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Wolves at Work: Psychopaths

Part III: Who are the "snakes in suits?"

In Part I and Part II of this 'Wolves at Work" series, we explored Machiavellians and Narcissists in the workplace, respectively. What research tells us is that when it comes to bullying in the workplace, those most likely to bully belong in what can be referred to as the "dark triad;" in other words, a cluster of behaviors defined by a lack of empathy for others and a drive to manipulate, lie, and use others for personal gain, as seen in those with a Machiavellian personality type, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and what is typically known as "psychopathy."

In popular discourse, the term "psychopath" has become synonymous with characters on the silver screen; Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, and Michael Douglas in Wall Street, among others. While we use the term often, because of the low prevalence of psychopaths, chances are, when we apply it to someone at work, it's likely incorrect (Caponecchia, Sun & Wyatt, 2012). In fact, according to research conducted by Dutton (2012) psychopaths are most likely to work in specific positions and in specific areas; the top 10 careers with the most psychopaths include CEO, Lawyer, Media (TV/radio), Salesperson, Surgeon, Journalist, Police Officer, Clergy, Chef, and Civil Servant. In fact, only 1% of the corporate world can be deemed a psychopath (Boddy, Ladyshewsky, & Galvin, 2010).

What is a psychopath? Within actual diagnostic settings, the term is rarely used. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Anti-Social Personality Disorder, which houses the terms psychopaths and sociopaths, is characterized by significant impairments in self-functioning, including self-esteem that is built on power, personal gain (generally at the expense of others), and pleasure, and impairments in interpersonal functioning, with a significant lack of empathy and remorse. As such, someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder generally sees exploitation as the basis for how they relate to other people. Thus, "psychopaths" behave in ways that are manipulative, deceitful, callous, hostile, and largely with a lack of inhibition, with a disregard for others, often exhibiting vengeful behavior. Unlike NPD, APD is among the best-studied personality disorders and is diagnosed based on the Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL‐R; Hare, 1991).

In the workplace, psychopaths are quick to be hired because of their well-studied social skills and charm, and quick to be promoted because, unlike someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as discussed in Part II, they can maintain their positive impression over a longer period of time and are incredibly strategic from the start. Beyond likable, they also tend to be effective in the business' goals because they are ruthless. Driven by power and financial gains, their promotions are thus also in part due to their intelligence and fact that they tend to be very charismatic to those in senior positions, but once promoted, treat those below them terribly.

How do you handle a psychopath at work?

Similarly to previous advice when dealing with anyone in the dark triad, don't take it personally; to someone with APD, you are simply an object to be manipulated for personal gain. Because those with APD tend to lie, even creating fraudulent diplomas, consider that the long-winded stories and accomplishments they say they have may not be accurate and they may be telling tales to intimidate you. As skilled manipulators, they are very capable of not embellishing, but completely creating stories about their success which are not at all true. When it comes to working with or negotiating with a psychopath, stick to email; while they can be very convincing and charismatic in person, research shows the skills carry over much less online.


Sutton, G. W. (2013). THE WISDOM OF PSYCHOPATHS: what saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 32(3), 265-267.

Crossley, L., Woodworth, M., Black, P. J., & Hare, R. (2016). The dark side of negotiation: Examining the outcomes of face-to-face and computer-mediated negotiations among dark personalities. Personality and Individual Differences, 91, 47-51.

Caponecchia, C., Sun, A. Y., & Wyatt, A. (2012). ‘Psychopaths’ at work? Implications of lay persons’ use of labels and behavioural criteria for psychopathy. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(4), 399-408.

Boddy, C. R., Ladyshewsky, R., & Galvin, P. (2010). Leaders without ethics in global business: Corporate psychopaths. Journal of Public Affairs, 10(3), 121-138.