When we think of psychopaths, we think of blood-thirsty crazed killers who spend their lives in chains at maximum security prisons after getting caught. But there is another type of psychopath, the type that makes waves in business and careers and is often very successful. Here is how to recognise and deal with them.
Did you bump into a psychopath today? Ever met one? How would you know? Does the image of the killer and the shower scene in the Hitchcock movie “Psycho” come to mind? Are there more in prison or the City of London?
The concept is bandied about a lot, but there is a fascinating research history that can inform and warn those who come into contact with the psychopath at work.
In his famous book The Mask of Insanity, Cleckley (1941) first set out 10 criteria of the psychopath: superficial charm and intelligence; absence of anxiety in stressful situations; insincerity and lack of truthfulness; lack of remorse and shame; inability to experience love or genuine emotion; unreliability and irresponsibility; impulsivity and disregard for socially acceptable behaviour; clear-headedness with an absence of delusions or irrational thinking; inability to profit from experience; and lack of insight. Cleckley classed the slick but callous business person, the smooth-talking and manipulative lawyer, and the arrogant and deceptive politicians as psychopaths.
Cleckley identified 16 personality traits that, through his work with such individuals, he believed captured the essence of the psychopathic personality. They included: Superficial charm and high “intelligence”; Lack of remorse or shame; Poor judgement and failure to learn by experience; Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love; and Failure to follow any life plan.
“Is not likely to commit major crimes that result in long prison terms. He is also distinguished by his ability to escape ordinary legal punishments and restraints. Though he regularly makes trouble for society, as well as for himself, and frequently is handled by the police, his characteristic behaviour does not usually include committing felonies which would bring about permanent or adequate restrictions of his activities. He is often arrested, perhaps one hundred times or more. But he nearly always regains his freedom and returns to his old patterns of maladjustment.” (p. 19)
Over the last 25 years, psychologists and psychiatrists have identified what have been called corporate psychopaths, white-collar psychopaths or successful psychopaths. They also go under various names such as “corporate destroyers” or “snakes in suits”.
Hare (1999), in an early chapter on white-collar psychopaths, noted how many were “trust-mongers” who, through charm and gall, obtained, then very callously betrayed, the trust of others. He noted how they make excellent imposters and how they frequently target the vulnerable. They target and exploit people’s gullibility, naivety, and Rousseauian view of the goodness of man. Cold-hearted, selfish, manipulators of all others,
he called them subcriminal psychopaths who can thrive as academics, cult leaders, doctors, police officers and writers. They violate rules, conventions and ethical standards, always just crossing legal boundaries. He also noted that there is no shortage of opportunities for psychopaths who think big. It’s lucrative. “They are fast-talking, charming, self-assured, at ease in social situations, cool under pressure, unfazed by the possibility of being found out, and totally ruthless” (p. 121).
In another early and important study, Babiak (1995) found five characteristics of the corporate psychopath: each a) began by building a) network of one-to-one relationships with powerful and useful individuals, b) avoided virtually all group meetings where maintaining multiple facades may have been too difficult, c) created conflicts which kept co-workers from sharing information about him. d) co-workers who were no longer useful were abandoned and e) detractors were neutralised by systematically raising doubts about their competence and loyalty.
- Comes across as smooth, polished, and charming.
- Turns most conversations around to a discussion of him or herself.
- Discredits and puts down others in order to build up own image and reputation.
- Lies to co-workers, customers, or business associates with a straight face.
- Considers people he or she has outsmarted or manipulated to be dumb or stupid.
- Opportunistic, hates to lose, plays ruthlessly to win.
- Comes across as cold and calculating.
- Acts in an unethical or dishonest manner.
- Has created a power network in the organisation and uses it for personal gain.
- Shows no regret for making decisions that negatively affect the company, shareholders, or employees.
Some psychopaths can look like ideal leaders: smooth, polished, charming. They can quite easily mask their dark side – bullying, amoral, and manipulative. In the past, it might have been politics, policing, law, media or religion that attracted psychopaths; but more and more, it is the fast-paced, exciting, glamorous world of business.
In a book entitled Corporate Psychopaths: Organisational Destroyers, Boddy (2011) described corporate psychopaths: “They seem to be unaffected by the corporate collapse they have created. They present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings and investments, and lacking any regrets about what they have done. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events, are very persuasive in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own continued worth and value. They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disasters.” (p1)
He suggested that there are six identifiable outcomes of employing corporate psychopaths: a heightened level of conflict; commitment to employees plummets dramatically; heavier than necessary organisational constraints; poorer communication and a blame culture; reduced employee job satisfaction; organisational withdrawal of many good employees. He suggested that
“Corporate Psychopaths prefer to implement their self-serving plans unnoticed, but when they fear being found out, their strategy is to create chaos so that in the confusion they can avoid scrutiny and detection as the people around them in the organization concentrate on bringing order to the mess created.” (p78)
Psychopaths at Work
centred); Carefree non-planfulness (excessive present orientation with lack of forethought or planning); Stress immunity (experiencing minimal anxiety); Fearlessness (willing to take risks, having little concern with potentially harmful consequences), and general Cold-heartedness (unsentimental, unreactive to others’ distress, lacking in imagination).
These seem to factor into two dimensions: one related to high negative emotionality and the other to low behavioural constraint. Further research suggested two distinct facets of the psychopath: fearless dominance (glib, grandiose, deceitful, low stress) and impulsive anti-sociality (aggressive, anti-social, low control). This suggests that within the psychopath population, one may be able to distinguish between these two groups.
