by Laura Weis with permission
Source: by Laura Weis with permission

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” was one of many quotes from Catch 22. How widespread is paranoia in the workplace and is it unhealthy? How many times have you been annoyed by over-zealous security staff at your office entrance who treated you cheerily every day until you forget your pass and then have no idea who you are suspecting you as a potential bomber or terrorist? What about the IT people who insist you change your password every couple of months? And what about all those camera’s in every shop and street watching your every move?

Do you think your email or mobile phone is being monitored? Can you really trust confiding in colleagues at work about what you really think about your company processes and product? Is the annual survey and 360 reporting really anonymous as the management promises?

So are you a little or indeed a lot paranoid. Do you have a hint of paranoid personality disorder? How is it defined?

According to Oldham and Morris (2000) the old DSM-III-R describes Paranoid personality disorder as:

"A .  A pervasive and unwarranted tendency, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, to interpret the actions of people as deliberately demeaning or threatening, as indicated by at least four of the following:

. expects, without sufficient basis, to be exploited or harmed by others
. questions, without justification, the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends or associates
. reads hidden, demeaning or threatening meanings into benign remarks or events, e.g., suspects that a neighbour put out trash early to annoy them
. bears grudges or is unforgiving of insults or slights
. is reluctant to confide in others because of unwarranted fear that the information will  be used against him or her
. is easily slighted and quick to react with anger or no counterattack
questions, without justification, fidelity of spouse or sexual partner

B.  Occurrence not exclusively during the course of Schizophrenia or Delusional Disorder" (p 167-168).

It is thought that between 0.5 and 2.5% of the population have this disorder, which must not be confused with the paranoid delusions of schizophrenics or the behaviour of refugees, and migrants whose personal history leads to widespread mistrust.

Paranoids are super-vigilant: nothing escapes their notice.  They seem tuned into mixed messages, hidden motives, and secret groups.  They are particularly sensitive to authority and power and obsessed with maintaining their own independence and freedom.

Some jobs are all about secrets. People in R & D; those interested in national security; some finance organisations, and perhaps pharmaceutical companies are rightly concerned with security. Many organisations employ security people at the highest level to oversee complex organizations like airports or manufacturing complexes.

People in security business have to be very vigilant. They often believe that potential spies are all around them. They are employed to make things safe and “brook no argument”. They pride themselves on their toughness and realism. Indeed many ex-military people as well as “spies” find good employment in that sector. They believe it is very important and difficult to keep things totally safe. This is for them their number one priority.

Many rely on elaborate electrical devices to ensure safety. Cameras, electronic gates and the like are used. Paranoia becomes normalised. The more paranoid one is the better. Paranoid people rise to the top.

The Paranoid Organisation

 Kets de Vries and Miller (1985) noted that whole organisation can become paranoid. They argue that when power is highly centralized in a leader with paranoid tendencies, there will tend to be a great deal of vigilance caused by distrust of subordinates and competitors alike. This may lead to the development of many control and information systems and a conspirational fascination with gathering intelligence from inside and outside the firm.

Paranoid thinking will also lead to a centralisation of power as the top executive tries to control everything himself (no one can be completely trusted). The strategy is likely to emphasise ‘protection’ and reducing dependency on particular consultants, sources of data, markets or customers. There is likely to be a good deal of diversification, with tight control over divisions and much analytical activity. A leader who is obsessed with fantasies concerning distrust can set a very distinctive tone for the strategy, structure and culture of an organisation.

The characteristics of these organizations are suspiciousness and mistrust of others; hypersensitivity and hyper-alertness; readiness to combat perceived threats; excessive concern with hidden motives and special meanings; intense attention span; cold, rational, unemotional, interpersonal relations. The paranoid organization is defensive and hypervigilant. It is pervaded by an atmosphere of distrust.

The Paranoid Person

Distrust and suspiciousness of others at work is their abiding characteristic.  The motives of all sorts of colleagues and boss are interpreted as malevolent, all the time.  The "enemy" is both without and within.

