People with a disposition towards extreme paranoia see betrayal and disapproval everywhere. Believing that people are out to get them, they frequently misinterpret situations, seeing hidden meanings and potential threats in ambiguous circumstances. Consumed by their own fears, they fail to read the motivations and intentions of others.
Paranoia exists on a continuum from deluded thinking and pathological behaviour at one end, to reasonable vigilance at the other. Within businesses, paranoia at the destructive extreme among influential personnel can create a climate of fear and blame in an organisation, while those who have a healthy dose of suspicion can help to anticipate potential threats to a company. The deciding factor in placing oneself centrally in the continuum is how much one is able to keep a foot in reality and to manage anxiety and uncertainty.
While some individuals may have a predisposition towards paranoia, organisations can also set the stage for people’s feelings of persecution to spread through a company when they fail to manage staff anxiety at crisis points or at times of uncertainty.
Naomi Landau, director of Mental Health and Management Training Services in London, describes how paranoia can become epidemic when people’s vulnerabilities are not properly managed in work environments.
She explains: “If people feel anxious or inadequate at any level in an organisation, they may immediately try to get rid of these unwelcome feelings by projecting them on to other people – identifying and consequently treating others as rubbish or useless.
“The person under attack will then feel persecuted, which makes them more anxious and likely to retaliate, in which case conflicts and cliques form.” She adds that those who feel persecuted are also likely to underperform – which means the person or group that has been attacking or bullying then feels justified in their attacks.
Given the highly competitive nature of business, top executives may be right to think that some people in their organisations are out to unseat them. But if they become hijacked by paranoid thoughts, and act on them rather than thinking them through, they are in danger of creating a culture of blame and distrust which can seriously limit the staff’s creative performance.
An executive coach told me of an example from a large global organisation, where the chief executive defended himself against his paranoid thoughts by becoming extremely controlling and by micromanaging the board. One of his directors interpreted this behaviour as confirmation that the CEO was against him, and as a result his performance suffered, he could not contain his feelings and endlessly moaned to colleagues.
“He [the director] annoyed people because he became a victim and complained about the same bloody thing,” explains the coach. “He became so absolutely committed to a view that the boss was out to get him that it became a self-fulfilling reality – not only did the boss get bored with him, but so did the board and he became a bit of a leper.”
Indeed, a study carried out by academics Jennifer Carson Marr, Stefan Thau, Karl Aquino, and Laurie J. Barclay at London Business School in 2012 confirmed that people who are paranoid unknowingly make themselves a target for rejection. By constantly seeking assurance from others, or trying to recruit other people into their dramas, they become irritating to colleagues who eventually become angry and bored, which confirms their fears that people are against them.
At an individual level, we all struggle with paranoid feelings, since fears of being excluded and disliked are part of the human condition. But people who have a strong tendency toward paranoia frequently come from a background where their primary carers – usually parents – could not be trusted. By making themselves self-sufficient and avoiding dependency, they avoid the risk of being let down, neglected or harmed as they had been in their early family lives.
For one woman who worked in public relations, her attempt to work hard to avoid being disliked or disapproved of backfired when she was in the grip of paranoid thoughts. “My childhood left me feeling that I wasn’t worth knowing,” she explains. “The feeling I recall is of being actively disliked [by my mother], and in reaction to that I felt that I needed to try extremely hard – too hard – at work.”
In a series of jobs she repeated a pattern of overworking to diffuse her imagined fears that people thought badly of her, while underestimating their support and acknowledgment. She quickly burnt out, was left feeling angry with every employer and as a result kept moving on to another job.
“I had such a desperate need for people to say: ‘Gosh you work so hard and aren’t you brilliant’. At work, you don’t necessarily get that,” she says. “You’re a target of envy too, because you’re out to prove you’re the best, but in distinguishing yourself you don’t meld with the group.”
Her fear of being sacked drove her to work even harder, but this often left her being exploited.
“I thought hard work rather than relationships were the answer to progress at work, [but] of course it’s not. Successful people are successful at relationships, not people who slog themselves to death.”
However, paranoia is not always pathological. It can also be an appropriate response to a toxic work environment or a genuine threat to a company. Indeed, there are other advantages that paranoid people bring to the workplace. Their watchfulness and attention to detail means that they see opportunities and threats that others may miss.
Furthermore, trust can be overrated. People who lack a suspicious mind can miss potential threats from within or from competitors. In his 20 years of research in talking to hundreds of managers, Roderick Kramer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, found that eight out of 10 executives felt they had made significant mistakes by placing too much trust in individuals.
Perhaps the right balance in working life is to maintain a good degree of suspicion and vigilance while stopping short of slipping into irrational thinking. It can be a fine line, and requires a broad and objective mind to filter so many conflicting feelings and views.
Fear and openness: How to deal with paranoia in individuals and within organisations
The individual The feeling of being disliked or rejected is intolerable for most people. Attempting to get rid of these emotions by seeking reassurance, projecting feelings of inadequacy on to others, or by micromanaging staff, often makes matters worse. The healthy alternative is to keep these feelings to oneself. If the compulsion to talk is irresistible, find a trusted ally outside the organisation and attempt to identify where reality lies.
The organisation Roderick Kramer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, explains how organisations often unintentionally create a climate of internal paranoia when leaders inadequately explain reasons behind major decisions. “In my research, I found that when organisational leaders fail to be sufficiently forthcoming and transparent about the reasons behind their decisions and actions, employees sometimes generate overly ‘sinister’ explanations on their own.”
Prof Kramer suggests that leaders should make an earnest effort to explain more fully policy and staff changes in a thorough and honest way. He adds: “A climate of openness and transparency helps reassure employees that the decisions made by top management are logical, fair, and in the interests of the organisation and its employees.”
The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is based partly on her clinical experience