If you've ever secretly harboured thoughts that a colleague - or even your boss - behaves like a psychopath, you may be closer to the truth than you dared to imagine. A study has found that there are far more sub-criminal psychopaths - self-serving, narcissistic schemers who display a stunning lack of empathy, but are not criminally inclined - at large in the population than had previously been thought. Some even end up in managerial positions.
"The world of unfeeling psychopaths is not limited to the popular images of monsters who steal people's children or kill without remorse," explains Robert Hare, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who conducted the study. "After all, if you are bright, you have been brought up with good social skills, and you don't want to end up in prison, so you probably won't turn to a life of violence. Rather, you'll recognise that you can use your psychopathic tendencies more legitimately by getting into positions of power and control. What better place than a corporation?"
"Corporate psychopaths" tend to be manipulative, arrogant, callous, impatient, impulsive, unreliable and prone to fly into rages, according to Professor Hare. They break promises, and take credit for the work of others and blame everyone else when things go wrong. "Psychopaths are social predators and like all predators they are looking for feeding grounds," he says. "Wherever you get power, prestige and money, you will find them."
But with today's employers increasingly focusing on anti-bullying policies, how do they get away with it? Paul Babiak, an organisational psychologist, explains that psychopaths have the ability to demonstrate the traits that the organisation wants and needs, as well as coming across as smooth, polished and engaging. They can appear to employers to be the perfect manager. "The psychopath is the kind of individual that can give you the right impression, has a charming facade, can look and sound like the ideal leader, but behind this mask has a dark side," he says. "It's this dark side of the personality that lies, is deceitful, is manipulative and that bullies other people."
Dr Babiak claims to have dealt with corporate psychopaths who not only demonstrate the defining characteristics of lack of remorse and empathy, but also enjoy causing others pain. "I have seen individuals fire people and take great pleasure in doing it," he says...
In some organisations, corporate psychopaths pose a threat not only to individuals, but also to the entire workforce, according to Dr Babiak. They build up a power base and turn everyone in the organisation paranoid, everyone becomes afraid of everyone else and the work culture begins to reflect the personality of the leader.
Dr Babiak adds that bullying isn't the only characteristic displayed by the corporate psychopath. "Many even promote fraud in the organisation and steal the company's money," he says. Recent research by accountants MacIntyre Hudson demonstrates just how much of a concern to companies this is. Almost four out of 10 business owners in Britain view the possibility of fraud - particularly being ripped off by one of their own employees - as the single biggest threat to their company, the study found.
In an attempt to root out such undesirable employees, Dr Babiak and Prof Hare have teamed up to design a test aimed at enabling companies to detect corporate psychopaths before they can do serious damage in the workplace. The "Business Scan 360" test will assess managers who come across as ideal corporate leaders, but who may carry psychopathic traits. Colleagues and a supervisor of the person being tested will be asked to fill in a detailed questionnaire that considers four aspects of the subject's personality - anti-social tendencies, organisational maturity, interpersonal relations, and personal style.
But the idea is not to smoke out these people and give them the boot, insists Prof Hare. "Some organisations would value some of the traits, such as being remorseless and manipulative. Used-car salesmen, for example, will probably need to be cut-throat," he says. "The major problem is that psychopaths get into organisations as they interview well and can convince people that they are right for the job. But as soon as the person is hired all sorts of problems start."
...Corporate psychologist Ben Williams agrees that the corporate psychopath is at large in management throughout Britain. "But I would argue that there are fewer than in the past because we now have laws against discrimination and unfair behaviour," he says.
Others disagree. The quickly changing corporate world is increasingly susceptible to the psycho in a suit, Dr Babiak believes. The old, staid, bureaucratic organisation filled with rules, policies and procedures was too frustrating and unattractive to the psychopath, he says. "Now, because the pace of business has accelerated so much, only organisations that move fast can survive. It also makes it more fun to work there, not just for you and I, but for the psychopath as well."
Not all corporate psychopaths get away with their antics, however. Alan Ross recalls working for a particularly mercenary one in an investment bank. "I was just out of university and she almost screwed me up completely," he says. "She had ambitions to move into a new area of work and did this primarily by getting her researchers - us - to translate and plagiarise equity research from all the continental banks and sell it as her own research. This proved highly successful and she was getting a name for herself as an expert."
Just before she was offered a major job in her new "expert" role, however, Ross decided to put an end to her reign of terror. "First we supplied a dossier to a magazine, which duly printed an exposé of her. Finally, to rub it right in, we sent copies of the article to every fund manager she ever had dealings with - ie all the bank's best and wealthiest customers. Job done - she was suspended pending an investigation and then sacked."
From the online profile of Robert Hare, Professor Emeritus and expert on the Psychopath:
'...clinicians who use these manuals [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] look for symptoms in people over 18 and not otherwise psychotic who since age 15 have shown a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. Among these behaviors, the person has done at least three of the following:
- failure to conform to lawful social norms,
- impulsivity or failure to plan ahead,
- irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
- reckless disregard for safety of self or others,
- consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations,
- lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent about having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.'