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Protecting Yourself From Sociopaths in the Small Business World

10/13/2015 02:55 EDT | Updated 10/13/2016 05:12 EDT
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Small business week is here, and it's got me reflecting on my own journey as an entrepreneur. I've learned many lessons along the way. One story stands out as a cautionary tale to anyone who hopes to work in collaboration with other entrepreneurs.

Not that long ago, I found myself in an interesting situation: I'd wrapped up a small project with a colleague who'd begun to show me a very unpleasant side of themselves, and I found myself feeling quite grateful.

I was relieved to have discovered the true nature of this potential business partner before I'd agreed to take on any other projects with them.

This person had approached me months before, explaining that their philosophy mirrored my own and suggesting that we join forces. I understood the benefits of creating partnerships and was open to the possibilities of working together.

Although, on the surface, this person appeared charming and talented, there were a few things I'd noticed that made me hesitate to fully trust them. There was the fact that they had no problem asking me for considerable help with their personal projects, but the help they promised me on mine never actually materialized.

There was their habit of behaving seductively toward people of the opposite sex, and using this seductiveness to gain advantages.

And then there was that nagging feeling just beneath the surface of my conscious awareness; a sense of discomfort with this person that never went away.

I was lucky, because when we did this one project together, they happened to be under a lot of stress from another situation. Their well-tended facade crumbled briefly, and I was able to see the real person in action. Their selfish, callous and unethical behaviour confirmed all my doubts about them.

I realized that my feelings of discomfort toward this person had been my intuition sending me warning signals about someone who was untrustworthy, and possibly even dangerous.

This experience led me to wonder how an entrepreneur could protect themselves from the sociopaths in their field who might be presenting themselves as a desirable business partner.

In the book, The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, the author describes sociopaths as people who feel free to do whatever they want, as they are unhampered by qualities such as empathy, caring for others, a conscience, remorse or guilt feelings. Dr. Stout says that these people operate through manipulating others to achieve their ends.

In an interview with Interview Magazine, Dr. Stout explains that for a sociopath, the ideal person to manipulate is "smart enough and capable enough to do him some good in the world," because, "how much fun is it to manipulate someone who is stupid and incompetent?"

Dr. Stout goes on to say that another "good person to manipulate is someone of high character, because that is also fun for the sociopath." Still, she says that "the sociopath wants the person to be easily enough fooled to stick with him. This can be accomplished by looking for someone who is very, very loyal."

Dr. Stout says that being very loyal, although a positive trait, "also blinds people to some of the traits of the person they're loyal to." She says that most people "think that deep down, everybody has a conscience, and it turns out that's just not true."

When we think about the qualities that would make a good entrepreneur- intelligence, the willingness to work hard, the ability to form good partnerships, and traits like loyalty, trust, and seeing the best in the other person- all of these can backfire when we're unfortunate enough to encounter a sociopath.

Our natural tendency to give other people the benefit of the doubt, as well as our (mistaken) belief that everyone is basically decent, will set us up to be manipulated and mistreated by these unscrupulous individuals. The fact that they're invariably charming and charismatic only makes them that much more difficult to deal with.

Dr. Stout explains that sociopaths are unable to fill up their lives with positive relationships. She says, "if you're sociopathic and you really have no caring for anybody, there's not much left, only boredom, and the way to relieve that... is to play a game and make sure that you win."

Dr. Stout says that the sociopath finds relief from boredom when they're able to "successfully manipulate someone into doing something that he or she would not have done otherwise."

So, what does an entrepreneur do when they're considering joining forces with another person? How do they protect themselves and their business from being preyed upon by such a potentially dangerous individual?

I'd say that we always need to listen to our intuition. If there's a nagging feeling in the pit of our stomach that something isn't right, we need to pay close attention to it.

If this person is doing things that seem a bit fishy, we must try not to see these behaviours in the best possible light but to have a higher degree of suspicion and ask ourselves what else these actions might indicate.

We must never put loyalty ahead of self-care, and we must move slowly in establishing our professional partnerships so as to have, as I did, the opportunity to learn about the other person and to see their true nature emerge. There are many useful tips for identifying and dealing with sociopaths in Dr. Stout's book, as well.

I encourage everyone to consider the possibility that the charming, brilliant, talented person who's interested in partnering with you might not be what they appear, on the surface. If you want to be safe, you must pay attention, be skeptical, and protect yourself from the sociopathic entrepreneur.

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