulty detecting themIn other situations, a psychopathic person might slip through because human resources has no experience, or the psychopathic person has earned the interviewers trust by appearing to be an excellent executor of business strategies.


Any organization that has a high number of toxic psychopathic people will find it difficult or impossible to build a healthy culture, increase business agility in a sustainable way, or create a responsive company. 

It is better to invest time and money in reducing the number of toxic psychopathic people at the beginning of any business change than it is to implement a new framework or scale the current products.


Several techniques (such as, for example, the psychopathic decompression technique) can help the consultant to manage or detect this type of individual. As much as possible, limit your dealings with these people or place strict limits.

Once the company is able to remove toxic psychopathic people from its staff, it should work with the remaining employees on the use of explicit values to allow them to regain confidence. I also recommend techniques that increase the neuroplasticity (mental agility) of the remaining individuals to help them reduce the biases produced by the psychopathic person. 

In short, the company must know how to take one of the following actions (with the support of a health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist):


  1. Identify the psychopathic person during the job interview (or any other process in the company) and decide if they want them to be part of the organization or what to do.
  2. Identify psychopathic employees and understand how to place limits on them.
  3. Use decompression techniques.
  4. Never coach a psychopathic individual.
  5. Negotiate with them to leave the company.
  6. Know how to work with affected people.


I must admit that I’ve wanted to write this article for well over a year, and debated including it in the second edition of my bestselling book on enterprise agility and change management: Leading Exponential Change.

Take advantage of the link before to get in before next Friday for $20 or €20.

I could, however, fit only so much into the book, and I’m happy to share these thoughts with you now. If you found it useful, I hope you share it!


Thanks for listening,

7 thoughts on “Dealing with psychopaths during Agile change”

  1. From the article, it seems like you don’t expect psychopaths to be in the HR role. I’ve seen psycho managers work hand-in-hand with psycho HR people to keep employees in check in a company with a very high employee turnaround. In all large corporations, the HR I’ve seen were evil psychos with no remorse what so ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is a great deal of good information here. There are also many generalities and stereotypes (usually men, high self-esteem, superficial, insurance and banking, etc). Generalities can help deal with difficult situations and people. They can also be wildly off base.

    If the articles’ guidelines had been too rigorously applied to some of the greatest product minds of all time, we’d not have the same world we do now. What products? The Apple iPhone, Mac, iPad, etc, the light bulb, sound recording, and movies, and the model T automobile . . . all came from the incredible minds of people who easily fit into the stereotyped generalities of this article.

    Yes, it can be argued that Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford were narcissistic, even psychopathic. Their personal lives certainly fit the psychological parameters described in this article.

    It would have been a tragedy for all humankind if an “HR” process, including psychological testing and evaluation, had “screened” these geniuses out of the great inventions they brought us all.

    Wait, that’s exactly what happened. Steve Jobs was fired . . . from Apple . . . before returning and saving Apple from certain bankruptcy, and giving us all the iPhone, iPod, iPad, iTunes, etc.



  3. Ok another point of view. Instead of judging and cutting out psychopaths, and making them ‘bad’, can we find an inclusive path?
    Anyone who has a child below a certain age can sympathise with working with people who are utterly selfish and have no socialised mind (something we dont get until our early teens), yet we still find ways to include them.
    Instead of shaming or making it bad that people dont feel emotions can we make this normal for them so that they have a place, are recognised for what they are, and dont have to hide in the shadows for seeing the world in the way they do, and still get ahead in the way they want for the amazing results they might achieve.
    It can be strategic to work together and collaborate as well as just being for good emotional relationship reasons.


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