Successful C-Suite Psychopaths

Higher-than-expected levels of psychopathic traits exist among people found in the upper echelons of the corporate business sector, and companies should undertake psychological screening to help identify ‘successful psychopaths.’

That’s according to new research presented at the Australian Psychological Society’s Congress, which was recently held in Melbourne.

Forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks says emerging studies show that, while one in 100 people in the general community and one in five people in the prison system are considered psychopathic, these traits are common in the upper echelons of the corporate world, with a prevalence of between 3 percent and 21 percent.

Brooks says the term “successful psychopath,” which describes high-flyers with psychopathic traits such as insincerity, a lack of empathy or remorse, egocentric, charming and superficial, has emerged in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, prompting a range of new studies.

To arrive at their conclusions, Brooks and colleagues first examined psychopathic traits in the business sector. One study of 261 corporate professionals in the supply chain management industry showed extremely high prevalence rates of psychopathy, with 21 percent of participants found to have clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits — a figure comparable to prison populations.

The current issue of HRE also features a story by Julie Cook Ramirez about how HR can weed out psychopaths in the workplace:

What sets a psychopathic leader apart is the way in which he or she manages or interact with people, says William Spangler, associate professor of management and organizational behavior at the School of Management, State University of New York at Binghamton.

“Psychopathic leaders are toxic individuals who manage subordinates [with] a combination of fear, threats, punishment and public humiliation,” says Spangler. “They present a positive persona to their superiors and are often promoted for what is perceived to be their effectiveness, but they can [cause] great harm to the organization by destroying relationships, damaging work units and putting the entire company at risk for legal action.”

Ramirez also quotes A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. who says that, by hiring a person who demonstrates these types of tendencies, “you are putting your other employees at risk for bullying and other abuse.”

“The organization may end up losing many good employees [and] facing harassment suits against the psychopath,” says Marsden. “At higher levels of employment, psychopaths may engage in unethical and illegal behaviors, such as embezzlement, just to look successful.”