Paranoid behavior at work can poison the environment as well as undermine the business and your mental well-being. Things can get even worse when your boss is the problem rather than a co-worker. If you suspect your boss has become paranoid, make the effort to investigate alternatives first. Often, what appears to be paranoid behavior does not actually involve a mental illness. If the underlying cause involves something other than mental illness, you stand a much better chance of effecting positive changes in your workplace.
Breakdown in Communication
Managers have a harder job than you might think, because the tools of their work consist of human beings, and human beings don’t behave with machine precision. When a manager fails to adequately communicate her requirements to her subordinates, they can’t do their jobs to the fullest, and thus she falls short in her own responsibility as manager. This can easily frustrate her, especially if she doesn’t realize that the problem results from a communication breakdown. She may instead begin to suspect that her employees are lazy, greedy or dishonest and want to undermine her for their own gain. Her subordinates may well become frustrated too, seeing their boss as unreasonable, demanding and even paranoid.
Bad Habits Entrenched
Bad habits in the workplace need to be nipped in the bud. These include personality clashes, uncooperativeness, lack of reliability and a lack of honesty. Understand that bad habits can come from anyone -- the manager herself or any of her subordinates -- but the manager has the responsibility for resolving these issues. If she fails, either by not understanding how to solve the problem or by responding unproductively, people start feeling they’re in a stressful situation that won’t change. This in turn causes many people to grow suspicious and resentful of each other. If the manager participates in this suspicion and resentment, subordinates who must comply with her requirements could interpret this as paranoia on her part.
Actual Psychological Problems
Sometimes a boss really does have a psychological problem. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that in a given year about 26 percent of adult Americans suffer from a mental illness of some kind, and a variety of different illnesses can lead to the symptoms commonly associated with paranoia. Mental illness in the workplace poses a serious challenge for any business and for the well-being of the people involved. While usually treatable with counseling and medication, mental illness nevertheless tends to alter a person’s ability to function in the workplace normally. Sometimes you must simply accept that as a part of the job and adapt.
Options for You
The first step to take with a boss who seems paranoid is to meet with her privately to discuss your concerns. Keep your criticisms narrow and factual, and spend most of your time offering positive solutions that will benefit everybody. If meeting with your boss fails to produce a change within a couple of weeks, the next step is to go to her boss. Present the same targeted criticisms and positive solutions, and explain that the meeting with your boss produced no changes. Don’t try to get your boss fired; focus on positive solutions. If this effort fails too, then your best remaining options are to either change your attitudes and behaviors in the workplace to minimize your own involvement in any conflicts or, perhaps better yet, to search for new work. Although finding another job may be a hassle, a toxic work environment increases your chances of stress and illness and raises the risk that you'll stagnate in your position at work or even be fired.
Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.