What Happens When a Psychopath Takes Over: A Tale of 2 Sexes

New research shows that psychopathy in the boardroom isn't limited to men.

Posted Aug 25, 2018

Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock
Source: Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock

Corporate scandals in which the CEOs of major companies commit blatant ethical violations have become almost commonplace, leading to distrust among the public about life at the top. Typically, when you think about the corrupt corporate leader, you imagine a man, given that the predominance of CEOs are male, and that psychopathic qualities are more commonly regarded as masculine traits.

However, men don’t have exclusive rights over psychopathy, and those same ruthless approaches can also characterize female bosses. A new study by University of Alabama’s Karen Landay and P.D. Harms and Iowa State University’s Marcus Credé (2018) examines the relationship between psychopathy and various characteristics of leaders among a large set of studies, allowing them not only to test the leadership-psychopathy relationship, but also the ways in which this relationship might vary by gender.

Perhaps you’ve had a female boss whom you consider to have psychopathic tendencies. She doesn’t seem to express much interest in your personal life, other than the superficial niceties of occasional questions about your partner or kids. Instead of caring about you as an employee, she only seems to view you as someone she can use to accomplish her own ends. You might get an email from her that demands you submit a report “right away,” giving you little or no time to gather your thoughts on how best to present the details she insists on seeing. Dominating and abrasive, she shows no hesitation about throwing you under the bus when something goes wrong. Rather than feeling supported or even mentored, you emerge from interactions with her full of self-doubts and worries about whether you’re even going to get to keep your job. She seems to like keeping you, and everyone else who reports to her, in a constant state of guessing.

As difficult and unpleasant as her behavior’s effects are on you, it seems inconceivable that she keeps her own job. Yet, she manages to exert her influence on everyone around her, including her own bosses (should she have any), and never hesitates to take bold, if not rash, actions in order to get and stay ahead. These interactions convince you that the traits of the psychopathic boss can quite easily be found in women rather than being the province only of male bosses.

Anecdotal evidence of this type led Landay and her collaborators to propose a set of hypotheses that they tested using all of the available empirical literature linking psychopathy with leadership emergence, or the tendency to rise to the higher ranks of the corporate structure, and leadership effectiveness, or the ability to motivate workers to perform at their best. In other words, it’s one thing to be promoted to a position of responsibility and another to rally your troops to get the job done. Your boss may have a high-ranking job, but you’re not going to go out of your way to be a good team member if you feel that his or her promotion was not deserved. You’ll do what’s needed to keep your job, but you won’t put in extra effort if you don’t feel that your boss actually cares about anyone other than himself or herself. You and your fellow employees may feel more strongly bonded to each other than to the boss, and these feelings of connection (plus your paycheck) are what motivate you.

The Alabama-Iowa research team defined psychopathy according to a three-factor model that includes fearless dominance (boldness), disinhibition (impulsivity), and meanness (lack of empathy). This “triarchic” model allows for the possibility of a “successful” form of psychopathy, marked by boldness combined with low disinhibition. Individuals with these qualities could, in fact, do well in a corporate world in which rewards accrue to those who take decisive, but not rash, actions in order to accomplish their goals.

The previous literature specifically on leadership in women, according to Landay et al., would suggest that women are perceived as being more effective when they try to use “communal” (group-oriented) methods of influence, rather than “agentic” (individual-oriented) approaches. If a female supervisor doesn’t seem to care about the feelings of her workers, this would be less acceptable to those she manages than if a male shows the exact same dominant and emotionless qualities. As a result, psychopathic tendencies should be perceived more negatively in female bosses, because these qualities go against the feminine stereotype. 

Apart from these gender-related issues, psychopathy itself may have, the researchers believe, an inverted “U-shape” relationship to leadership emergence and effectiveness. Some psychopathy may be helpful when a supervisor has to make budget-driven decisions or give employees firm deadlines based on the company’s needs, because these actions require a certain degree of cold-hearted objectivity.

After scanning the available literature for studies that met the inclusion criteria of providing empirically valid measures of both psychopathy and leadership, Landay and her collaborators settled on a final group of 46 samples providing data on leadership emergence, 7 on informal leadership, 42 on leader effectiveness, and 15 on “transformational leadership” or the ability to inspire people to work on a leader’s behalf. If gender data weren’t available in these studies, the authors contacted the researchers who conducted the investigations in order to obtain that additional information. The authors then subjected the data they acquired from these studies to a meta-analysis, in which they examined the size of the effects reported in each study according to a set of objective statistical criteria. Because informal leadership appeared to deserve treatment in its own right, the authors added the relationship of this factor to psychopathy to the emergence and effectiveness dimensions.

From the overall findings, it appeared that psychopathic tendencies were linked, but weakly, to leadership emergence (positively) and effectiveness (negatively). Using subordinate ratings (rather than self-ratings), psychopathic traits were negatively related to transformational leadership. However, gender played a key role in these relationships. For women, there was no relationship between psychopathic traits and leadership emergence, but for men, the relationship was strongly positive. Leadership effectiveness showed the opposite pattern for women and men, with the psychopathic male bosses being seen as more effective, and the psychopathic female supervisors seen as less so. The authors interpreted these findings as suggesting that “there tend to be social sanctions against women displaying psychopathic characteristics.” Violating gender norms, in other words, spells trouble for women who show boldness, decisiveness, and lack of empathy.

There were also significant inverted U-shaped effects suggesting, additionally, that moderate amounts of psychopathy may prove helpful in the corporate world. As the authors noted, “accounts of psychopathy that suggest that positive outcomes are possible under some circumstances also seem to have found some support.” For women, though, being a psychopathic boss nevertheless carries dangers. They may behave themselves at work to a certain degree, only to explode with “emotion-laden outbursts” when they get home. Because they are likely to be penalized when showing these behaviors with their employees, they seek outlets outside of work to express their “dark” personality traits.

Thus, a woman high, or moderately high, in psychopathy who manages to reach the upper levels of management indeed seems to make life difficult for the people who report to her. If you have such a boss, it’s no wonder you’ll feel unsupported, if not attacked, when you fail to accede to her wishes. The Landay et al. study suggests that the subordinates of such a boss will, more than if she’s a man, regard her with suspicion and will not work to the best of their abilities. Moreover, because this boss does not fit the feminine stereotype, her psychopathy may be even more lethal than it would otherwise be in a man.

You might argue that it may not be "fair" that female leaders are perceived in different ways than males, but they are. Until leadership standards for men and women become equal, it seems reasonable to conclude that the psychopathic female leader has even less concern for social standards than the psychopathic male. 

To sum up, a psychopathic leader, whether male or female, can impede your ability to achieve fulfillment in your work setting. Finding ways to compensate for the negative effects on your productivity and happiness may be your best way to achieve that fulfillment.


Landay, K., Harms, P.D., & Credé, M. (in press 2018). Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology.