April 02, 2019

Fact Or Fiction? Your Bad-tempered Boss May Not Be A Psychopath, But That Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Exist

Andrew Royal

Andrew Royal
Founder and Marketing Director/Gearbox Creative

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The word “psycho” in the business place will no doubt make you think of Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 bestseller, American Psycho. This book was so controversial at the time that there were petitions against it to ban it. The premise: Bateman is a psychopath who will kill people just for giving out business cards. He was “into, oh, murders and executions mostly”. And while this may be considered to be the most extreme form of psychopathy in the workplace, you may be surprised to know that such people not only exist but are encouraged, in both large and small businesses today. There are many corporate psychopaths in senior management positions who may never display violent tendencies, but are just as dangerous, as they have the potential of sinking a company due to poor business decisions and lack of regard for investors’ money.

A study conducted in 2011 by psychologist and executive coach Paul Babiak found that one in 25 business leaders may be psychopaths. He looked at 203 American corporate professionals who had been chosen by their companies to participate in a management training programme. He evaluated their psychopathic traits, using a version of the standard psychopathy checklist developed by Robert Hare, an expert in psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. His results: 4% (one in 25) of those evaluated fitted the diagnosis of psychopathy. This is much higher than the 1% of psychopaths in society. This begs the question: why specifically senior management, and how do these psychopaths become our bosses? Psychopathy is defined as a severe antisocial personality disorder where there is a disregard for the rules of society. Egotism, megalomania, superficial charm and complete disregard of others are some of the symptoms of psychopathy. Violence is another symptom, but it does not mean that every psychopath has violent tendencies. Canadian psychologist Hare is the leader in psychopathy diagnosis and has worked with the FBI in order to diagnose violent criminals.

He created the checklist used to diagnose psychopathy: Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). The checklist contains 20 items, each with a factor loading. Factor one of the checklist looks at the narcissist personality, and traits looked for include glibness, superficial charm, pathological lying and a lack of empathy. Factor two looks at potential criminality and a “socially deviant lifestyle”. This will be analyzed based on historical biographical data of the patient and includes a constant need for stimulation, early behavioral problems, irresponsibility, and impulsivity. There are also a few traits that are not linked to the two main factors and include promiscuity, many short-term marital relationships, and criminal versatility. Hare based his checklist on research done in the ’40s, that a psychopath displayed normal function in society, but has an extremely destructive personal life. Psychopaths are charming and well-liked; their charisma and ability to take the reins in tough situations make them the perfect manager. What defines a psychopath and what defines a sociopath are important to look at when it comes to defining a corporate psychopath. In 2013, Jack Pemment wrote a paper titled Psychopathy versus Sociopathy: Why the distinction has become crucial, in which he gives a new look at and definition of a sociopath. With the extensive research into psychopathy, sociopaths have become the “estranged cousin”. Sociopaths are said to have a “sense of morality and a well-developed conscience, but the sense of right and wrong is not that of the parent culture”.

Psychopathy has been linked to very distinct differences in the physiology of the brain due to a developmental disorder, not knowing the difference between right and wrong. In a paper by Cima, Tonnaer, and Hauser (2009), however, the authors argue that psychopaths do know the moral difference, but they don’t seem to care; they choose to act immorally. Academics believe that the reason why there is a higher percentage of psychopaths in senior management now than in the past might be due to the fact that employees no longer stay at one job for 40 years and get the gold watch at the end. When they do, psychopaths are more likely to be found out and not promoted within the company. In the 1990s, mergers and acquisitions became an important part of how businesses ran and companies began to make employees expendable. Now there is little loyalty to companies, and employees are more likely to chop and change jobs.

This means there is little time for companies to identify these psychopaths. A corporate psychopath can now enter a management position, wreak havoc and never believe that they are the reason for the failure. They will often get out before the blame can be placed on them or they will single out other employees for the failure, never taking responsibility for their actions. This behavior pattern has been laid out in the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, co-authored by Hare and Babiak in 2006. The book investigates how corporate psychopaths get themselves into positions of power and how they manipulate subordinates to get what they will.

Professor Clive Boddy wrote a paper in 2011 that first appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics, titled The Corporate Psychopaths: Theory of the Global Financial Crisis. He studied the global financial crisis from which we are currently recovering and puts forward the theory that it was the corporate psychopath who caused the crash. Hare stated that if he did look for psychopaths to study in prison, he would look at the stock markets.

Boddy has expanded on this statement with his theory that psychopaths in senior-management positions misused company funds “by their self-seeking greed and avarice”, including the outrageous bonuses they paid to themselves while millions of others were in the midst of financial hardship. His theory is that we will not get out of this slump until the root of the problem is dealt with, the root being the irresponsible psychopaths heading up many multinational corporations. These same people are advising governments around the world on how to get out of the crisis.

Senior financial journalist Brian Bansham wrote a column for The Independent in December 2011 where, in discussion with a senior UK investment banker, it came to light that one of the major investment banks used psychometric testing to employ psychopaths, as their personalities were “suited to senior corporate finance roles”. Boddy’s paper has been received by management academics and is seen as plausible and highly relevant.

The corporate psychopath is not a myth; there are volumes of research to back up the diagnosis. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your bad-tempered boss who cracks the whip down on you every day is a psychopath. But it does give you something to think about, doesn’t it?

First published in 2015 in Longevity Magazine (South Africa)

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