How to spot the psychopath in your workplace

23 Feb

Psychopaths rule our world. by Adam Crowe via flickr


Get back in the Box: Nurse Ratched is Alive and Well

by Dr Stewart Hase

In the famous book and movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched thoroughly runs the roost. From a Jungian archetype perspective Nurse Ratched represents the dominating and emasculating mother. Her main modus operandi is to manipulate the male patients into believing that their welfare is her primary concern and that everything she does is for their benefit. With this backdrop of apparently caring intention, she holds tightly onto control in the guise of benefactor and protector from the evils of the world. The most mischievous component of her behaviour, however, is to build up expectations for rewards in the form of activities, treats or even positive attention from her as a projection of their mother, and then shatter them at the last moment. It is consummate controlling and deeply obsessive behaviour. When McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in the movie) challenges Nurse Ratched by emancipating the patients and shows signs of winning the battle for control, he is lobotomised.

Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched character is based in reality. I actually saw this archetype in the real world when working in a psychiatric hospital in Western Australia in the early 1970s. In my case Nurse Ratched was a male. So, what follows is equally applicable to both sexes but I refer to Nurse Ratched as female throughout to be consistent with the fictional character and, hopefully, not for any other unconscious desire.

by Corey Bond via flickr

Some recent research I have conducted with colleagues suggests that the Nurse Ratched archetype is alive and well in organisations other than psychiatric institutions. It appears in various configurations and degrees but has the same end game, which is to control the inmates: to keep them in their box. This reinforces Nurse Ratched’s sense of power, strengthens the mask that hides a deep-seated insecurity, a poorly developed sense of self and a sense that all is not well with herself, and, hence by projection, the world. Nurse Ratched has developed a set of behaviours that serve to protect her from seeing her true self and the maintain the illusion that others can’t see it either.

Nurse Ratched is a micromanager. Nothing is left to the deliberations of others. Of course there are committees, although one might find precious few of them and they are functionally impotent. This impotence is openly reinforced by Nurse Ratched who frequently overwrites their decisions using an unwritten but thoroughly understood power of veto. All decisions no matter how minute and trivial such as office allocation and travel claims are made by this manager: nothing is left to chance.

The archetype is surrounded by supplicants who have been handpicked to ensure that they do not challenge in any real way. Most importantly they all toe the party line. Dissidents are seen as not being loyal and either micromanaged or managed out. Members of the management group are found on most committees in the organisation. Committee membership has less to do with expertise and more to do with ensuring control. Loyalty is much more important then ability to be appointed as an acolyte. Even the most appalling manager and bully will be supported as long as they are loyal, get the job done and make Nurse Ratched look good.

Nurse Ratched makes sure that appointments are carefully managed. Selection panels are small and consist of herself, a couple of acolytes and a rep from HR. It is important not to have someone on the committee with expertise in the area of the appointment. Lower levels of staff are never involved in the selection process. It is not unusual for Nurse Ratched to veto an appointment and tap someone on the shoulder either within or from outside the organisation. Nepotism is so commonplace that it is taken to be normal. It is one of the rare instances where the manager does not employ a clone of self. There is room for only one Nurse Ratched in an organisation.

Information flow is carefully managed by our archetype. Most critical information is held by the management group and does not filter down: there is a hard communication barrier between senior management and the inmates. The acolytes realise that their survival depends on making sure that only selected information is sent upwards.  Meanwhile Nurse Ratched is fed a diet of misinformation from employees dotted around the organisation that are the result of the nepotistic and political appointment processes. There is nothing like pillow talk to sink an upstart’s reputation.

Nurse Ratched likes to make sure the inmates are busy: extremely busy. Staff levels are kept to a minimum, performance expectations are high and there is little room for diversion from the key tasks of the business. This archetype depends on looking good in front of the board or shareholders and this is achieved by ensuring positive business outcomes no matter what the cost to people or organisational climate. There is a Calvinesque austerity and lack of celebrations of success are rare and token. Nurse Ratched depends on an efficient and well-run ward. In the movie McMurphy’s joie de vive is a major irritant and is finally silenced by reducing him to a vegetable. With such a threat people become malleable.

The result of this archetype’s behaviour is an adversarial, ‘us and them’ culture. The ‘management team’ interpret any discontent as being due to the implicit failing of the inmates and not the result of dysfunctional leadership and a toxic culture. The inmates should be grateful: let them eat cake.

Widespread cynicism pervades the organisation underpinned by powerlessness. Some inmates, like the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, find a way to escape-he throws a water cooler through the window and runs away. In less potent expressions of their disappointment, the more imaginative and stronger personalities soon see the organisation for what it is and fly the coop. There are others who don’t quite understand the culture and innocently push back. But they are soon put in their box one way or another by being micromanaged to death, assigned meaningless tasks, and/or subtly bullied. Many are trapped due to circumstances and suffer the same pathology as Seligman’s dogs, learned helplessness that manifests itself as depressive behaviour. Denial and rationalisation of their situation help maintain a tolerable level of mental health in many.