They suspect, without much evidence, that others are exploiting, harming, or deceiving them about almost everything both at work and at home.  They are preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of subordinates, customers, bosses, shareholders, etc.  on both big and small matters.  They are reluctant to confide in others (peers at work) because of the fear that the information will be used against them: kept on file; used to sack them.  They may even be wary of using email.

They read hidden or threatening meanings into most benign remarks or events from emails to coffee-room gossip, and them remember them.  They are certainly hypersensitive to criticism.  They persistently bear grudges against all sorts of people going back many years and can remember even the smallest slight.  They perceive attacks on their character or reputation that others do not see and are quick to react angrily or to counterattack.  They seem hyper-alert and sensitive.  They have recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding fidelity or their sexual or business partner and can be pretty obsessed with sex.

Paranoid individuals are slow to commit and trust but once they do so are loyal friends.  They are very interested in others motives and prefer "watch-dog" jobs.  They like being champions of the underdog, whistle-blowers on corruption.  They are courageous because they are certain about their position.  They are on the side of right: idealists striving for a better world.  But they can be overly suspicious of fearful of certain people, which can manifest itself in a irrational hatred to certain race, religions or political groups.

They are not compromisers and attack attackers.  Many of their characteristics make them excellent managers: alert, careful, observant and tactical.  But they can have problems with authority; and in dealing with those who hold different opinions from their own.  However, they are more sensitive to the faults in others than the faults in themselves.  The business world, they believe (sometimes correctly) is full of danger, dishonest people and those that are untrustworthy and will let them down.  Because they believe others are out to harm them they can be over-argumentative, bellicose, belligerent, hostile, secretive, stubborn and consumed with mistrust.  They are not disclosive, suspicious of others and experts on projecting blame onto others.

Psychoanalysts believe the paranoid feel weak and dependent but sensitive to weakness in others and disclaim them for it.  They yearn for dependency but fear it.  Instead of showing personal doubt, they doubt others.  Their self-righteousness, morality and punitiveness can be very attractive to some people.

Habitual Distrust

Dotrick and Cairo (2003) sees the paranoid leader as manifesting habitual distrust.  They are “inappropriately and egregiously suspicious” (p.53) which has an insidious effect on all those around them. They tend to see downsides to every actions; to see others exclusivity acting politically or in their own self-interest or with ulterior motives.

They are always critical in feedback and obsessed with what can (and will) go wrong.  They identify three signs:

1. Relentless scepticism about other people’s motives.
2. Their direct reports become more and more highly defensive.
3. They have increasing difficulty forging alliances with outside groups, companies and institutions.

They believe that, in certain occupations, people are trained to be distrustful and sceptical but that this can easily go too far. They believe the paranoid leader needs always to analyse the cause of their distrust and to recognise how much it is hurting their career.  They need to be more positive and to imagine what effect their behaviour has on others.


Miller (2008) calls the paranoid leaders ‘vigilantes’ because of their ‘watch your back’ “people can’t be trusted” philosophies.  They see deception, malevolence, and persecution everywhere as their supersensitive and often malfunctioning radar is primed to pick up betrayal, duplicity and hostility.  Of course, they project onto others those characteristics they don’t like in themselves.   They are often on a vendetta and should not be crossed lightly.

The war room mentality of paranoid leaders means they fit well in competitive and combattative sectors.  Paranoid bosses demand total loyalty and surprising self-disclosure about your private life.  However the smallest and trivialist thing can turn the supportive boss into a suspicious enemy. They brood, bide their time and remember. They keep records to take revenge.Interestingly they have got a good nose for insincerity and sycophants.  They can be highly perceptive as to the motives of all those around them.  Miller (2008) suggests they need to know who really their enemies are and beware black/white thinking.


Hogan and Hogan (2001) call this disorder "Argumentative".  These types, they argue, expect to be wronged, to be betrayed, to be set up, to be cheated or to be deceived in some way.  They see the world as a dangerous place, full of potential enemies, and they enjoy conspiracy theories, they are keenly alert for signs of having been mistreated.  When they think they have been unfairly treated they retaliate openly and directly.

