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When we think about psychopaths, most of us might imagine a Hannibal Lecter or Jeffrey Dahmer.  Would we consider that psychopaths might be lurking around boardrooms and CEO corner offices? The reality is quite different. Increasing numbers of corporate psychopaths have brought havoc to the lives of millions of people, economies and entire countries, but executive actually tops the list of jobs with the highest proportion of psychopaths.

While the incidence of psychopathy among the general population is only one percent, some studies show triple or quadruple that percentage of business leaders are psychopaths. Even more alarming research claims that one in five corporate leaders qualifies as having a high level of psychopathic traits.Why is that? Is it there something about the business world that transforms nice, well-meaning young people into ruthless psychos? Or is it instead that ruthless psychos are attracted to careers in business as the perfect venue for their inclinations? A group of Danish researchers recently determined to find out.

The researchers rounded up more than 400 students who were about to start one of five declared majors — psychology, political science, business, economics, or law. They then tested the students for the so-called dark triad of personality traits to get a sense of their levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

The results won’t do much to soothe those concerned about the personalities of those that sit atop many of the world’s businesses. Those enrolled in business and economics showed, by far, the highest levels of dark personality traits. Law was in the middle. Would-be psychologists were the least psychopathic of the lot.”The desire for power, status, and money characterizing dark triad individuals may steer them toward, for example, economics, business, and law educations because these educations pave the way for a career in the corporate world, and the corporate world generally rewards self-serving behavior and provides an environment in which individuals with dark personalities can make use of their qualities and succeed,” commented the researchers.

One in five CEOs are psychopaths, new study finds, a proportion similar to that among prisoners. Research conducted by forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks from Bond University found 21 per cent of 261 corporate professionals had clinically significant psychopathic traits.

The hallmarks of the psychopathic personality involve egocentric, grandiose behavior, completely lacking empathy and conscience. Additionally, psychopaths may be charismatic, charming, and adept at manipulating one-on-one interactions. In a corporation, one’s ability to advance is determined in large measure by a person’s ability to favorably impress the boss. Unfortunately, certain of these psychopathic qualities – in particular charm, charisma, grandiosity (which can be mistaken for vision or confidence) and the ability to “perform” convincingly in one-on-one settings – are also qualities that can help one get ahead in the business world.

Hedge Fund managers scoring higher for psychopathy perform worse than their colleagues, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Denver and the University of California, Berkeley. They compared the personality traits of 101 hedge fund managers with their investments and financial returns from 2005 to 2015, and found those with greater psychopathic tendencies produced lower returns.

Leanne ten Brinke, lead author of the research and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver, believes it is time to “rethink” old assumptions that ruthlessness and callousness are favourable traits for business managers.

Research shows that psychopaths often leave behind a trail of chaos. One psychopathic CEO of a charity, for example, caused higher staff turnover and a decline in revenue. Another  study found that, despite their charm, psychopaths cause counterproductive behaviour, bullying and conflict in the workplace, as well as lower employee wellbeing.

Another key characteristic of the psychopath is that they mostly form superficial, short-term relationships with others, before casually discarding them.

“Psychopaths generally try to perform best for themselves, but not necessarily for the people they work with or for,” says Dr. Igor Galynker.  Usually, psychopaths are cunning and charming, have an over-sized sense of self-worth, and are pathological liars. They show an unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions, as well as callousness and lack of empathy. They can be especially impulsive and irresponsible in relationships, accumulating multiple marriages and tending towards to sexual promiscuity.



“They’re very good at making good impressions, getting promoted and having their salaries raised, but not necessarily good in management. They’re only invested in a company if it’s needed for them to be promoted and make more money.

Paul Verhaeghe, a Dutch psychologist and psychotherapist has a simple argument to explain the high incidence of psychopathy in the modern corporate world. He points the finger at our current economic system, neoliberal capitalism. Verhaeghe argues that meritocratic neoliberalism rewards those who display psychopathic traits. Risk taking, superficial charm, lack of empathy, impulsivity, setting short-term goals – are becoming necessary in the cut-throat corporate environment.

To succeed in business these days it helps to have a somewhat inflated sense of self-worth, and to exude confidence and charm. Decision makers also need to be flexible in their opinions and be able to grasp opportunities when they see one. Research also suggests that psychopaths and entrepreneurs share some traits  in their methods for achieving success.

Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, argues “Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers—a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse and the manipulation of others—are also shared by politicians and world leaders. Individuals, in other words, running not from the police. Such a profile allows those who present with these traits to do what they like when they like, completely unfazed by the social, moral or legal consequences of their actions.