People being people, they will in even the most adversarial environment find a way to let their creative juices flow and mostly find satisfaction in doing well what they often love doing. This is tolerated as long as the widgets continue to be churned out and there is not too much dysfunction. In fact Nurse Ratched rewards this behaviour with acknowledgement, which is gratefully received from inmates starved of recognition and positive reinforcement. But beware if the light shines too bright or the irrelevance of the activity to Nurse Ratched’s agenda is brought to her attention, the tit-bits are quickly withdrawn. After all, it is for the inmates’ own good.

This is the most toxic aspect of the culture that Nurse Ratched presides over and is the hallmark of the ultimate bully: the manipulation of the human need for recognition. The bully keeps the other in a state of constant desire for acknowledgement by maintaining a high level of disappointment, an air of disapproval. The victim’s diminishing self-esteem cries out for recognition and is occasionally, momentarily rewarded. The rush of pleasure increases desire for more and the person works even harder even as the tsunami of disappointment washes them away yet again.

Such is the dark side of organisations.

Dr Stewart Hase


Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at

5 Responses to “How to spot the psychopath in your workplace”

  1. PAUL WALTER February 24, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    One flew over the cuckoos nest- what a foundational movie for a generation!
    Testimonial career best effort from Nicholson and the astonishing impromptu effort from Fletcher may have been matched by the likes of Streep, Lange and Sarandon, but not surpassed.
    Of course what has made Nicholsons career has been the intense relationship that occurs between Nicholsons characters, usually libertarian contrarian types and middle class women. In the movie”A Few Good Men”, the roles were reversed with Tom Cruise and Demi Moore (who herself did a Nurse Ratched a few years later as a dominatrix in a power suit snookering Michael Douglas in a film about deviant corporate goings on- I digress), reprising McMurphy while Nicholson morphed into the Louise Fletcher midset as the hard core Marines officer in command of Gitmo, whose conduct caused the court case that is the setting for that movie.
    What we really got from Cuckoos nest was a template for a new post industrial increasingly neocon society after the grim nineteen seventies, of redundant males and of complicit Sarah Palin types recruited into a repressive tolerant system as part of the power structure- a phenomena that reached its culmination in the betrayal by Hillary Clinton (and Obama() of Egypt just recently. The Cuckoos Nest in macro to complement the micro goings on at a specific mental hospital.


  2. PAUL WALTER February 24, 2011 at 8:48 am #

    As to psychopaths, we have to wonder if they not in the genetic mix of a surviving culture, perhaps they are needed as part of a reality identifying exercise for the overall culture.
    Its been suggested that gays have remained at a percentage of the total mix because their insights and thinking can offer some thing extra for an evolving culture seeking survival.
    Perhaps, in a totally different way, psychopaths are somehow “necessary”, iironically for the reason that they dont have a gay or softer mentality based on emotional intellligence. Hence, what is offered is some sort of contrasting devils advocate response to more accomodating mindsets, that reveals risks associated with a more accomodating approach to social cohesion, after the Trojan Horse example?


    • Jim Moore March 4, 2011 at 8:45 am #

      That’s a good question about why evolution allows psychopaths to still be around. I would have thought they would have been eradicated after the first 1000 years by the tribal behaviour of killing them for their anti-social behaviour.

      I don’t quite understand the genetics of evolution so perhaps they are a product of nature mutating into another species? But then again they can breed with other homo-sapiens so by definition they aren’t another species.

      Homosexuals (although technically no-one is 100% homosexual just as no-one is 100% hetrosexual) are harmless to the species homo-sapiens and quite likely beneficial as you state, which is the opposite of psychopaths. (I suppose there are and have been homosexual psychopaths? At least there are in the movies!)

      It’s strange that evolution seemingly allows something to happen that is harmful to an evolved species. Perhaps because they’re only harmful and not fatal to the species that they still occur.


  3. Steve at the Pub March 1, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    Yairs, just had one in my workplace. Hid their condition well, for a long time. During the last several months the afflicted one presumably reached a level of comfort & familiarity in the workplace, and had attained a sufficient level of contempt for all co-workers, for the condition to really out itself.

    People (mainly female subordinates) were being reduced to tears. Rational decision making took a back seat.

    The departure, brought on by behaviour related to the condition, was sickeningly distasteful.


  4. Bill January 6, 2019 at 12:11 am #

    This article is a good start — the author provides is a laundry list of the characteristics of a bully. He does not examine the causes of bullying: Parataxic mindset, which is arrested development in which the individual has not outgrown their egocentrism.

    This cognitive condition is characterized by:
    — scarcity of resouces mindset;
    — the ability to see relationships only in terms of win/lose or lose/win. The concept of win/win is inconceivable to the bully.
    — this win/lose mentality means one either takes power (resources) by any means or submits to those who hold power.
    — materialistic, mechanistic worldview (vs systemic, relational worldview)

    The above cognitive state reduces life to a choice: Take power (resources) by any means or submit to those who hold power. In other words be a bully or be a serf.

    What is the way out? A win/win view of the world and relationships. Realizing that we are interdependent and that by cooperation we can all survive and thrive. We have outgow our egocentrism. We must mature.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: