The presence of psychopathy in the workplace, although psychopaths typically represent a relatively small percentage of the staff, can do enormous damage when in senior management roles. Psychopaths are usually most common at higher levels of corporate organizations and their actions often cause a ripple effect throughout an organization, setting the tone for an entire corporate culture. Examples of detrimental effects are increased bullying, conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism; reduction in productivity and social responsibility.Ethical standards of entire organisations can be badly damaged if a corporate psychopath is in charge. A 2017 UK study found that companies with leaders who show "psychopathic characteristics" destroy shareholder value, tending to have poor future returns on equity.
Academics refer to psychopaths in the workplace individually variously as workplace psychopaths, executive psychopaths, corporate psychopaths, business psychopaths, successful psychopaths, office psychopaths, white collar psychopaths, industrial psychopaths, organizational psychopaths or occupational psychopaths. Criminal psychologist Robert D. Hare coined the term Snakes in Suits as a synonym for the workplace psychopath.
Oliver James identifies psychopathy as one of the dark triadic personality traits in the workplace, the others being narcissism and Machiavellianism.
Workplace psychopaths are often charming to staff above their level in the workplace hierarchy but abusive to staff below their level.
Workplace psychopaths maintain multiple personas throughout the office, presenting each colleague with a different version of themselves.
Hare considers newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell to have been a strong candidate as a corporate psychopath.
Differentiation is made between:
- successful psychopaths - corporate climbers involved in irregular crime who tend to have had more privileged background, high IQ, and little risk of legal penalties.
- unsuccessful psychopaths - involved in regular crime who tend to have had less privileged backgrounds, low IQ, and much higher risk of legal penalties.
Hare reports that about 1 per cent of the general population meets the clinical criteria for psychopathy. Hare further claims that the prevalence of corporate psychopaths is higher in the business world than in the general population. Figures of around 3-4% have been cited for more senior positions in business. A 2011 study of Australian white-collar managers found that 5.76 per cent could be classed psychopathic and another 10.42 per cent dysfunctional with psychopathic characteristics.
The organizational psychopath
The organizational psychopath craves a god-like feeling of power and control over other people. They prefer to work at the very highest levels of their organizations, allowing them to control the greatest number of people. Psychopaths who are political leaders, managers, and CEOs fall into this category.
Organizational psychopaths generally appear to be intelligent, sincere, powerful, charming, witty, and entertaining communicators. They quickly assess what people want to hear and then create stories that fit those expectations. They will con people into doing their work for them, take credit for other people's work and even assign their work to junior staff members. They have low patience when dealing with others, display shallow emotions, are unpredictable, undependable and fail to take responsibility if something goes wrong that is their fault.
Careers with highest proportion of psychopaths
According to Dutton, the ten careers that have the highest proportion of psychopaths are:
- Media (TV/radio)
- Police officer
- Civil servant
The workplace psychopath may show a high number of the following behavioural patterns. The individual behaviours themselves are not exclusive to the workplace psychopath; though the higher number of patterns exhibited the more likely he or she will conform to the psychopath's characteristic profile:
- Public humiliation of others (high propensity of having temper tantrums or ridiculing work performance)
- Malicious spreading of lies (intentionally deceitful)
- Remorseless or devoid of guilt
- Frequently lies to push his/her point
- Rapidly shifts between emotions - used to manipulate people or cause high anxiety
- Intentionally isolates persons from organizational resources
- Quick to blame others for mistakes or for incomplete work even though he/she is guilty
- Encourages co-workers to torment, alienate, harass and/or humiliate other peers
- Takes credit for other people's accomplishments
- Steals and/or sabotages other persons' works
- Refuses to take responsibility for misjudgements and/or errors
- Threatens any perceived enemy with job loss and/or discipline in order to taint employee file
- Sets unrealistic and unachievable job expectations to set employees up for failure
- Refuses or is reluctant to attend meetings with more than one person
- Refuses to provide adequate training and/or instructions to singled out victim
- Invades personal privacy of others
- Has multiple sexual encounters with junior and/or senior employees
- Develops new ideas without real follow through
- Very self-centered and extremely egotistical (often conversation revolves around them - great deal of self-importance)
- Often "borrows" money and/or other material objects without any intentions of giving it back
- Will do whatever it takes to close the deal (no regards for ethics or legality).
How a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power
The authors of the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work describe a five phase model of how a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power:
- Entry - psychopaths may use highly developed social skills and charm to obtain employment into an organisation. At this stage it will be difficult to spot anything which is indicative of psychopathic behaviour, and as a new employee one might perceive the psychopath to be helpful and even benevolent.
- Assessment - psychopaths will weigh one up according to one's usefulness, and one could be recognised as either a pawn (who has some informal influence and will be easily manipulated) or a patron (who has formal power and will be used by the psychopath to protect against attacks)
- Manipulation - psychopath will create a scenario of "psychopathic fiction" where positive information about themselves and negative disinformation about others will be created, where one's role as a part of a network of pawns or patrons will be utilised and will be groomed into accepting the psychopath's agenda.
- Confrontation - the psychopath will use techniques of character assassination to maintain their agenda, and one will be either discarded as a pawn or used as a patron
- Ascension - one's role as a patron in the psychopath's quest for power will be discarded, and the psychopath will take for himself/herself a position of power and prestige from anyone who once supported them.
Why psychopaths readily get hired
Leading commentators on psychopathy have said that companies inadvertently attract employees who are psychopaths because of the wording of their job advertisements and their desire to engage people who are prepared to do whatever it takes to be successful in business. However, in one case at least, an advert explicitly asked for a sales executive with psychopathic tendencies. The advert title read "Psychopathic New Business Media Sales Executive Superstar! £50k - £110k".
