Psychopaths in the boardroom

Are certain personality disorders drawn to corporate leadership roles?
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/05/2016

Most HR professionals have seen a bad boss or two in their day — they’ve maybe even heard the word “psychopath” tossed around a few times after a particularly tough deadline or outburst. 


But in some cases, that psychopath designation may not be too far off the mark, according to researchers. 


“Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the boardroom,” says Robert Hare, co-author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. 


Psychopaths represent an estimated one per cent of the general population — but could make up anywhere from three per cent to 25 per cent of corporate executives, according to research by Hare and co-author Paul Babiak. 


“People tend to think of psychopaths as criminals. In fact, the majority of psychopaths aren’t criminal,” says Hare, talking to CNN. 

“They don’t go out and maim, rob and rape but find other ways to satisfy themselves without doing something necessarily illegal... such as taking risks with someone else’s property or money.” 


So what’s the difference between psychopaths who may become violent criminals and high-functioning psychopaths who may be in charge of a company?


“The ones that are functioning really well in a company have a pretty high-functioning brain still,” says Sophia Wellons, talent acquisitions specialist at Cinder Solutions in Portland, Ore., and author of The Devil in the Boardroom. 


“Their pre-frontal cortex hasn’t been affected quite so much as someone who is showing classic signs of anti-social personality disorder. So you’re getting people that still have the lack of empathy (and risk-taking behaviours)… but also someone that is savvy enough to know how to manipulate the situation to make sure their backs are covered, that they are appearing like they are functioning well.”


They’re very intelligent, calculating and able to “cover their tracks well,” so to speak, she says. 


Recognizing a psychopath

The interesting thing about psychopaths is they have no empathy, no conscience, says Manfred Kets De Vries, clinical professor of leadership development and organizational change at graduate business school INSEAD in the Netherlands.


“When people think of a psychopath, they often think of a serial killer type, but I try to make a distinction between ‘psychopath lite’ and a more serious one. And there, I’m on a little bit of nebulous ground.” 


Emotional insensitivity is a hallmark, and it can be a developmental issue for these individuals, he says.  


“They’re very good a mimicry. Because they’re stunted emotionally, they learn to some extent about emotions by imitating another person,” says De Vries. “They can be extremely attractive to people because they imitate you.”


Those psychopathic traits can serve them well in the boardroom and with business decisions, says Wellons. 


“A lot of the people who exhibit those traits are people who are a lot more tolerant of risk. They can go out on a limb and make those huge decisions that might pay off in the long run, but might be equally disastrous if they don’t. They’re very self-serving,” she says. “They’re able to appear as if they’re very successful.” 


And many are highly intelligent — they can read and understand the people around them, says Wellons. 


“They understand the emotions that they’re working around, even if they don’t necessarily feel them. So they understand how to (appear) empathetic, how to look like they’re playing the game. They know how to manipulate you,” she says. 


“Everybody wants to be in a room with someone who’s very charismatic and is the life of the party.


“They know which strings to pull to get their way without getting bogged down in the emotions themselves.”


However, that charisma and manipulations doesn’t always extend to people below them in the organizational hierarchy, says De Vries. 


“Unfortunately, people who realize (someone is) a very unpleasant individual are usually the people who report to them — the lower-level individuals. The higher-level people, they usually get seduced and they can’t understand why this person gets such bad reviews,” he says. 


“Also, very often, there is a lot of posturing (which is) one of the narcissistic elements. They very often don’t stay long enough in a job to really assess how good they are, so they know how to escape disasters.”


Organizational risk

There are significant organizational risks to having a psychopath in the boardroom, says Wellons — particularly because they don’t play well with others. 


“With social media and how quickly things are getting out… you see when the mighty do fall, they bring a lot of people down with them,” she says. 


The best way to avoid issues down the road is to try to identify psychopathic tendencies and refrain from hiring those individuals in the first place, says De Vries.


Using psychometric screening tests such as a 360-degree profile can be useful to have an idea of what’s going on, he says. 

“Also, a team culture (is a good preventative measure). They’re not very good team players, so if you have a strong team culture, they will leave quickly,” he says. “Of course, it also depends on the culture of the organization.” 


The whole aspect of team culture is a key consideration when it comes to psychopathic tendencies, says Wellons. 


“You’re looking at someone who doesn’t work on a team, who’s just going out on their own to do the best that they possibly can… someone that would be constantly looking for a way to achieve more than the people around them and not helping the people around them… Maybe they would achieve something really great, but they would not be a fun person to work with,” she says.  


“One of the best ways to keep a lookout for that is you’re looking for someone who is too perfect or saying everything that you want to hear. One of the biggest hallmarks is that they know how to manipulate other people.”

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