Yes, Your Boss Is A Psychopath

4% or more of senior executives are stone cold psychopaths. Watch your back.

If you find yourself working for a manipulative, cold, irresponsible boss, you are not alone. But you might not think he’s a realio-trulio psychopath. But he truly could be. (And it’s almost always ‘he’, not ‘she’.)

And when you ask yourself how could this psychopath been promoted into a role theoretically based on sound judgment and acting responsibly, you have to realize that senior executives in the company may have quite different perceptions of your manager than you and your co-workers do. In particular, the traits your boss is demonstrating to his superiors may be considered the hallmarks of management potential, because a surprisingly high number of managers — especially senior executives — are looking for people with psychopathic traits to promote.


Clive Boddy, in A Climate Of Fear: Stone Cold Psychopaths At Work, summarized research on the numbers:

Estimations are that while about 1% of junior employees are corporate psychopaths (assuming an even distribution of psychopaths across society) they exist at a higher incidence of about 4% at senior organizational levels. Notably, these percentages may be even higher in certain types of organizations, as corporate psychopaths are thought to gravitate towards organizations where they can acquire money, power and control, as well as honours and prestige, rather than to the less rewarded and less well-remunerated caring professions. Caring for other people is simply not on their agenda.

Estimates for the proportion of senior executives go even higher.

Caring for other people is simply not on their agenda. | Clive Boddy

In Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk by Paul Babiak, Craig Newman, and Robert Hare, the researchers looked into the dynamics of corporate psychopaths advancement into senior management, based on research on identified corporate psychopaths [emphasis mine]:

Perhaps the most dramatic results of this study had to do with how the corporation viewed individuals with many psychopathic traits. That is, high psychopathy total scores were associated with perceptions of good communication skills, strategic thinking, and creative/innovative ability and, at the same time, with poor management style, failure to act as a team player, and poor performance appraisals (as rated by their immediate bosses). These latter associations were rather strong. It is noteworthy that, in general, each psychopathy factor contributed to the zero-order correlations with the 360º assessments and performance appraisals. However, the results of the structural equation model (which accounted for the shared variance among the factors) indicated that only the latent Interpersonal psychopathy factor strongly predicted both increased ratings on the charisma/presentation composite and decreased ratings on the responsibility/performance composite. The latent Antisocial factor moderately predicted only increased ratings on the charisma/presentation composite (considered valuable assets in high-level executives), perhaps indicating that in the presence of charm and charisma a failure to adhere to rules can impress others.


The psychopath’s ability to manipulate can look like good influence and persuasion skills, the mark of an effective leader. Lack of realistic life goals, while a clearly negative trait which often leads the psychopath toward a downward spiraling personal life, when couched in the appropriate business language, can be misinterpreted as strategic thinking or ‘‘visioning,’’ a rare and highly valued executive talent. Even those traits that reflect a severe lack of human feelings or emotional poverty (lack of remorse, guilt, empathy) can be put into service by corporate psychopaths, where being ‘‘tough’’ or ‘‘strong’’ (making hard, unpopular decisions) or ‘‘cool under fire’’ (not displaying emotions in the face of unpleasant circumstances) can work in their favor. In sum, the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.

Corporate psychopaths manage to hide their psychopathology and get promoted by ‘upward management techniques’:

Although executives with many psychopathic traits may be visible to various members of the organization, and identifiable with existing mechanisms, they may have the communication, persuasion, and interpersonal skills to override any negative impact on their career. For example, our finding that some companies viewed psychopathic executives as having leadership potential, despite having negative performance reviews and low ratings on leadership and management by subordinates, is evidence of the ability of these individuals to manipulate decision makers. Their excellent communication and convincing lying skills, which together would have made them attractive hiring candidates in the first place, apparently continued to serve them well in furthering their careers.

It’s assumed that a great deal of the fraud, insider trading, embezzlement, and other corporate crimes are committed by psychopaths, but there has been little research directed toward that question. And it’s an important question since there is more is at stake than the $2,420,700 the average company loses to fraud in a two-year period (according to PWC). Corporate psychopaths are probably killing their internal competitors.

Fewer managers, fewer psychopaths.

James Graham writes about ‘red collar crime’ in A Shocking Number of Killers Murder Their Co-workers, citing the same study by Babiak, Newman, and Hare:

In a 2010 study, researchers administered a test frequently used to gauge psychopathy to 203 managers and executives at seven companies. On a 40-point scale, the average person scores 3 or below. Shockingly, eight subjects pulled a score of 30 or higher, which is serial-killer territory. "Their excellent communication and convincing lying skills, which together would have made them attractive hiring candidates in the first place, apparently continued to serve them well," the researchers concluded.

How many office psychopaths turn violent is less clear: The FBI doesn't track red-collar crime, nor does OSHA. Richard G. Brody, another CFE and an accounting professor at the University of New Mexico, sometimes trawls the web for murder trials involving white-collar defendants, and has become convinced that red-collar crime is more prevalent than most people suspect. Detectives don't always spot such homicides, he told me, so crime scenes may be contaminated and murders may pass for suicide. "Whenever I read about high-profile executives who are found dead, I immediately think red-collar crime," he said. "Lots of people are getting away with murder."

Another great reason to not go back to the office. And to build an organization on the principles of minimum viable management. Fewer managers, fewer psychopaths.

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