Who Are The Psychopathic Bosses? Study Gives Us A Big Hint

Last Updated Oct 18, 2011 4:34 PM EDT

You may recently have read about a study that suggested that approximately one in 25 corporate managers qualify as psychopaths. That means they lack empathy and remorse, are egocentric, and prone to abusive treatment of others. That's the bad news, and it's pretty bad. If you're one of the unlucky ones working for a psychopath, your only real options are to get transferred to a new post within your company or to find a new job altogether.

The good news, however, is that companies already have some pretty good clues as to who most of those psychopaths are. They just need to have the guts to get rid of them.

The researchers, consultant Paul Babiak, Craig S. Neumann of the University of North Texas, and Robert D. Hare of the University of British Columbia, were able to get personality information on 203 professionals who had been selected by their companies either as 'high potentials' or for leadership development. These are people who were deemed to have the skills that could eventually set them up to be senior managers within their companies. A few were already directors or vice-presidents, but were thought to have the ability to rise further.

Paul Babiak was already acting as a consultant to these companies, and had gained a level of trust with management when the research was conducted. Over a period of two years he interviewed many of the 203 professionals but also had access to their performance reviews and the 360 degree feedback provided by the people who reported to them. The main findings of the study:
  • About one in 25 managers qualified as psychopaths. Eight of the 203 subjects, or 3.9%, had scores on a test of psychotic traits that put them at the threshold for psychopathy. That compares with just 0.2% of the general population. An additional three study subjects had scores that were significantly higher, meaning their psychopathy was likely to be significantly worse.
  • The potential for "possible" psychopathy was much higher. In the corporate group, nearly six percent of the subjects qualified as potentially or possibly psychopathic (in addition to the four percent who clearly appeared psychotic), compared to just 1.2% of the population as a whole.
  • Psychopaths can and do get ahead. Of the nine people with the highest scores for psychopathy, seven were already managers. Two were vice presidents, two were directors, two were managers or supervisors, and one had another management position.
  • The "average" scores for psychopathy were not any different in the corporate sample than they are thought to be in the general population. But there's clearly a lot of difference at the extremes.
Why would there be more psychopathy in the corporate world than elsewhere? Here's how the researchers explain it:
Lack of realistic life goals, while a clearly negative trait which often leads the psychopath toward a downward spiraling personal life, when couched in the appropriate business language, can be misinterpreted as strategic thinking or ''visioning,'' a rare and highly valued executive talent. Even those traits that reflect a severe lack of human feelings or emotional poverty (lack of remorse, guilt, empathy) can be put into service by corporate psychopaths, where being ''tough'' or ''strong'' (making hard, unpopular decisions) or ''cool under fire'' (not displaying emotions in the face of unpleasant circumstances) can work in their favor. In sum, the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.
Identifying the dangerous ones
The group that tested high in psychopathy shared several traits that distinguished them from their colleagues, and these trends could all be seen in their performance reviews and in their evaluations by their employees. In general:
  • Psychopaths had very high ratings on communication, strategic thinking, and creative abilities
  • At the same time, they had been dinged for poor management style, failing to act as team players, and even had poor performance reviews. That's right. Poor performance reviews--and they still managed to get selected as "high potential" performers. The researchers suggest this is testament to their superior communications skills and their ability to manipulate decision makers.
I don't think anyone would suggest that these traits alone should be enough to get someone labeled a psychopath. But in a few instances, the companies being studied knew they had trouble on their hands. The researchers say that
Two individuals, both scoring high on the [test of psychopathic traits] were disciplined and placed on probationary review, one for conflict with his boss and the other for poor technical performance. Although still employed at the time, these latter two individuals initiated legal action against their respective companies, the outcomes of which are unknown.
Let's hope neither of them are at your company.

Why do you think a corporate environment would tolerate--- even encourage---more psychopathic behavior than is found elsewhere?

RELATED Image courtesy flickr user ShinyThings
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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