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Why Are There More Psychopaths in the Boardroom?

Does corporate culture attract psychopathic leaders?

When we think about psychopaths, most of us might imagine a Hannibal Lecter or Jeffrey Dahmer.  Would we consider that psychopaths might be lurking around boardrooms and CEO corner offices? The reality is quite different. Increasing numbers of corporate psychopaths have brought havoc to the lives of millions of people, economies and entire countries.

Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, argues “Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers—a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse and the manipulation of others—are also shared by politicians and world leaders. Individuals, in other words, running not from the police. But for office. Such a profile allows those who present with these traits to do what they like when they like, completely unfazed by the social, moral or legal consequences of their actions.”

In their book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, argue while psychopaths may not be ideally suited for traditional work environments by virtue of a lack of desire to develop good interpersonal relationships, they have other abilities such as reading people and masterful influence and persuasion skills  that can make them difficult to be seen as the psychopaths they are. According to their and others’ studies somewhere between 3-25% of executives could be assessed as psychopaths, a much higher figure than the general population figure of 1%.

Robert Hare’s Psychopathology Checklist suggests psychopathy as found in organizations has the following characteristics:

  • Social deviance and anti-social behavior (such as irresponsibility, impulsivity, unstable relationships, poor behavioral control, need for stimulation/rewards, promiscuous sexual behavior, criminal versatility and parasitic lifestyle);
  • Aggressive narcissism (superficial charm, grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse or guilt, emotionally shallow, lack of empathy, failure to accept personal responsibility for own actions).

Key Sun, writing in Psychology Today argues “From the perspective of evolutionary biology, psychopaths flourish in society because most of them actually have the skill to avoid prison. Both criminal and managerial psychopaths are detrimental to others' well being. However, unlike the violent criminals who rely on physical aggression to maintain their control over individuals, managerial psychopaths are inclined to employ verbal brutality, deception, and emotional abuse and ploys to ruin people's lives.” Psychopaths in leadership positions, Sun contends, often avoid either detection or paying for the consequences of their behavior by ingratiating themselves with people of higher status; continue to prey on “nice” victims who will not jeopardize their positions; take credit for others’ work; and brilliantly use fear and sympathy to confuse others.

Manifred Kets de Vries, a distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD has completed some research and published a paper on the subject.  He calls the corporate psychopath the “SOB—Seductive Operational Bully”—or psychopath “lite.” SOBs don’t usually end up in jail or psychiatric hospital but they do thrive in an organizational setting. SOBs can be found wherever power, status, or money is at stake, de Vries says: “They talk about themselves endlessly; they like to be in the limelight. In some ways they are like children, believing that they are the center of the universe, unable to recognize the needs and rights of others. They appear to be charming yet can be covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their “victims” merely as targets and opportunities; like master and slave, they try to dominate and humiliate them. For them, the end always justifies the means. SOB executives have no qualms about buying up companies, tearing them apart, firing all the employees and selling off parts of it to earn a nice profit. “Downsizing” comes easily to them. They are not concerned about the welfare of their employees, or about their mental health.”

In an article published in The Journal of Business Ethics, “The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis,” Clive R. Boddy contends that one could argue these organizations’ senior executives escaped with impunity and indeed huge payoffs, from the chaos they caused, often with no regrets, or empathy for the millions of people whose financial lives were destroyed, while blaming others for the causes and results. Boddy argues that many of these executives were psychopaths: “Corporate Psychopaths are ideally situated to prey upon such an environment and corporate fraud, financial misrepresentation, greed and misbehavior went through the roof, bringing down huge companies and culminating in the Global Financial Crisis.”

Psychopaths are attracted to and probably overrepresented in occupations such as politics, entertainment and business, the legal profession and law enforcement, the military and medicine. Inside the business world, traits such as ruthlessness, a lack of conscience and success at any cost would be seen as pathological outside of business. Many of the qualities that indicate mental problems in other contexts may appear appropriate in senior executive positions. That is particularly the case in organizations that appreciate impression management, corporate gamesmanship, risk-taking, coolness under pressure, domination, assertiveness and extreme competitiveness.

Part of the reason why an increasing number of psychopaths have been drawn into leadership positions in the corporate world is its shift to “short termism.” Organizations and indeed entire countries have increasingly focused on shorter-term results for shareholders/stakeholders, and a utilitarian view of doing whatever it takes to get succeed, no matter the cost to people and the environment.

So what needs to be done about this problem?

Amanda Gudmundsson and Gregory Southey, writing in the Journal of Social and Behavioral Research in Business contend that business schools may be compounding the problem of corporate psychopaths by the focus in business school curricula. A study of business school students show that they, as future leaders, value empathy least, are more self-interested, demonstrate more cheating behavior, are less co-operative, more likely to conceal mistakes and are less willing to yield and more likely to defect in negotiation.

Certainly one approach to solving the problem can be changing the desired stereotype of a leader which currently focuses excessively on the charismatic, extraverted, celebrity kind of leader. Those responsible for leader recruitment and selection can also more carefully assess the moral and ethical character of leaders candidates. Truly great organizations are led by individuals who deeply care about the people working for them. They have integrity, character, empathy and lead by principles such as honesty and transparency.

While the immediate solution may be “don’t hire psychopaths” to leadership positions in the first place, the more difficult and complete solution is a change in organizational culture to embrace a long-term view, install positive leadership, build trust, and infuse the culture with the bonding behaviors of empathy, compassion and personal responsibility, things that are anathema to psychopaths. And finally, to seriously reexamine our image and stereotype of what constitutes a leader, and move away from our obsession with charismatic, aggressive, male dominated leadership.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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