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Persuasion and the Psychopath: What You Need to Know

To stop psychopaths from winning, learn something from them.

Key points

  • Do not conflate desirable traits with psychopathic traits.
  • Shaming people won’t diminish psychopathy.
  • Real psychopaths will gaslight and falsely accuse others of being psychopaths.

There seems to be a common point of view in the media these days and it unfolds something like this:

Premise: A disturbingly high percentage of people in prominent leadership roles, such as CEOs, lie somewhere on the spectrum of psychopathy (I don’t necessarily disagree with this).

Premise: When you look at psychopaths, a lot of them exhibit traits that make them more likely to succeed, such as charm, enthusiasm, persuasiveness, and confidence (I don’t disagree with this either).

Conclusion: Therefore, these traits in themselves are psychopathic and your boss is probably a psychopath!

It’s that last part that I have a problem with. To be fair, not everyone writing about corporate psychopathy is making such sweeping generalizations, but this definitely seems to be a sentiment that’s becoming more popular. Unfortunately, not only will this fail to diminish the problem of corporate psychopathy, it will actually make it worse. In fact, the best way to ensure that true psychopaths have less influence is for more good people to cultivate their own power and influence, including learning how to be more persuasive and charismatic—the very traits that get labelled as “psychopathic.”

Desirable Traits and Psychopathic Traits

The issue at heart with much of the media commentary on corporate psychopathy is that people are confusing traits. They’re confusing superficial charm with genuine charisma; grandiosity with confidence; manipulativeness with persuasiveness; and lack of empathy (one of the most defining traits of a bona fide psychopath) with the ability to stay calm in the midst of conflict. Even if media commentators are not explicitly conflating these traits with psychopathy, there is a risk of the audience misunderstanding it this way.

Let’s first recognize that there are certain qualities, traits, and skills that are very effective in society in general and in business in particular. It’s effective to be charismatic, confident, enthusiastic, and persuasive—whether we like it or not, this is simply the social reality. You could certainly critique what you see as an extrovert bias, or an overvaluing of outward-driven traits such as charisma or persuasiveness and an undervaluing of inward-driven traits such as thoughtfulness or self-awareness, which can also be valuable in organizational settings. This would be a valid critique and it’s essentially what Susan Cain argues in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. What is not a valid critique is conflating qualities that are positive and effective with genuinely psychopathic traits.

Here’s another reason why equating desirable traits with psychopathy is barking up the wrong tree. It’s not going to solve the problem. Yes, there are psychopaths out there, and, yes, some of them wield a lot of influence and authority because they know how to be charming and persuasive. We can scream and shout about this all we want, but it won’t change society’s natural tendency to admire people who are charismatic and charming.

Why Shaming People Won’t Diminish Psychopathy

For this reason, conflating desirable traits with psychopathy won’t stop psychopaths from winning because they will continue to do what’s effective. Psychopaths are chameleons. They know which traits get them what they want and they excel at mimicking those traits. In fact, many of us could even learn a lesson from psychopaths, which is to understand what’s effective and do that instead of just doing what we feel like doing. Psychologist Kevin Dutton, author of The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, would agree. Dutton reminds us that psychopathy is a spectrum and not everyone on this spectrum is a Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates. There are even some individuals who rank somewhat high on the spectrum who are not devoid of empathy and who use their traits for good. Dutton calls them “Good Psychopaths,” and an example he points to is Winston Churchill.

If we keep shaming desirable traits and calling them “psychopathic,” good people might become hesitant about displaying these traits, making them less likely to succeed. Meanwhile, psychopaths will not stop mimicking these traits because they know that they work. But seeing a trend for shaming ambitious or successful people, the real psychopaths will point their fingers at others as being psychopaths since that is one of the things that psychopaths do: they blame and gaslight others. This would divert attention away from the true psychopaths and leave more power for their taking. It’s the same principle I discussed in my article about not having the luxury of ignoring organizational politics, because doing so leaves more power in the hands of those less scrupulous than you.

You Do You (Unless You’re an Actual Psychopath)

If you are someone who already displays, to some degree or another, traits that are incorrectly being conflated with psychopathy, I encourage you to honor these traits. This goes as well for those who don’t currently have those traits but are interested in cultivating them. For example, maybe you’re an introvert who isn’t naturally “political” but you see the value in learning how to be. Know that you too can improve your political skill, or be persuasive and charismatic, while still being true to yourself as an introvert. Recognize the good that can come out of these traits and ignore attempts by anyone to label them (or you) as “psychopathic.” These traits only become a problem if you use them to lie, cheat, or manipulate and to get what you want at the expense of others (but you’re probably not reading this blog if you are).

If you agree that ethics are important and that unethical psychopaths wielding influence and authority is a problem, then suppressing your desirable traits and skills isn’t going to help. Remember that power and influence aren’t just about official rank and status. Rank is just one form of power. You can amass power from any rung on the corporate ladder. In fact, if you want to prevent the real psychopaths from winning, and the good people like yourself from losing, then it’s your responsibility to improve your political skill and strengthen your sources of power, no matter where you are on the corporate ladder, and use them in positive and ethical ways.

That’s not psychopathy. That’s the opposite of psychopathy.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the University of San Diego School of Business.