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The Truth About Corporate Psychopaths

What research does—and does not say about psychopathy in the office.

Key points

  • The media has been propagating a narrative about a shocking proportion of psychopaths in corporations.
  • This narrative is generally based on popular books and practitioner opinions, rather than on scientific research.
  • Yet the academic community played its own part in feeding the media frenzy: they devised a branding solution.
  • To compensate for the lack of studies in corporations, psychopathy in any workplace (even SMEs or NGOs) was branded “corporate psychopathy”.
Sergey Nivens/iStock
Source: Sergey Nivens/iStock

The rise of the "corporate psychopath"

“One in five corporate CEOs is a psychopath. Wait, it’s not CEOs but managers and it’s not corporations but organizations of any size. In fact, it’s not one in five but one in eight. Okay, there’s no conclusive evidence of corporations teeming with psychopaths. But we all know they do.”

The above is a synopsis of what could be called The Great Corporate Psychopath Frenzy, a media phenomenon that emerged around the turn of the millennium and is still going strong. It picked up in intensity in 2016, stirred by an Australian study finding that one in five business employees could be a psychopath. Numerous top business media outlets rushed to cover the news. With a flick of the pen, they converted “business employees” into “CEOs” in breathless titles such as “21 percent of CEOs are psychopaths. Only 21 percent?” (Washington Post). Some added “American Psycho” axe-wielding pictures for good measure. Two years later, the source research study was retracted (a rare occurrence in academia, indicating serious credibility shortcomings) but the titles stayed, a “scientific fact” you might have heard repeated at a party or two.

Academics join the party

Sensing the media value of associating the words “psychopath” and “corporation”, some academics joined the party, by taking research findings related to psychopathy at any workplace and branding them “corporate psychopathy”. This is not unlike prefacing “narcissism” with “artistic” since, well, some narcissists are artists, and the term makes for more vivid imagery than “narcissism” alone.

Of the more than 40 empirical papers on “corporate psychopaths” published in scientific journals, the vast majority study employees or managers who do not work in corporations, but in non-profit organizations, civil service institutions, or small companies. A title such as “A case study of a corporate psychopath CEO”, might evoke the image of a magnate frowning at Manhattan from his sky-high office while pensively sharpening the blade of an axe. Instead, the paper with the said title reports on the head of a British charity (Boddy, 2017). How about “Corporate psychopaths, conflict, and employee well-being”? It does not bring to mind your local car repair shop or family restaurant, does it? Yet half of the respondents in the above-mentioned study worked for companies with fewer than 50 employees. This did not stop the authors from presenting their study as an investigation into “those psychopaths working in the corporate sector, possibly attracted by the high monetary rewards, prestige and power available to those who reach the senior managerial levels of large corporations” (Boddy, 2014, page 108).

Voices of reason

Scientific reviews of the state of research on the topic of psychopathy in the workplace have repeatedly attempted to put things into proportion. A 2013 review co-authored by Scott Lilienfeld, the co-creator of one of the most widely used psychopathy measures, the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI-R), dryly noted that “the attention given to psychopathy in the workplace by the media and scholars alike has greatly outstripped the scientific evidence” (Smith & Lilienfeld 2013, page 205). More recently, a 2019 review of all research studies on psychopathy and leadership concluded that “concern over psychopathic tendencies in organizational leaders may be overblown” (Landay, Harms, & Crede, 2019, page 183). The lead author of the above review got to experience this firsthand: a journalist cited her saying “there is no conclusive evidence indicating that a large percentage of CEOs are psychopaths”, but then, without producing any other research evidence, still concluded that “roughly 4% to 12% of CEOs exhibit psychopathic traits, according to some experts”.

Psychopathy does not make you a psychopath

Psychopathy involves being fearless, impulsive and rebellious, not troubled by anxiety nor by feelings for others. It also includes being aggressive, ready to assign blame to anyone but oneself, yet also able to manipulate and influence others (Benning et al., 2003). Everyone has some level of psychopathy, but only those who score highest on the traits above (roughly 1 percent of the general population), can be called psychopaths.

