Coaching the sociopath


We have all met one – that coaching client who seems so credible, so charming, says all the right things but unnerves you with an intensive gaze, has a reason outside themselves for every unmet goal and a dossier of other people’s issues. Then the feedback comes. The ‘managerial issues’ you were brought in to address through coaching have intensified, the behaviours more concerning and, guess what? Your coachee is saying that the coaching you give is not only useless but that you are no good at your job. If confronted with this, the usual smile clouds to a snarling defence.


If this sounds familiar you just might be dealing with a corporate sociopath. Research tells us that sociopathy is estimated at 1% of the general population but rises to 3-4% in executive levels (Hare, 1194; Baibek & Hare, 2007). Some professions are said to be more attractive to the sociopath – the law, police, media, sales, the clergy (yes the clergy!).

If your briefing about a potential client sets out the following, you may be dealing with a sociopath:

  • Good relationships with people above but very poor below
  • Evidence of bullying or creating culture of team fear
  • Character assassination of other people, especially competent juniors
  • Unrealistic demands which set people up to fail
  • Intrusive checking into other people’s lives or working diary
  • Outbursts followed by shallow apologies
  • Refusal to accept feedback
  • Lying or manipulation with no guilt
  • High levels of self-importance and a tendency to attack anything or anyone who challenges this
  • Taking others’ ideas and presenting as their own

Underlying this is a personality which is fully self-centred, has minimal empathy and no regard for the wellbeing of others. What they want is all important and any means justify the end. Attempts to appeal to their ‘better nature’ is seen as weak.

So what can the coach do?

Step one: Believe in yourself. Sociopaths are charming and appear very credible. It is easy to think you are getting it wrong and that you are failing in your coaching. Is your charming client really such a tyrant out of the coaching space? Get support from your supervisor, get advice and face up to the reality of what you are addressing.

Step two: Protect yourself. Usually the business is giving you the job to ‘sort out’ the individual because they have failed to do so, or worse, have avoided the issue. Sociopaths are often successful and deliver results and their peers avoid both the confrontation and the threat of losing revenue. If you suspect you are dealing with this, manage the business expectations early. It would be very unlikely to change a sociopath’s beliefs. You might moderate behaviour but that is all.

Step three: Engage a senior manager to assist with setting goals. Sociopaths thrive on their seniors thinking they are highly competent. If their boss sets out the goals and states that the issues are, indeed visible, the sociopath is more likely to play the game and change behaviour. It is not because they want to - it is simply expedient to do so.

Step four: Keep a distance. The sociopath will always try to get you to agree with and so validate their behaviour. They will also try to get under your skin in order to control. Never give away personal information and never show if you are uncomfortable.

Step five: Be ready to walk. Sometimes it is better to tell the paying business that they are wasting their money. Coaching is driven by the coachee’s desire to develop, grow and improve. If the sociopath has achieved all they need through their sociopathic behaviour there is no need to change. Your time and efforts are better spent on someone with good intent.