This article was written by Clive Boddy and Derek Miles. Clive and Derek are, respectively, Professors in Leadership and Human Resource Development at Middlesex University Business School. You can email them at [email protected] or [email protected].
Psychologists report that 1% of the general population are psychopaths and lucky for most of us the violent ones tend to end up in secure institutions. However research now shows that they are increasingly showing up in less secure institutions like the corporate workplace where they can be anything from 1% to 3.5% of the senior management population. Perhaps even higher in the types of business sectors which are the most attractive to the corporate psychopath. They are thought to gravitate towards positions which offer power, money and prestige rather than the opportunity to serve others.
There is a 10 point psychological scale (see below) which can be used to identify them. It is not meant as a self-assessment tool but if you can identify between 8 and 10 of the elements in someone’s behaviour then there is a strong likelihood that they are a potential psychopath. It might be worth getting someone else to score you! The critical identification factors are seen firstly in how they treat subordinates and peers and this is characterised by a complete lack of conscience; e.g. summary sackings, public humiliations, bullying and verbal abuse. Secondly they can be identified by the toxic effect that they have on the culture and atmosphere in the workplace e.g. in developing a climate of fear, increasing attrition and thirdly in how they respond to others e.g. charming those above while simultaneously exploiting and abusing those below. These can be identified through confidential 360 feedback reports, exit interviews and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or whistle-blowing opportunities. They may also be identified through data such as significant deteriorations in staff-satisfaction survey results, increases in sickness and absence rates or unintended staff losses.
People below corporate psychopaths dislike and often even hate working for them and so will leave their employment even with no job to go to. Alternatively they will take prolonged leave due to sickness or stress or seek transfers from the direct working environment. If these trends are noted then investigation should be undertaken.
Points to note are that corporate psychopaths may be held in high regard by corporate leaders, key clients and others with power roles as corporate psychopaths focus attention on developing the good opinion of those above them. They are also, despite their often catastrophic impact on an organisations, very difficult to remove once embedded. There is also some anecdotal evidence that some organisations are intentionally recruiting corporate psychopaths to undertake particularly unpleasant tasks. This is a dangerous approach because once the task is completed it is not then possible to change a corporate psychopath into a pleasant, supportive and normal executive however hard you try.
This increasingly appears to be a hard wired condition although it can be very easily masked by the individual by a veneer of charm and apparently well-meaning sincerity. They are extremely good at interviews, assessment centres and turning up the charm and dissembling their CV and previous achievements and this means that they may not be identified until it is too late. Luckily some corporate psychopaths still end up in jail but you would be well-advised to make sure that they don’t end up locked up with you in your organisation.
If you think you have worked with a corporate psychopath we suggest that you seek professional advice or contact your HR department.
Also if you have worked with one we would like to hear from you if you would be willing to join a confidential piece of research we are undertaking in order to better understand their ways of working and the best routes to managing such individuals.
Table 1: Measuring Corporate Psychopathy
Copyright: The Corporate Psychopaths Research Centre. Reproduced with permission
Jamie Lawrence is Insights Director at Wagestream, a financial wellbeing app that makes money less stressful for people in work. Founded by a group of leading financial charities, Wagestream's mission is driven by their social charter: everything they build must improve financial wellbeing. Jamie was previously Managing Editor of HRZone,...