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How to Cope with a Workplace Conspiracy Theorist

Most human relationships involve subtext: What you see on the surface is rarely everything that exists. But if you’ve ever worked with someone like Englebert, you know how an innocuous comment about some administrative matter can suddenly plunge you into the organizational equivalent of a whodunit complete with mystery, intrigue, perhaps an edge of danger.

People like Englebert are highly intelligent, knowledgeable about their job function (even if occasionally rigid or narrow-minded), and motivated to achieve. Typically, though, they believe their progress has been constrained by forces beyond their control, so instead of focusing on their own actions, they expend a lot of time and emotional energy worrying about those external dynamics.

Skulking Around the Water Cooler

Englebert has confidence in his own superiority, but because he believes there’s something going on behind the scenes, he’s also afraid that the powers-that-be will punish him or thwart his success if he gets close to figuring out the mechanics of their string-pulling. So he lives on a knife’s edge — simultaneously craving success and fearing that he’ll lose it.

Conspiracy theorist employees need other people to support them and their perceptions. So Englebert may muse to a colleague, “Only you and I have noticed” whatever conditions he suspects are at play, or declare, “I’m the only one who” knows the organization’s deep flaws. His theories are accurate but incomplete: They may fit the facts he has observed — but not necessarily all of the actual facts or his manager’s intentions.

Although Englebert wants to escalate his message or concerns to a level above his manager, he is afraid of retribution, so even his requests for help are guarded. He may begin his theories with “If my boss knew I was telling you this” or “If this got out” or “I’m explaining this to you, but you mustn’t say anything.” Some colleagues may feel honored to be included but others may fear being implicated in something they don’t really understand.

Englebert can be incredibly astute and often does see what others don’t, but his overly dramatic presentation weakens his message. He doesn’t understand that it’s the excessive intensity and heightened sense of his own importance that can drive sympathetic audiences away. He will usually respond well to targeted attention that focuses on what he needs as well as what he’s accomplishing. But it’s hard to feel patient with Englebert when he’s wound up.

Unraveling the Plot

If you want the best of Englebert’s insights without the hysteria, help him have real success — not just the success he dreams he could have if there weren’t so many (perceived) obstacles in his way. Make sure his goals are realistic. And at least in the beginning of the rehabilitative period, give him more frequent access — more than may be comfortable — to you and your thoughts and plans so he can see where he fits in, and that you value him and his talents.

Be calm, neutral, and kind when you explain to Englebert why and how something he does or wants doesn’t work, and make sure he has the opportunity to come back to you to check that you haven’t rejected him. If your tone and answers are consistent, you may tamp down his need for a cloak-and-dagger scene with a water cooler companion to review the situation.

As you expand Englebert’s goals, be careful not to stretch him to the point where failure is likely or you’ll send him hurtling off the cliff of his own fears. And if he begins sharing conspiracy theories again, sit him down and say, “Tell me all about this, and we’ll work it out together.”

Onward and upward,


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