Corporate psychopaths are readily recruited into organizations because they make a distinctly positive impression at interviews. They appear to be alert, friendly and easy to get along with and talk to. They look like they are of good ability, emotionally well adjusted and reasonable, and these traits make them attractive to those in charge of hiring staff within organizations. Unlike narcissists, psychopaths are better able to create long-lasting favorable first impressions, though people may still eventually see through their facades. Psychopaths' undesirable personality traits may be easily misperceived by even skilled interviewers. For instance, their irresponsibility may be misconstrued by psychopaths as risk-taking or entrepreneurial spirit. Their thrill-seeking tendencies may be conveyed as high energy and enthusiasm for the job or work. Their superficial charm may be misinterpreted by interviewers as charisma. It is worth noting that psychopaths are not only accomplished liars, they are also more likely to lie in interviews. For instance, psychopaths may create fictitious work experiences or resumes. They may also fabricate credentials such as diplomas, certifications, or awards. Thus, in addition to seeming competent and likable in interviews, psychopaths are also more likely to outright make-up information during interviews than non-psychopaths.
Why psychopaths readily get promoted
Corporate psychopaths within organizations may be singled out for rapid promotion because of their polish, charm, and cool decisiveness. They are also helped by their manipulative and bullying skills. They create confusion around them (divide and rule etc.) using instrumental bullying to promote their own agenda.
Boddy identifies the following bad consequences of workplace psychopathy (with additional cites in some cases):
Counterproductive work behavior
Boddy suggests that because of abusive supervision by corporate psychopaths, large amounts of anti-corporate feeling will be generated among the employees of the organisations that corporate psychopaths work in. This should result in high levels of counterproductive behaviour as employees give vent to their anger with the corporation, which they perceive to be acting through its corporate psychopathic managers in a way that is eminently unfair to them.
According to a 2017 UK study, a high ranking corporate psychopath could trigger lower ranked staff to become workplace bullies as a manifestation of counterproductive work behavior.
Corporate psychopath theory of the global financial crisis
Boddy makes the case that corporate psychopaths were instrumental in causing the 2007-08 global financial crisis. He claims that the same corporate psychopaths who probably caused the crisis by self-seeking greed and avarice are now advising government on how to get out of the crisis.
Psychologist Oliver James has described the credit crunch as a "mass outbreak of corporate psychopathy which resulted in something that very nearly crashed the whole world economy."
For example, during the financial crisis, the behaviour of some key people at the top of the world's largest banks came under scrutiny. At the time of its collapse in 2008 the Royal Bank of Scotland was the world's fifth largest bank by market capitalisation. CEO Fred "the shred" Goodwin was known for taking excessive risks and showing little concern for his mismanagement, which led to the banks collapse. Goodwin's demeanour toward colleagues was unpredictable and he is said to have lived a luxury lifestyle while fostering a culture of fear, such that "colleagues suspected he was a psychopath."
Renowned psychotherapist Professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries singled out Goodwin and former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond as exhibiting psychopathic behaviours in his working paper on the SOB, "seductive operational bully - or psychopath lite"
From an organizational perspective, organizations can insulate themselves from the organizational psychopath by taking the following steps when recruiting:
The following tests could be used to screen psychopaths:
There have been anecdotal reports that at least one UK bank was using a psychopathy measure to actively recruit psychopaths.
Workplace bullying overlap
Narcissism, lack of self-regulation, lack of remorse and lack of conscience have been identified as traits displayed by bullies. These traits are shared with psychopaths, indicating that there is some theoretical cross-over between bullies and psychopaths. Bullying is used by corporate psychopaths as a tactic to humiliate subordinates. Bullying is also used as a tactic to scare, confuse and disorient those who may be a threat to the activities of the corporate psychopath. Using meta data analysis on hundred of UK research papers, Boddy concluded that 36% of bullying incidents was caused by the presence of corporate psychopaths. According to Boddy there are two types of bullying:
- predatory bullying - the bully just enjoys bullying and tormenting vulnerable people for the sake of it
- instrumental bullying - the bullying is for a purpose, helping the bully achieve his or her goals.
A corporate psychopath uses instrumental bullying to further his goals of promotion and power as the result of causing confusion and divide and rule.
People with high scores on a psychopathy rating scale are more likely to engage in bullying, crime and drug use than other people. Hare and Babiak noted that about 29 per cent of corporate psychopaths are also bullies. Other research has also shown that people with high scores on a psychopathy rating scale were more likely to engage in bullying, again indicating that psychopaths tend to be bullies in the workplace.
A workplace bully or abuser will often have issues with social functioning. These types of people often have psychopathic traits that are difficult to identify in the hiring and promotion process. These individuals often lack anger management skills and have a distorted sense of reality. Consequently, when confronted with the accusation of abuse, the abuser is not aware that any harm was done.
- Dave Matthews, the star character in the 2009 film Freefall
- Gordon Gekko
- Lou Bloom in the 2014 film Nightcrawler
- Cyril Magnus in the novel, The Tyranny of Psychopaths, a Satire.
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Fraser said last week: 'Some ex-colleagues suspect Goodwin may have been a sociopath, a psychopath or have Asperger's syndrome because of his astonishing ability to switch from being witty and convivial with a colleague over a few beers in a bar one evening, to being viciously brutal to the same colleague the next morning
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why was Fred Goodwin, the CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland, able to get away with the things he did?... What's clear is that many of these SOB 'masters of the universe' have been busily destroying the universe for personal gain
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