5 Ways of the Corporate Psychopath

"A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun" -Yeats

Posted Sep 23, 2016

The Inuit people of Alaska have a word, kunlangeta, for “a man who … repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and … takes sexual advantage of many women — someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment.”  Anthropologist Jane Murphy revealed this in a study published in 1976.  When she asked how the Inuit people dealt with a kunlangeta, one man told her, “Someone would have pushed him off the ice when no one was looking.”

According to Drs. Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, corporate executives are about three and a half times more likely to be psychopathic than members of the general public.  Positions of power attract a disproportionate number of pathological individuals (not just psychopaths).

My most memorable encounter with a corporate psychopath occurred when I was CEO of a consulting firm.  We had a contract to operate several programs at a military base, and I hired “Mr. Swindall” as our site manager.  I recall having an uneasy feeling during his interview that I couldn’t express in words.  He was too immaculately dressed, too suave, too glib, and just too good to be true.  But no one else was as qualified.  Since I had no specific reason to reject him, I hired him.

To my relief, Mr. Swindall settled into the job quickly and performed quite well.  He quickly ingratiated himself to key military and civilian officials at the base.  Under his supervision, our operations went smoothly.

One day I received a call from one of my government contacts at another military base.  Someone named “Mr. Swindall” was calling around to all the military bases where my company had contracts inquiring into confidential company information which the government could not discuss with him.  But he was also asking for publicly available information, such as when our contracts were due to expire.  This kind of information would be useful only to a person or company that wanted to compete with us.  I began my own investigation and found that “Swindall and Associates” had already submitted a proposal in competition against my company on an upcoming project.

All employees of my company were required to sign a non-compete agreement:  While working for the company, employees must not compete against the company on any contract.  In other words, you can work for us or compete against us, but not both at the same time.  Mr. Swindall violated his non-compete agreement, so I fired him.

In retaliation he tried to reframe his termination as illegal conduct on my part (i.e., restraint of trade and bid-rigging).  He filed complaints with the military base, the Department of Defense, and with U.S. Senators and Representatives.  All his attempts to harm me and the company failed.  I never heard of “Swindall and Associates” again.

In fact, Mr. Swindall was free to compete against my company at any time.  He was also free to work for us if he wanted to.  But not both at the same time.  He wanted the goose to keep laying golden eggs even as he was trying to kill it.  This is the psychopath:  My stuff is my stuff, and your stuff is my stuff that you haven’t handed over yet.  Give it up.  No?  Then I’ll destroy you. (Nice try, Mr. Swindall.)

Dr. Mark Wexler has identified five stages by which corporate psychopaths join and exploit organizations:

  • Selection – psychopath selects and is selected by his corporate host
  • Setting the Stage – psychopath identifies and exploits supporters, followers, and rubes
  • Manipulation – psychopath uses his power and confederates to exploit the organization
  • Overcoming Opposition – rendering detractors harmless by whatever means necessary
  • Payoff/Scandal – either the psychopath benefits and gets away with his scheme, or a corporate scandal erupts

Psychopathy skews male, so I use "him/his" throughout this article. But there are female psychopaths and many are in corporate positions.

Corporate psychopaths can’t be trusted, and there is little likelihood that they can be reformed. The best option is to screen for them during recruitment to prevent their being hired. Once on board, it’s going to be difficult to “push them off the ice” until some damage has already been done.