Almost Psychopaths in the Workplace
Grandiosity, manipulation, and lack of empathy. Authors of a recent book on subclinical psychopathy consider how people with these traits may be drawn to the high stakes of corporate life.
Swiss psychiatrist Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig, author of The Emptied Soul: On the Nature of the Psychopath (1980), believes that there are many psychopaths who hold upstanding positions in society, including businesspeople. He refers to them as compensated psychopaths. We call them almost psychopaths or subclinical psychopaths. It makes sense that people who are almost psychopathic can be found in the business world; psychopaths are attracted to power and money the way sharks are attracted to chum. Many psychopaths thrive on fast-moving situations where the outcome is what matters. And while robbing banks might make sense to psychopaths who score high on the "socially deviant lifestyle" elements of the PCL-R [the screen for psychopathy], those whose psychopathic traits are more heavily weighted in the direction of narcissism and Machiavellianism would more likely be attracted to a corporate setting where, in many cases, they can be rewarded for their manipulative and ruthless ways.
The developer of the PCL-R himself, Robert Hare, once observed that in addition to studying psychopaths in prison, he should have spent time at the Stock Exchange as well. His point was that there is no shortage of psychopathic behavior in the business world, no end to the charming, manipulative, credit-stealing, colleague-blaming conduct that defines psychopathy. These almost psychopathic and truly psychopathic managers and executives can create havoc on a somewhat limited level by, say, creating dissension in a sales department but also on a much larger scale, where an instinct toward self-centered manipulation and lack of integrity can bring down an entire corporation, causing financial and emotional damage to thousands or tens of thousands (think Enron).
In 2005, two psychologists at the University of Surrey, England, published their research comparing the personality profiles of high-level British executives ("senior business managers") with randomly selected psychiatric patients and criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor Special Hospital, a high-security hospital in the United Kingdom and home to some of Britain's most notorious criminals. The psychologists administered the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory scales for DSM-III Personality Disorders (MMPI-PD), a true/false self-report inventory in which the respondent is asked to consider statements reflecting eleven different personality disorders: histrionic, narcissistic, antisocial, borderline, dependent, obsessive-compulsive, passive-aggressive, paranoid, schizotypal, schizoid, and avoidant.
The psychologists were particularly interested in measuring these traits in senior business managers because of previous work suggesting some psychopaths operate in mainstream society and because of the links made between elements of these almost psychopaths and character traits associated with success in business. Noting that the evidence of almost psychopaths is growing (the psychologists in this study used the term successful psychopaths), they also highlighted research indicating that the emotion factor is higher than the deviant lifestyle/antisocial factor in successful psychopaths. In other words, almost (successful) psychopaths who flourish in the business world are proficient manipulators and influencers who are less prone to overt rule and law breaking than true psychopaths. More specifically, almost psychopaths seem to have particular proficiency for seeking out and developing relationships with people of high authority and influencing them.
For this study, the psychologists contacted senior business managers and chief executive officers of British industry, informing them of the purpose of the study and inviting them to participate. Of the fifty-one who initially agreed to take part, only thirty-nine actually did. The executive sample was 100 percent male and the average length of employment was over eight years in the current organization. These participants were either seen at their offices and interviewed to obtain background information and then invited to complete the MMPI-PD or were contacted by letter and given the MMPI- PD and a demographic sheet and asked to return it to the researchers. Data for the psychiatric sample was obtained from a previous research sample of 475 randomly selected patients. For the sample of criminal psychiatric patients, 1,085 current and former patients at Broadmoor Special Hospital were selected. These current or former patients all had the classification of psychopathic disorder or mental illness. No women were selected for this sample to create a more direct comparison with the sample of exclusively male executives. Data for the Broadmoor patients was gathered from an existing database at the hospital.
For our purposes, the most interesting results of the study came from the comparison of the senior business executives to the offenders at Broadmoor. The study showed that three out of the eleven personality disorders were more common in the senior business managers than in the criminal psychiatric patients. These were histrionic personality disorder (superficial charm, insincerity, manipulation), narcissistic personality disorder (grandiosity, lack of empathy), and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, dictatorial tendencies) scales. Of the other eight personality disorders tested for (antisocial, borderline, dependent, passive-aggressive, paranoid, schizotypal, schizoid, and avoidant), the criminal psychiatric patients outscored the senior business managers. Not surprisingly, the senior business managers were less likely to express physical aggression, impulsivity, and antisocial and paranoid tendencies.
These findings make sense in relation to what we know about true psychopaths. While in some cases the successful executive may be a full-blown psychopath, it would probably be difficult for such a person to last very long in a controlled environment. "Breaking the rules" might be an effective short-term strategy in a business setting, but a true psychopath would find it difficult to control his or her rule breaking (and backstabbing and egocentricity and insincerity and . . .) well enough to stay employed for long in any kind of structured organization. This isn't to say that it's impossible. These are for-profit organizations we're talking about--their mission is to generate a profit for shareholders, and if someone contributes significantly to that goal, as an employee or the CEO, a board of directors might be willing to overlook almost anything, at least until the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. It is a common human failing that our capacity for objectivity can be limited when it comes to someone who is benefiting us or with whom we are close.
Those who have only some of the characteristic traits of a psychopath and are only almost psychopaths (like those executives in the British study who didn't show a strong tendency to social deviance and law breaking) may have just what it takes to charm their way into jobs and the conniving, ruthless, and narcissistic personas necessary to work their way to the top-- even if it means stepping on others to get there. These high-performing executives are not likely to be serial killers or rapists; instead, the psychopathic behaviors that fuel their rise in the organization are more benign and the colleagues and subordinates who fall prey to them are likely to think of them as backstabbers or bullies, while others may admire them for having what it takes to succeed in a dog-eat-dog world.
Excerpted from Almost a Psychopath by Ronald Schouten and James Silver. Hazelden, 2012.
Hare's remarks are found in Ronson, J. 2011. The Psychopath Test. New York: Riverhead Books.
Study of executives and psychiatric patients is found in Board, B. J., and K. F. Fritzon. 2005. "Disordered Personalities at Work," Psychology, Crime and Law. 11: 17-32.