Almost a Psychopath

The darker side of human behavior.

Honesty in the C-Suite and Beyond

Assuming the best, watching out for the worst

There has been a lot of talk recently about the business world being populated by psychopaths. While we think that these claims are exaggerated, that does not mean they are baseless. Some intriguing new research points to where those with psychopathic traits may be lurking in an organization and the answer might surprise you: Instead of looking at the top of the corporate world, we should probably focus our concerns lower on the management ladder.

Jack Zenger and Josh Folkman offered their findings about honesty and integrity at various levels of management in their June 1, 2012 blog post They point out that senior managers consistently scored higher on a range of leadership qualities, including honesty and integrity, assessed in 360 degree assessments, than those in middle level or lower level management. These findings held true for organizations at all levels of success, with senior managers of the most successful organizations getting the highest ratings on honesty and integrity.

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 In other words, at least in their sample, the most successful executives in the most successful organizations are viewed as high on measures of honesty and integrity on 360 assessments. Jeffrey Arnold, who as president of Arnold Strategies advises CEOs of early and growth stage companies and has himself been the CEO of multiple companies, points out: “In most corporations people are not promoted unless their peers see them as leaders. People do not want to be led by those they see as dishonest. So, the guy at the top has been repeatedly elected by his peers as being honest. His peers know him best and it is a great filter.”

Zenger and Folkman make another important point, one that may be overlooked: those successful ethical senior leaders consistently overrate the honesty and integrity of their direct reports, giving them higher marks than these individuals get from their peers and even themselves. And that opens the door for organizations to hire, retain, and be victimized by the unethical behavior of individuals we describe in our recently published book, “Almost a Psychopath.”

Full blown psychopaths are characterized by multiple and pervasive characteristics of psychopathy, some of which include glib and superficially charming behavior, lack of empathy, incapacity for remorse, predatory behavior, risk taking, conning and manipulation, and antisocial or unethical behavior. Estimates suggest that 1% of the population qualify as psychopaths. Full-blown psychopaths certainly can, and do, make their way into organizations and may even succeed there, sometimes for extended periods of time. It is difficult for their outrageous, predatory, and ultimately destructive behavior to go undetected, however, and once found out they are likely to leave the organization, one way or another.

Organizations are more likely to encounter and become victims of those we refer to as subclinical or “almost psychopaths.” These are people who exhibit significant psychopathic traits but do not meet the full criteria for psychopathy, and they may make up as much as 15% of the population. Almost psychopaths are able to fly under the radar and operate close to the ethical edge, in part because some of their psychopathic traits can help them succeed in the business world and allow them to deceive their superiors and coworkers.

The tendency to overestimate the honesty and integrity of direct reports plays directly into the hands of psychopaths and almost psychopaths alike, who depend on the trusting nature of others. As such, it pays for senior leaders to be aware of some key indicators that the person being evaluated may not be as honest and ethical as they are inclined to believe. These are:

• He or she knows the difference between right and wrong, but they don't care about it.

• His or her interactions are noteworthy for their glibness, superficial charm, and efforts to show how much the employee and the leader have in common.

• Whether in business dealings or personal interactions, the employee is unable to appreciate the feelings of others.

• When there is a choice of action, it is always in favor of self-interest and self promotion, even where it is ethically questionable.

• Chronic and pervasive lying about matters that may be major or insignificant.

• Lack of remorse for harm caused to others.

• Blaming others for their mistakes or problems.

• Insincere or transient emotions, but capable of emotional outbursts.

• Failure to fulfill responsibilities.

• Evidence of conning and manipulating coworkers, customers, clients, and competitors.

The presence of some, or even all, of these does not necessarily mean that the employee in question is an almost or full-blown psychopath. But they do mean that the leader who is assuming the best should take a second look.

Ronald Schouten, M.D., J.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Law & Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital.


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