We often think of psychopaths as dangerous criminals locked up and kept behind bite masks. While some psychopaths are indeed incarcerated many remain in society and in very successful careers. Psychopaths are often attracted to positions of power with management being a prime example as it gives them access to groups of people they can control to amuse themselves and exploit for personal gain. The prevalence of psychopathy in leadership positions is estimated to be four times higher than in the general population, (Whitbourne, 2015) which paints a grim picture for employees and organisations alike.
I am not for a second saying that managerial positions are overrun with psychopaths but rather highlighting the risk these people pose to organisations when they do get in the door. Many managers are kind, caring and effective but when they are not problems arise and fast. The best and most effective managers will earn employee’s trust, respect employee’s time and use a consistent style, (Lipman, 2013). Poor or nasty management styles have been shown to majorly impact motivation, (Bianca, 2016) which in turn destroys productivity. Management is the backbone of a healthy, happy and productive workplace. To clarify once more I am not saying that every nasty manager is a psychopath; they could just be a nasty person who was put in the wrong position through poor selection. The focus of this post is however on when psychopaths are managing employees, why this is organisational suicide and what to do about it.
The term psychopath is no longer used in psychology or medicine and has been replaced by the term Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) but for ease I will continue using the term corporate psychopath as it is most commonly used to describe this phenomenon.
How to Spot a Corporate Psychopath:
Spotting a corporate psychopath can be hard as these individuals use their superficial charm to rise through the ranks quickly and go unnoticed due to the hectic nature of modern organisations, (Boddy, 2011). Thankfully research has isolated a few common characteristics. Cable (2013) & Eichner (2014) have put together excellent lists of warning signs to look out for.
These individuals may be likable, often too likeable, which can fool superiors and leave them with an attitude that they can do no wrong. Behind this charming façade can be a lack of empathy, a pleasure in undermining others, a love of causing conflict and confusion and taking credit for the achievements of others. Character assassination, blackmail and seduction are also commonplace. Attempts to correct these behaviours may expose the individual’s true colours very quickly. When corrected, these individuals tend to shift blame onto others (such as subordinates) in a seamless fashion, leaving superiors confused and duped. One often covert sign is outward displays of emotion followed by an immediate return to normal, which is possible due to psychopath’s inability to feel emotions properly or at all: returning to normal after crying is easy because it was all an act. Other things to look out for include fleeting friendships (which end once the individual gets what they want), constant requests to take into account extenuating circumstances for poor performance and unnecessary risk taking.
Any of these signs are red flags for organisations. Let’s see why.
The Cost of Psychopaths:
One of the most common behaviours psychopaths in the workplace engage in is bullying. Boddy, (2011) found that organisations with no corporate psychopaths showed a bullying incidence of 54.7% whereas those with corporate psychopaths showed a 93.3% incidence. This unacceptable behaviour is expensive and is estimated to cost organisations €3 billion per year, (Harrold, 2015). This is due to a number of reasons such as high turnover, sick days due to stress and legal repercussions, (Parris, 2015). Psychopaths leading teams won’t do your profits any good it seems.
Psychopathic managers also breed toxic behaviours into employees with subordinates learning negative behaviours from these leaders (Boddy, 2013). This makes sense as managers are in a position where they are supposed to be setting an example for others to follow: unethical behaviour breeds unethical behaviour. Unethical behaviour can lead to legal issues, reduced productivity and a bad name for your organisation.
Not only do corporate psychopaths damage those they manage, they also directly damage organisational performance as they themselves may not be anything special and may underperform, (Mathieu et al., as cited in Whitbourne, 2015). Using superficial charm and manipulation these individuals may just convince organisations that they are performing at their best. A tailored suit and an easy smile go a long way. When things do go wrong and the blame is pointed at the psychopath they will easily find someone else to blame, and you will most likely be tricked into believing it, (Eichner, 2014).
If these behaviours are allowed to go unchecked employees will begin to talk and quite soon the reputation (and success) of an organisation can be in tatters, especially if the organisation relies on public consumption, (Fowler, 2012). A reputation for bullying, poor performance and unethical behaviour is unlikely to attract consumers and investors. This risk of destruction by word of mouth has no doubt risen significantly in the age of social media and can sink an organisation in a very short period of time.
Protecting your Organisation:
A central problem is that organisations seeking managers are attracted to intelligent, driven, energetic, charming and charismatic individuals who can influence others which are all traits commonly displayed by organisational psychopaths, (Babiak as cited in Eichner, 2014). So how can organisations separate psychopaths from those who are genuinely all of the above? Here are some tips which may be useful to organisations when selecting leaders:
Information is power right? Recruitment and HR teams need to be made aware of the above warning signs. Although it is unlikely recruiters or HR teams are psychologists or physicians some education on what to look out for may just be a stitch in time.
Prevention is better than the Cure:
Psychometric screening may detect anti-social traits during the recruitment phase. Inclusion of simple tests in standard batteries may stop these individuals from reaching positions of power. One of the most famous and used tests is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), (Hare, 2003). Another short (20 item) test is the B Scan 360, (Mathieu, Hare, Jones, Babiak, & Neumann, 2013) which is specifically tailored to sniff out workplace psychopaths.
What are employees saying about leaders? The human ear is frustratingly underused in organisations. Remember that employees may see these traits on a daily basis and may be able to inform HR better than anyone else. Turning a blind eye to reports when they do come in makes employees feel undervalued and I don’t need to highlight what that does to productivity. Listen, investigate and act.
A psychopath is leading your employees, demoralising them and draining your organisation. I think the solution is pretty obvious: remove them from the organisation. Keep in mind that this may not be a walk in the park: psychopaths are experts in lying and manipulation and may convince organisations not to dismiss them. Rehabilitation is difficult when working with psychopaths; in fact it is one of the hardest conditions to treat, (Berger, 2014). Sensitivity training run by the HR department will be of little use here.
In conclusion: if years of Hollywood productions have taught us nothing else it should be that psychopaths are bad news. Organisations can become a playground for these individuals quite easily if nothing is done. A very expensive playground.
Berger, F. (2014). Antisocial personality disorder. National Institute of Health. Retrieved 17 June 2016, from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000921.htm
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Mathieu, C., Hare, R., Jones, D., Babiak, P., & Neumann, C. (2013). Factor structure of the B-Scan 360: A measure of corporate psychopathy. Psychological Assessment, 25(1), 288-293. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0029262
Parris, T. (2015). Business Costs of Bullying in the Workplace. Overcomebullying. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from http://www.overcomebullying.org/costs-of-bullying.html
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