Dutton analyzed past and present leaders for their relative level of psychopathy. In an article for Scientific American, Dutton argues that psychopathy can be defined by three categories of characteristics, including fearless dominance, self-centered impulsivity, and coldheartedness. Dutton generally considers a man a psychopath if he scores at least a 155 on his scale and a woman a psychopath if she scores at least a 139.5. President Donald Trump scores a 171 on Dutton’s scale in part because of high scores in the perceived traits of fearless dominance and self-centered impulsivity (though Dutton has not examined Trump in person). But he’s by no means the only U.S. president who could be considered a psychopath. “Politics came out as a profession in which an official consignment of legalized, precision-engineered psychopathy would come in rather handy,” writes Dutton.

In their book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, argue while psychopaths may not be ideally suited for traditional work environments by virtue of a lack of desire to develop good interpersonal relationships, they have other abilities such as reading people and masterful influence and persuasion skills that can make them difficult to be seen as the psychopaths they are. According to their and others’ studies somewhere between 3-25% of executives could be assessed as psychopaths, a much higher figure than the general population figure of 1%.



Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry  says in a much-watched TED Talk, that we should a greater cause for concern.

Robert Hare’s Psychopathology Checklist suggests psychopathy as found in organizations has the following characteristics:

  • Social deviance and anti-social behavior (such as irresponsibility, impulsivity, unstable relationships, poor behavioral control, need for stimulation/rewards, promiscuous sexual behavior, criminal versatility and parasitic lifestyle).
  • Aggressive narcissism (superficial charm, grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse or guilt, emotionally shallow, lack of empathy, failure to accept personal responsibility for own actions).


Key Sun, writing in Psychology Today argues “From the perspective of evolutionary biology, psychopaths flourish in society because most of them actually have the skill to avoid prison. Both criminal and managerial psychopaths are detrimental to others’ well being. However, unlike the violent criminals who rely on physical aggression to maintain their control over individuals, managerial psychopaths are inclined to employ verbal brutality, deception, and emotional abuse and ploys to ruin people’s lives.” Psychopaths in leadership positions, Sun contends, often avoid either detection or paying for the consequences of their behavior by ingratiating themselves with people of higher status; continue to prey on “nice” victims who will not jeopardize their positions; take credit for others’ work; and brilliantly use fear and sympathy to confuse others.

Manifred Kets de Vries, a distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD Business School has completed some research and published a paper on the subject.  He calls the corporate psychopath the “SOB—Seductive Operational Bully”—or psychopath “lite.” SOBs don’t usually end up in jail or psychiatric hospital but they do thrive in an organizational setting. SOBs can be found wherever power, status, or money is at stake, de Vries says: “They talk about themselves endlessly; they like to be in the limelight. In some ways they are like children, believing that they are the center of the universe, unable to recognize the needs and rights of others. They appear to be charming yet can be covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their “victims” merely as targets and opportunities; like master and slave, they try to dominate and humiliate them. For them, the end always justifies the means. SOB executives have no qualms about buying up companies, tearing them apart, firing all the employees and selling off parts of it to earn a nice profit. “Downsizing” comes easily to them. They are not concerned about the welfare of their employees, or about their mental health.”

In an article published in The Journal of Business Ethics, “The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis,” Clive R. Boddy contends that one could argue these organizations’ senior executives escaped with impunity and indeed huge payoffs, from the chaos they caused, often with no regrets, or empathy for the millions of people whose financial lives were destroyed, while blaming others for the causes and results. Boddy argues that many of these executives were psychopaths: “Corporate Psychopaths are ideally situated to prey upon such anenvironment and corporate fraud, financial misrepresentation, greed and misbehavior went through the roof, bringing down huge companies and culminating in the Global Financial Crisis.”

Part of the reason why an increasing number of psychopaths have been drawn into leadership positions in the corporate world is its shift to “short termism.” Organizations and indeed entire countries have increasingly focused on shorter-term results for shareholders/stakeholders, and a utilitarian view of doing whatever it takes to get succeed, no matter the cost to people and the environment.


So what needs to be done about this problem?


Amanda Gudmundsson and Gregory Southey, writing in the Journal of Social and Behavioral Research in Business contend that business schools may be compounding the problem of corporate psychopaths by the focus in business school curricula. A study of business school students show that they, as future leaders, value empathy least, are more self-interested, demonstrate more cheating behavior, are less co-operative, more likely to conceal mistakes and are less willing to yield and more likely to defect in negotiation.

Certainly one approach to solving the problem can be changing the desired stereotype of a leader which currently focuses excessively on the charismatic, extraverted, celebrity kind of leader. Those responsible for leader recruitment and selection can also more carefully assess the moral and ethical character of leaders candidates. Truly great organizations are led by individuals who deeply care about the people working for them. They have integrity, character, empathy and lead by principles such as honesty and transparency.

While the immediate solution may be “don’t hire psychopaths” to leadership positions in the first place, the more difficult and complete solution is a change in organizational culture to embrace a long-term view, install positive leadership, build trust, and infuse the culture with the bonding behaviors of empathy, compassion and personal responsibility, things that are anathema to psychopaths. And finally, to seriously reexamine our image and stereotype of what constitutes a leader, and move away from our obsession with charismatic, aggressive, male dominated leadership.

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