Dotlick and Cairo (2003) noted that the Mischievous Psychopath knows that the rules are really “only suggestions”. They are rebels without a cause, rule-breakers who believe that rules, laws and other restrictions are tedious and unnecessary. They have destructive impulses and a preference for making impulsive decisions without considering any consequences. They can, and do speak their mind, use their charms and creativity, but for no clear business goal.
Dealing with Psychopaths
How to deal with the psychopath? Easier said than done, however, Dotlick and Cairo (2003) offer four pieces of advice for what is, no doubt a successful psychopath. Encourage them to take ownership of their action and interrogate their rule-breaking, consequence-ignoring behaviours. Encourage them to think clearly about which rules they will really follow as opposed to break. They may also benefit from being on the receiving end of the sort of mischief they dish out. Finally, they may benefit from confiding in a coach.
Oldham and Morris (2000) offer ´tips on dealing with the adventurous person in your life’. “First, have fun but be careful: your partner seeks excitement through charming, disarming adventurousness. Next, have no illusions about changing him or her: they won’t or can’t so you have to be the flexible one. Third, don’t crowd them or try to keep them on the traditional “straight and narrow’’ path. Fourth, you have to be responsible for your own safety, others’ welfare…..because they won’t be. Next, know your limits for excitement, risk, drugs, etc. because he/she will draw you into their world. Sixth, don’t expect much support and help because you are not going to get it so you need to be strong, resilient, tough. Finally, stay as sexy as you are. Keep your sexual relationship interesting and lively. Toss your inhibitions and be ready and willing to experiment” (p. 243).
- Get paid upfront. If you lose the case, you will be blamed and unpaid. If you win the case, the client will take the credit and you will still be unpaid.
- Be very careful about boundaries. The client is not your friend and will collect and use against you whatever information is obtained. (This includes information related to the case and related to you personally.)
- Remain in charge. A psychopathic client will attempt to run the show and manipulate you and the system, making your job much harder.
- Don’t take at face value the client’s description of events or interactions with others. Check everything out.
- Be aware that the client will distort and minimize his or her criminal history. When confronted with the inaccuracies, the client will offer excuses that place the blame on a defence attorney, a corrupt system, or others.
- The client will flatter you as long as things are going smoothly. If the case goes sideways, often because of the client’s tendency to take charge and ignore advice, you will become the enemy.
- Keep copious notes on everything.” (p. 314)
It is difficult to estimate the number of successful corporate psychopaths. It is also sometimes difficult to explain how they “get away with it” for so long. However, it is no mystery when enquiring from those who do or have worked with a successful psychopath how much misery or dysfunctionality they can bring to the workplace. Psychopaths can easily get hired using charm and blatant lies. Next, they soon identify, befriend, woo and ‘‘sweet-talk’’ all the powerful “key players” in the organisation. They build these people into a support network to establish their own reputation but more importantly, to undermine their potential opponents. Next, they abandon those who have been useful to them.
Hare (1999) in his clinical study of psychopaths asks “Can anything be done?” He says nothing seems to work, precisely because psychopaths see no reason to change. Further, therapy can make them worse because it teaches them more effectively how to deceive, manipulate and use people. They learn therapy language (getting in touch with their feelings) without ever actually changing.
Hare (1999) warns those who associate with psychopaths to be aware of their power struggles and to set firm ground rules to prevent manipulation. He also advises cutting your losses: the psychopath’s appetite for power and control knows no bounds and is best left to their own devices.
- Build, nurture and maintain your (true) reputation as a good performer.
- Keep records of everything and put it in writing.
- Make use of and be very wary of the performance appraisal process.
- Avoid confrontation by minimising contact and never responding to their bait.
- Be very wary about making a formal complaint, as anonymity is not always assured and retribution is very likely to follow.
- If you have to leave (by transfer or resignation), do so on good terms.
- Move on remembering the lesson.
They offer similar advice for the psychopathic co-worker, subordinate or client.
The term psychopath is much used but often misunderstood. Psychopathy lies on a continuum from low to high. Successful, subclinical, corporate psychopaths can be very successful at work. If they are clever and presentable, articulate and informed, their superficial charm and boldness may suit them well, particularly in business situations that are rapidly changing.
About the Author
Adrian Furnham is a Professor in the Department of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at the Norwegian Business School. He has bumped into a number of Corporate Psychopaths in his career.
- Babiak, P. (1995). When Psychopaths Go to Work: A Case Study of an Industrial Psychopath. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 44(2), 171–188.
- Babiak, P. and Hare, R. (2006). Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, New York, NY, Regan Books.
- Cleckley, H. (1941). The Mask of Sanity; an Attempt to Reinterpret the So-called Psychopathic Personality. Mosby.
- Boddy, C. (2011). Corporate Psychopaths: Organisational Destroyers, New York, NY, Palgrave Macmillan.
- Dotlich, D. and Cairo, P. (2003). Why CEOs Fail. New York, NY, Jossey-Bass.
- Furnham, A. (2015). Backstabbers and Bullies: How to Cope with the Dark Side of People at Work, London, Bloomsbury.
- Furnham, A. (2022). The Bright and Dark Side of Personality: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Personality Disorders. In: Lusk, D. & Hayes, T. (Eds). The Good, the Bad, and the Human Dark Side at Work: New York: Oxford, pp 51-74
- Hare, R. (1999). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York, NY, Guildford Press.
- Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the Fate of Organizations. Mahwah, NJ, Erlbaum.
- Oldham, J. and Morris, L. (1995). The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love, and Act the Way You Do. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.
- Smith, S.F. and Lilienfeld, S.O. (2013). Psychopathy in the Workplace: The Knowns and Unknowns, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 204–218