We know that there is a “dark side” to personality, but it turns out that there’s also a dark side to leadership. Although many people assume that psychopaths end up in jail, many of them actually wind up being highly successful in the workplace. The “psychopath in the boardroom” stops at nothing to get ahead, but manages to avoid getting caught by refraining from committing outright criminal acts.
The psychopathic boss, according to a team headed by Cynthia Mathieu, of the Universite du Quebec a Trois-Rivieres, Canada (2014), engages in behaviors such as degrading and making fun of employees, lying and being deceptive, blaming others when things go wrong, and perhaps going so far as to harass and engage in physical aggression. These are the individuals most likely to engage in workplace bullying, but because they are the boss, they are more likely to get away with it. The toxic environment that they create can lead to poorer performance by employees, greater emotional distress, and spillover into conflict at home.
Such dysfunctional leaders, who “derail” their workers from achieving personal fulfillment, may amount to as many as 4% of managers, a rate that exceeds the estimated 1% prevalence of psychopaths in the general population. As reported by Mathieu et al., their performance may not be all that good, but they nevertheless get promoted, participate in important company decisions, and gain influence. Somehow, they're able to grope their way to the top, though not through honest hard work.
You may suspect that your boss, or the boss of someone you care about, has these toxic qualities, but you can’t quite put your finger on why. Mathieu and his team think they found the way to identify the psychopathic boss in the crowd. In a previous study (2013), they validated what’s called the B-Scan 360, a 20-item measure of psychopathic traits in the workplace. The 20 items fall into four factors. You can see how your boss (or a loved one's boss) would stack up by rating the extent to which they show these qualities:
Factor 1: Manipulativeness (lack of ethics)
- Ingratiates him/herself
- Is glib
- Uses charm
- Claims expertise
Factor 2: Unreliability/lack of focus
- Not loyal
- No planning
Factor 3: Callousness/insensitivity
- Rarely shows emotions
- Cold inside
- No empathy
Factor 4: Intimidating/aggressive
- Asks harsh questions
- Threatens other workers
On a 5-point scale (from strongly disagree to strongly agree), you would expect the average to be about a 3 (neither agree nor disagree), and that’s what the researchers found for their sample. Therefore, if you find the score of the person you’re rating to be a total of 15 per dimension (5 items times an average of 3 per item, or a total of 60), that’s about average. Bosses who approach 20 or 25 per scale, or between 80 to 100 across all four, are therefore in the psychopathic ballpark.
Interestingly, in the initial test of the B-Scan 360, the Canadian research team found it difficult to get organizations to solicit participation from their workers. Therefore, the researchers relied on online samples. It makes you wonder why companies would not want to sniff out the psychopathic leaders—or maybe it makes perfect sense.
Phase One of the research was the development of the scale. Phase Two was the testing of its relationship to employee outcomes. How would psychopathic bosses affect their workers? In the Phase Two study, workers were compared in two settings—public service organizations and financial organizations. All participants rated their supervisor on the B-Scan 360, and also completed measures of their own mental health, commitment to the workplace, satisfaction, and work-family conflict.
The results across the two sectors, public and private, showed a direct relationship between managers' high ratings on B-Scan 360 scores and the job satisfaction of their employees. B-Scan scores also predicted work-family conflict. Within the public sector, perceived psychopathy of managers directly predicted psychological distress. In the financial settings, psychopathy predicted distress only indirectly, via the common link to work-family conflict. It is possible that in the private sector, employees are more accepting of supervisors who exploit or manipulate them, because they’ve come to expect such treatment.
There were other possible interpretations of the data, including the fact that the financial worker sample included a higher proportion of women. They may have felt more pressure to keep their work and family in balance, and with unsupportive supervisors, that pressure became much more difficult to handle. Another potential problem with the study is that it was correlational—an unhappy employee may have been likely to rate the supervisor more negatively.
What should you do if you suspect that your boss has these psychopathic traits?
- First, conduct an assessment using the B-Scan 360 in a way that is as impartial and objective as possible. Try not to complete this when you’ve recently been snubbed (or worse).
- Second, looking across the 4 scales, is there one area that stands out as particularly high? Instead of just being aggravated at your boss in general, if you can narrow down your dissatisfaction, it may give you the opportunity to figure out a way to cope with that behavior, such as seeking employee assistance or other company resources.
If you’re a supervisor rather than an employee, then you may be coming up with some unfortunate realizations about yourself. Pinpointing the areas in which you seem to be highest may stimulate you to seek counseling or assistance in how to manage these problematic behaviors.
It is no fun to have a psychopathic boss. However, with an understanding of this problem, you can learn why you feel the way you do, both at work and in your home life. This may be just the stimulus you need to find both a job, and a boss, who benefit your fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015.
Mathieu, C., Hare, R. D., Jones, D. N., Babiak, P., & Neumann, C. S. (2013). Factor structure of the B-Scan 360: A measure of corporate psychopathy. Psychological Assessment, 25(1), 288-293. doi:10.1037/a0029262
Mathieu, C., Neumann, C. S., Hare, R. D., & Babiak, P. (2014). A dark side of leadership: Corporate psychopathy and its influence on employee well-being and job satisfaction. Personality And Individual Differences, 5983-88. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.11.010