By Tom Myette
My background predominantly involves the principles of psychology. The dynamics of individual personalities, diverse perspectives, and organic anomalies, and how they influence the world around us and regulate our interactions has been an interest of mine from a young age. In my current role, I apply my knowledge in this discipline to organizations. During my secondary education, I came across an article authored by Robert Hare (credited with establishing the psychopathy assessment Psychopathy Checklist Revised or PCL-R) that assessed the prevalence of pyschopathy in the leadership ranks of the working world.
It is not the image we like to have when we think of business leaders, but disturbing research indicates that in the ranks of senior management, psychopathic behavior may be more common than we think – more prevalent in fact than the occurance rate of characteristically aberrant behavior occurs in the general population. At first blush this may seem counterintuitive, even outrageous. We tend to think psychopathy is exclusively reserved for the criminal elements of our society. Yet, one of the most dangerous aspects of psychopaths and sociopaths is their ability to manipulate the sensibilities of others. Many exhibit psychopathic traits, but have found alternative, inconspicuous channels for manifesting their more undesirable traits.
The relevant research first appeared in psychologytoday.com
. The hallmarks of the psychopathic personality involve egocentric, grandiose behavior, completely lacking empathy and conscience. Additionally, psychopaths may be charismatic, charming, and adept at manipulating one-on-one interactions. In a corporation, one’s ability to advance is determined in large measure by a person’s ability to favorably impress his or her direct manager. Unfortunately, certain of these psychopathic qualities – in particular charm, charisma, grandiosity (which can be mistaken for vision or confidence) and the ability to “perform” convincingly in one-on-one settings – are also qualities that can help one get ahead in the business world.
An excellent book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work
, by Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and Robert Hare, Ph.D., published in 2006, is the foundational work on the subject and offers a comprehensive look at how psychopaths operate effectively in the workplace. To quote a few portions:
Several abilities – skills, actually – make it difficult to see psychopaths for who they are. First, they are motivated to, and have a talent for, ‘reading people’ and for sizing them up quickly. They identify a person’s likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots, and vulnerabilities… Second, many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people… Third, they are masters of impression management; their insight into the psyche of others combined with a superficial – but convincing – verbal fluency allows them to change their situation skillfully as it suits the situation and their game plan.
So, just how prevalent are psychopaths in the ranks of senior management? In 2010, Paul Babiak, Robert Hare and Craig Neumann had the opportunity to examine psychopathy in a sample of 203 individuals from numerous companies’ management development programs. While these individuals were not yet at the top rungs of their organizations, they were on track potentially to get there. The study’s findings
were disturbing, predicated on the large amount of anecdotal evidence the researchers had long been gathering. The research revealed that approximately 3% of those assessed in this management development program study scored in the psychopath range
– well above the incidence of 1% in the general population. By comparison, the incidence of psychopathy in prison populations is estimated at around 15%. Psychopathy was positively associated with in-house ratings of charisma/presentation style (creativity, good strategic thinking and communication skills) but negatively associated with ratings of responsibility/performance (being a team player, management skills, and overall accomplishments).
So, what steps can companies take to help prevent costly and damaging hiring and promotion mistakes? Victor Lipman, contributing author of Forbes magazine, recommends implementing a well-conceived internal succession program as the best way to inoculate an organization against a disastrous candidate, as those making promotion decisions will presumably have had years – not hours – to study an individual in action and observe his or her character. Also, focus on verified, tangible results – Since internal candidates are not always a satisfactory option, when hiring externally, focus on real substantive accomplishments that can be verified – more than on personal charm and force of personality. While charisma and persuasive speaking skills are naturally desirable leadership talents, they’re also well within the repertoire of a psychopath. Be sure there’s a solid foundation of actual accomplishment to support all claims.