Psychopaths in Silicon Valley

As we’ve written previously in HRE, psychopaths are more likely to be found in the C-suite than in the general population (according to research by psychologists Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, who found that while psychopaths make up 1 percent of the population at large, their numbers in the executive ranks could be as high as 4 percent). This week, a panel at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, examined the phenomenon of psychopathic CEOs in Silicon Valley — and why HR may be to blame for not holding them in check.

He’s charming and gregarious … but quite possibly a psychopath.

As reported in yesterday’s Guardian, a panel of psychologists, social scientists and venture capitalists discussed what they consider to be Silicon Valley’s high proportion of psychopathic CEOs. “Psychopath” doesn’t necessarily describe someone like Norman Bates — in fact, most are non-violent. However, their combination of remorselessness, callousness and lack of empathy — along with an uncanny ability to mask these traits with a veneer of charm and gregariousness — allows them to cause serious (non-physical) damage all the same, the experts said.

In fact, many of society’s most-successful people have traits that resemble psychopathy — including many successful presidents, said panelist Michael Woodworth, a forensic and clinical psychologist who’s studied psychopathic murderers in high-security prisons.

Psychopaths are often successful in start-up environments, said venture capitalist Bryan Stolle. “You have to have a tremendous amount of ego [and] self-deception to embark on a journey … you have to make sacrifices and give up things, including sometimes a marriage, family and friends. And you have to convince other people. So they are mostly very charismatic, charming and make you suspend the disbelief that something can’t be done.”

Psychopathic executives are classic manipulators of people, said social scientist Jeff Hancock. But when they don’t get their own way or things suddenly go wrong, their “mask of sanity falls off,” he said.

Often, HR tends to protect a psychopathic CEO, said Stolle, which only furthers the damage. “Because they are the founders and leaders, they tend to get protected by HR … this reinforces the behavior,” he said.

Company investors are also often at fault, because they’re willing to overlook bad behavior in order to protect their stake in the organization, said Stolle.

Having a psychopath in charge can hurt employee retention, said Hancock, citing FBI research which found that departments managed by psychopaths have lower productivity and morale (go figure!).

Hancock has developed software that’s designed to analyze written language for cues associated with psychopathy. Psychopaths tend to write in a way that’s “disfluent” and hard to understand, he said, and — because they’re more interested in themselves than others — tend to refer to other people a lot less than non-psychopaths.

Text-based communications are a good way to detect psychopaths, said Hancock. “Text-based communications improve your chances of not being manipulated, as they are verbally not very skilled. You can smoke them out in an online context.”

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