Is your boss a psychopath?

10 April 2014. Published by William Jones, Senior Associate

In the very unlikely event that you have answered in the affirmative, that partner may form part of the 4% of senior business managers who are on the psychopathic spectrum.


Do any of the Partners in your department possess the following characteristics?

-           Superficial charm and average intelligence?

-           Absence of nervousness?

-           Insincerity?

-           Lack of remorse or shame?

-           Pathological egocentricity?

-           Fantastic and uninviting behaviour with drink?

                        (The characteristics of a psychopath as defined by Hervery M. Cleckley, “Mask of sanity” [1941])

A number of studies over the past few years have found that the incidence of psychopathy is 3-4 times higher amongst senior business management than within the general population. A recent study into the prevalence of psychopaths within different professions found lawyers to be the occupation with the second highest incidence (first place went to company CEOs).

When one considers the term “psychopaths”, one tends to conjure up images of crazed, mask-wearing, murderous, super villains. Whilst it is true that there is a correlation between criminality and psychopathy (the incidence of psychopathic tendencies is estimated at around 15% in prison populations), “not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom”. That is according to Dr Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist and the co-author of “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work”.

What is it about psychopaths that make them so successful in business as opposed to your man on the Clapham omnibus?

On first encounter, senior business managers on the psychopathic spectrum would likely be charismatic and confident. Psychopathic individuals tend to be devoid of emotion, and this includes fear or anxiety. Their confidence is not necessarily rooted in any ability, but after an initial interaction you would likely get the impression that they were very capable.

In situations such as interviews and business development events, these first impressions provide enormous opportunities to make an impact upon would-be employers. Recruiters and schmoozed business leaders may well be unaware that the grandiose confidence that they are witnessing belies the individual's lack of ability. Clearly, over time, shortfalls in a psychopathic manager's abilities will become all the more evident; and in past generations in which workers remained in the same company "man and boy", they would not progress.

However, as Clive Boddy (a British Professor in Leadership and Organisation Behaviour) states, the demise of lifelong single company employment has resulted in an increase in the percentage of psychopaths making their way into senior management. Professor Boddy writes;

"If you worked at a company over the course of 20 or 30 years, people got to know what you're like, how you treat people, regardless of how you appeared in an interview…Obviously these days, as people move job to job every two or three years, that's not possible anymore."

First impressions aside, psychopaths are able to lie, transfer blame, and steal credit from others without remorse. Although poisonous to a work environment, and unpopular with contemporaries, these traits may well result in a psychopathic individual appearing to stand above their co-workers and thus stand out to superiors. As a result, psychopaths may well be promoted not on the basis of their true performance, but on the representation they have dishonestly fabricated at the expense of others.

This lack of remorse is akin to not possessing a conscience. Dr Hare writes, "[our conscience] is largely responsible for the difference between knowing the rules of the game and being guided by this knowledge". Without the constraints of a conscience, psychopathic managers are "sort of like a car with great power but weak brakes".

Psychopaths may also find themselves thrust into senior management positions when companies are in dire straits. As discussed, it is common for psychopaths not to recognise fear and to pay no regard to the welfare of others. This combination of fearlessness and insensitivity/disregard as to how actions affect others can cultivate an impression within an organisation that a particular corporate psychopath is a "shark" or a "risk taker". In certain circumstances, particularly when a company is in financial trouble, "risk takers" are often called upon to change the course of the company, and/or to make mass redundancies in the interests of efficiency.

Am I a psychopath?

Many of the traits outlined above may seem familiar to you. Perhaps you would unscrupulously yet merrily trample over your fellow Associates to secure a promotion? Or maybe you would unfairly deflect a judge's scorn to a trainee in the event that a document was omitted from a trial bundle? But does that make you a psychopath?

The reality is that it is very difficult to separate the symptoms of a psychopath from the actions of a highly-driven career-focussed colleague. Acting in an over-confident manner in order to mask a level of deficiency is entirely natural.

Similarly, risk taking can also be a very beneficial personality trait in a corporate environment. Rarely has playing it safe boosted share prices, or revolutionised a business sector. A passive wallflower is unlikely to make it onto a board of directors; it is those who put their heads above the parapet who reap recognition and the reward of promotion.

Rational commercial decisions, unhindered by the clouding effect of emotion, are expected by senior management within a company. Being perceived by superiors as a logical individual, who does not unnecessarily charge decisions with emotion, will only benefit an employee's chances of promotion to a senior role.

Equally, charming superiors at the expense of subordinates or colleagues is not a trait that is exclusive to psychopaths; it is simply "managing up".

Just because an individual displays psychopathic behaviour it does not necessarily follow that they are psychopathic. As Dr Hare writes, "just because you have a high temperature and you cough doesn't mean you have pneumonia."

The difference between hyper-driven colleagues who exhibit the characteristics of a psychopath and actual psychopaths is that the latter maintain these anti-social traits outside of the work environment. Psychopaths do not vary their behaviour, and they would treat family with the same remorseless insincerity as they would colleagues.

The tragedy of this article is not that psychopaths are more likely to be promoted to senior management, but that in order to be promoted to senior management it is generally advantageous to emulate the traits of a psychopath!

Will Jones

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