This may involve physical violence, accusations, retaliation, or litigation.  Retaliation is designed to send the signal that they are prepared to defend themselves.  They are known for their suspiciousness, their argumentativeness, and their lack of trust in others.  They are hard to deal with on a continuing basis because you never know when they are going to offended by something (unpredictability), and because they are so focused on their own private agenda they don't have much time for others (unrewarding).

"At their best they are very insightful about organisational politics and the motives of their counter players, and they can be the source of the good intelligence regarding the real agendas of others, and the real meaning of events.  Although they are very insightful about politics, they are often not very good at playing politics.  This is because they are true believers, they are deeply committed to their worldview, and they tend to be unwilling to compromise, even on small issues.  Nonetheless, with their passionate commitment to a theory about how the world works, they can be visionary and charismatic, and people may be drawn to them...  Because they are unpredictable and not regarding to deal with, they have trouble maintaining a team over a long period "(p48)

Paranoids mishandle stress by retreating, by withdrawing into their ideology and then attacking that which is threatening them.  They are very persistent and tend to accumulate enemies.  They are self-centred and ideology centred - all information and experience is filtered through their odd world view and evaluated in terms of the degree to which it fits with, or threatens that view, which somehow reflects on them.

To work with them reports have no alternative but to agree with them, because they will defeat your objections in a way that makes sense to them.  Reports won't be able to persuade them that they are wrong, and risk alienating them by challenging them, and once they decide people can't be trusted, the relationship will be over.  Reports are either for them or against them.


According to Oldham and Morris, the following six traits and behaviours are clues to the presence of what they call the Vigilant style.  A person who reveals a strong Vigilant tendency will demonstrate more of these behaviours more intensely than someone with less of this style in his or her personality profile.

"1.  Autonomy.  Vigilant-style individuals possess a resilient independence.  They keep their own counsel, they require no outside reassurance or advice, they make decisions easily, and they can take care of themselves.

. Caution.  They are careful in their dealings with others, preferring to size up a person before entering into a relationship.
. Perceptiveness.  They are good listeners, with an ear for subtlety, tone, and multiple levels of communication.
. Self-defence.  Individuals with Vigilant style are feisty and do not hesitate to stand up for themselves, especially when they are under attack.
. Alertness to criticism.  They take criticism very seriously, without becoming intimidated.
. Fidelity.  They place a high premium on fidelity and loyalty.  They work hard to earn it, and they never take it for granted.  (p.  151-152)”

Vigilance can turn into paranoia and the latter to mistrust. Over time the vigilant leader can turn sub-clinically paranoid with disaster effects for the organization.

However both psychologist and psychiatrists have given up the typological, in favour of the dimensional approach to the Personality Disorders.Thus it is not whether you are, or are not you have Paranoid Personality Disorder but the extent to which you are on a scale from very low to very high. There may be situations or people who encourage or discourage healthy and unhealthy paranoid  tendencies.


Dotlich, D & Cairo, P. (2003). Why CEOs Fail. New York: Jossey Bass

Furnham, A. (2015). Backstabbers and Bullies. London: Bloomsbury.

Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (1997).  Hogan Development Survey Manual.  Tulsa: OK.  Hogan Assessment Centres

Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (2001). Assessing leadership: A view from the dark side. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 9, 40–51.

Kets de Vries, M. & Miller, D. (1985). The Neurotic Organisation. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass

Miller, L. (2008). From Difficult to Disturbed. New York: Amacom.

Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (2000). Personality self-portrait. New York: Bantam

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

You are reading

A Sideways View

The Freudian Account of Leadership Failure and Derailment

What do Psychoanalysts have to say about how and why leaders fail?

What Men Desire in a Woman

What characteristics are men most attracted to in women and why?

The Psychology of Queuing

Why is waiting in line so horrid?