Psychopaths get a bum rap. For most of us the term brings to mind the axe-wielding, Huey Lewis and the News fan Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, but in psychological terms, we all sit on the spectrum of this personality trait.
High levels of psychopathy are common in the executive echelons of the corporate world – according to forensic psychologist, Nathan Brooks – with up to 21 per cent of top brass having the trait.
That compares with around one in 100 people in the general public and one in five people in the prison system.
That’s not particularly a bad thing for business, though it helps if the psycho bosses employees are a little psycho too, and the right kind of psycho, according to a new study from the University of Notre Dame published last month in the Journal of Business Ethics.
“There are primary and secondary dimensions of psychopathy,” explains Charlice Hurst, of the university’s Mendoza College of Business. “Both consist of high levels of antisocial behaviour; however, people who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless. They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful or angry. Secondary psychopaths are more hot-headed and impulsive.”
In the first of two experiments, Hurst and colleagues asked hundreds of working adults (with both high and low levels of psychopathy) to react to descriptions of fictional managers depicted as constructive or abusive.
The high psychopathy participants reported feeling happier after imagining themselves working for an abusive manager.
In a second experiment, participants rated how abusive their real-life managers were and asked about behaviours such as rudeness, gossiping about employees, not giving proper credit for work, invasion of privacy and breaking promises.
Those participants high in primary psychopathy reported feeling less angry, more positive and engaged.
“Thus, there appears to be some credence to the notion of a ‘psychopathic advantage’ in that primary psychopaths do have access to greater psychological resources than their peers under abusive supervision,” Hurst says.
However, it could leave a company’s culture in the ditch.
"It may reward and retain exactly the kind of people who are likely to perpetuate abusive cultures," Hurst says. "Psychopaths thriving under abusive supervisors would be better positioned to get ahead of their peers."
The result holds “strong potential to damage the organisation and its stakeholders” she added.
The study also demonstrates how a psychopathic workforce wouldn’t show up in the common measure of company culture, the employee engagement score.
"If they have a problem of endemic abuse," Hurst says, "like Wells Fargo – where former employees have reported that managers used tactics designed to induce fear and shame in order to achieve unrealistic sales goals – and upper-level managers are either unaware of it or are not taking action, they might notice increasing levels of engagement due to turnover among employees low in primary psychopathy and retention of those high in primary psychopathy.
"At the extreme, they could end up with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths," she added.
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