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Are you employing a corporate psychopath?

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18th Nov 2013
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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

Replies (11)

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By Peter Cook
19th Nov 2013 11:38

Many CEO's are psychopaths - that's what makes them good at their jobs.

and politicians ......

:-)

Peter

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By Anita Mountain
19th Nov 2013 12:23

This is a useful contribution that raises awareness about anti-social behaviour.  However, we must be careful to avoid labelling as some of the above behaviours can also be used by others who are not psychopaths but have a certain type of personality i.e. Promoter in Process Communication terms and they are in distress.  It is important to note that it is the number and frequency of these behaviours that makes the difference.  

No doubt the authors are aware of this but the reader may not be and it is important that we don't witch hunt and therefore parallel the process.

Excellence in work is not about being a psychopath but about being people and production orientated, remaining OK/OK with people and be able to put in boundaries etc.  Those who get promoted but who may be psychopathic in their behaviour will not promote creativity, increase productivity but instead will develop a workplace which is experienced as unsafe.  More time will be spent on tensions and conflict or over-adaptation than on co-creativity and inspiration.

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By southern mole
03rd Nov 2015 08:54

I had no idea until last year that "psychopath" was other than a vague term of abuse. My former boss ticks every single box.

He forged documents about me for years, and realised before I did that I was going to find that out. He had me threatened, which I didn't take seriously to start with, and then when a colleague said I was looking pale and I said someone had shot out my balcony light at 4 am, she said: "At least they're not slashing your tyres ..." and I realised that they had been slashed, in the work car park ... I instructed a lawyer, who didn't take me seriously either. He has inveigled people inside and outside the University, compromising almost everyone, including his own boss - by persuading him into favouring his family and friends bigtime and then blackmailing him over it when he eventually realised the forged documents about me were indeed forged. I eventually resigned. I walked away from a twenty-year career that should have been blooming. He didn't stop. He writes to everyone, on University notepaper, telling them I am mad (I think).

Three or four weeks ago, I reported the psychopath's boss to the local Law Society for misconduct - using false documents and obtaining what I think in US dollars would be about 25,000. That was used to stitch me up. Details one day. The phraseology of my complaint is straight out of the local criminal law. (We're all lawyers. It's a bit weird.)

I assumed he would just lie and say he didn't do it, but guess what. He replied via his QC that I had sent no evidence. No denial. And he rather vaguely said that someone else actually made the documents.

I'm getting together an employment court application - mostly to get my life back, though a lot of money would be useful. Both these men are academic fakes - surprise, surprise. It's amazing how far you can go just by bluffing in academia - I was an academic for twenty years and shouldn't be amazed, but I am.

I hope they go to prison, though I rather doubt it.

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By southern mole
03rd Nov 2015 08:55

... should have said that I then sent evidence. There was so much false documentation that some of it leaked out, especially via HR who still, I think, don't realise it was fake. ...

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By Peter Cook
19th Nov 2013 12:55

I disagree - by writing the article you are using the label and it's a fact that many leaders have such qualities.

As for some HR professionals ....

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By adeptrainer
19th Nov 2013 13:46

Interestingly, when I apply the ten-point guide to politicians  and business leaders I have known, most get a full score. That's quite funny, until you start to reflect that maybe it's because they actually do all have psychopathic tendencies...

... Certainly, I have found that the dynamics on courses I have run for VERY senior executives often have a different, more internally competitive and even vicious, atmosphere than those for middle managers in the same organisations. This is true most, but not all, of the time, by the way.

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By The Divorce Mentor
19th Nov 2013 14:12

Corporate psychopaths will always be there - they get things done and can be very focused in a way that benefits the business. But some of my clients were married to them - pity the poor person who tries to extricate him/herself from such a relationship!

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By Rowsdower
11th Apr 2015 21:17

I think the author should have made the distinction between a person that is an actual psychopath and one that is Machiavellian (which is likely what you are thinking of). The psychopath is not concerned with working in ways that benefit the business they are only concerned with what will benefit them personally and are not concerned with company success or avoiding crisis. In fact they may seek out crisis in order to satisfy thrill seeking traits and/or to distract from their own activities or benefit themselves personally through it. The idea of long term success of the business benefiting them does not really apply as they do not tend to stay in one organization long enough to see those benefits. Long story short, there are psychopaths and there are regular conniving jerks.

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By Richard Simpson
19th Nov 2013 15:31

Amongst the features of psychopathic behaviour are lack of self awareness, lack of empathy with others and inability to change behaviour. They will always be with us and won't be amenable to coaching, mentoring or counselling. The question is: What to do with them? They may have their uses if an objective calls for it. Surprised no-one has mentioned the book Snakes In Suits which addressed this very issue of corporate psychopathy.

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By Emma_Mamo_Mind
19th Nov 2013 17:42

We all have mental health just as we have physical health – it moves up and down along a spectrum from good to poor. However, mental health is not as openly acknowledged or talked about because of the stigma surrounding it.

Whilst people with a particular set of personality traits may be more likely to occupy senior roles, using derogatory and outdated terminology such as ‘psychopath’ is not useful. Neither is claiming that people with mental health problems have violent tendencies, should be institutionalised, and can have a ‘toxic’ effect on their colleagues.

One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year, so this represents a significant proportion of your workforce. This may include people with personality disorders such as Antisocial or Narcissistic Personality Disorders, what the authors may be referring to when they talk about ‘psychopaths’. Many people with mental health problems face barriers to entering and retaining employment and stigma plays a large part in this. Such stigma is often driven by a lack of understanding about mental health and using inappropriate language can reinforce these negative inaccurate attitudes.

Time to Change, our joint anti-stigma campaign with Rethink Mental Illness, is working hard to challenge some of these damaging misconceptions. Mind is also engaging with employers through our Taking Care of Business campaign to highlight the importance of prioritising mental health in the workplace, ensuring all staff are supported, whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem or not. For more information, please visit: www.mind.org.uk/work

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By Mr_Lizard
20th Nov 2013 16:36

Psychopathy has meant the study of mental disorders since 1847.  A quick scan of Wikipedia indicates that while there's no single diagnosis of 'being a psychopath'; the term has become a common shorthand for anyone displaying any of a large range of mental disorders.

Many of these seem to dovetail, and link in with others - if you're lacking in empathy, you might not make friends easily, if at all.  So you become withdrawn and uncaring, which makes it even harder to make friends, and the downward spiral commences. 

In business and in politics, many of these traits are useful.  Generally speaking, little nice people don't finish first.  The meek may inherit the earth, but only as long as nobody else minds.  Ego drives ambition.  Someone with no friends in the workplace is ideally placed to administer redundancies, or close a department.  These are harsh decisions, and there are many people who will defer them to the harsh people in their organisation, in an attempt to leave their hands clean.  Someone with one or two of the top ten may have skills and talents that make up for their other deficiencies. 

The problem, if such it be, is when people have the full set.  These people aren't really people as ordinary people would recognise them.  They're capable of thinking, planning and doing things that other people can't even imagine.  They don't just think outside the box, they don't even see that there's a box there in the first place.  Fortunately, these creatures are pretty rare.  Unfortunately, they look just like everybody else.

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