Of young men, Europeans and surgeons

Men across the globe are two to three times more likely to score higher than women on psychopathy (Neumann et al., 2012), and younger adults score distinctly higher on psychopathy than do older adults (Lilienfeld et al., 2014). Yet we don’t think of “A Clockwork Orange” every time we cross a young man in the street.

Europeans are more “psychopathic” than North Americans (Neumann et al., 2012), but this doesn’t seem to rank high in American tourists’ concerns when booking their Paris holidays. And, although surgeons in training have significantly higher psychopathy scores than do other medical students (Muscatello et al., 2017), I would certainly not forgo general anaesthesia to keep an eye on the surgeon’s scalpel... even if the surgeon is young, male and European.

Why getting the record straight on "corporate psychopaths" is important

This is not to say that bosses’ subclinical levels of psychopathy are irrelevant. As you would expect, psychopathic tendencies in managers correlate with employee dissatisfaction, turnover intentions, and bullying, although, surprisingly, the correlation is not very strong (Landay et al, 2019). However, when examined at these subclinical levels, focusing on leader psychopathy alone adds little explanatory power over toxic leader personalities that have been well studied (Smith & Lilienfeld, 2013) but much scare power when such findings are popularized for a general audience.

Why is it important, outside of academic circles, to set the record straight on “corporate psychopaths”?

First because, intimidated by media outcries about corporations teeming with psychopaths, many young people in search of a job may choose to stay away from corporations altogether, potentially forfeiting a better career path than may otherwise be available to them. And who is most susceptible to be harmed by such misinformation? Those who are already underprivileged, as they are less likely to have friends or relatives in corporations who could give them first-hand reassurance.

Second, current corporate employees may give up on their boss at the first sign of egocentricity, impulsivity, or lack of empathy. This can have many negative consequences for the employee, the boss, and the organization. For example, would you dare give feedback to your manager about their tin-eared reaction to a colleague’s emotional distress if you thought they might axe you for it, whether literally or metaphorically? Yet feedback is essential for personal and organizational learning: as this blog’s motto reminds us, most managers are not perfect, and most managers can improve. Even if you’ve chanced upon a boss from hell, knowing that they are very unlikely to be clinical psychopaths would make you feel safer in looking for ways to get them brought to justice, from a scathing 360 degree review to whistleblowing, to filing a complaint with HR, to using other tools and rules that, ironically, corporations may be better at providing than most other, less structured organizations.

Make no mistake about it: corporations have much to improve. But focusing on the overblown menace of “corporate psychopaths” distracts effort and attention from weeding out toxic executives as well as from helping regular humans working in corporations to become better leaders—and better followers.


Benning, S. D., Patrick, C. J., Hicks, B. M., Blonigen, D. M., & Krueger, R. F. (2003). Factor structure of the psychopathic personality inventory: Validity and implications for clinical assessment. Psychological Assessment, 15(3), 340-350.

Boddy, C. R. (2014). Corporate Psychopaths, Conflict, Employee Affective Well-Being and Counterproductive Work Behaviour. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(1), 107-121.

Boddy, C. R. (2017). Psychopathic Leadership. A Case Study of a Corporate Psychopath CEO. Journal of Business Ethics, 145(1), 141-156.

Landay, K., Harms, P. D., & Crede, M. (2019). Shall We Serve the Dark Lords? A Meta-Analytic Review of Psychopathy and Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 183-196.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Latzman, R. D., Watts, A. L., Smith, S. F., & Dutton, K. (2014). Correlates of psychopathic personality traits in everyday life: results from a large community survey. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Muscatello, M. R. A., Bruno, A., Genovese, G., Gallo, G., Zoccali, R. A., & Battaglia, F. (2017). Personality Traits Predict a Medical Student Preference to Pursue a Career in Surgery. Education for Health, 30(3), 211-214.

Neumann, C. S., Schmitt, D. S., Carter, R., Embley, I., & Hare, R. D. (2012). Psychopathic Traits in Females and Males across the Globe. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 30(5), 557-574.

Smith, S. F., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). Psychopathy in the workplace: The knowns and unknowns. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18(2), 204-218.

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