First published in the journal of Oxford Business College

Pros and Cons: Psychopaths in the business environment

This feature investigates what  psychopaths in the workplace are like, how to spot them, and how psychopaths can be bad or good for a business organisation. It also raises questions about a possible contagious effect of the psychopathic mind set.

 The common view of the psychopath is that of an axe wielding murderer, wild eyed and drooling, and irredeemably dangerous. The lurid news stories about serial killer Joana Denehey serve as an example of this, with the “sadistic lust for blood” described by her judge (BBC News)

[i]. The more reasoned assessment is nothing like this. The common psychopath – estimates hover around 1% of the population[ii] – uses charm and psychological tactics instead of a blunt instrument to gain satisfaction, and is invariably cold and calculating rather than raving and irrational.

However, they may indeed by irredeemably dangerous for business.

All ego, no conscience

banana manThe critical thing about psychopaths is that they lack empathy. They don’t care that you have feelings, opinions and your own needs and desires. To them you’re a character in their video game, to be controlled and manipulated for their own ends, and unless they own the business then your company is the same. They are remorseless about your frustration and fear when they make a tough decision that affects you, and have no guilt about treading on any rival for an opportunity. They will lie and deceive as it suits them, exploit workmates and customers alike, and can be quite ruthless in achieving their goals[iii].

Hidden in plain sight

But this is so difficult to spot. Unlike a violent psychopath like Joanna Denehey, with a tattoo on her face and a fantasy knife collection, the workplace psychopath plays mind games to get what they want. They learn how to blend in. There are stories of mild mannered ladies in accounts who listen to your woes with apparent sympathy on the surface, but who collect information to use against you behind the façade and undermine company wellbeing without a second thought. More common is the trailblazer, shaking hands and attempting to use the referent/charisma power identified by French and Raven (Cooper, 2012)[iv].

And it’s power that they seek. According to[v], the top 10 jobs that attract psychopaths are:

  1. CEO
  2. Lawyer
  3. Media (Television/Radio)
  4.  Salesperson
  5. Surgeon
  6. Journalist
  7. Police officer
  8. Clergy person
  9. Chef
  10. Civil servant

In all of these (more or less contentiously) we see a position of being able to control other people for their own ends. And within them we see some of the traits that can alert us to their personality disorder. Using arguments to win a case, getting in front of a camera in the case of the narcissistic psychopath, manipulating your feelings for the psychopath that wants to make a sale or win your vote, using their expert power (French and Raven again) to bamboozle you with regulations and procedures.

Compare with the least attractive professions for the psychopath:

  1.  Care aide
  2. Nurse
  3. Therapist
  4. Craftsperson
  5. Beautician/Stylist
  6. Charity worker
  7. Teacher
  8. Creative artist
  9. Doctor
  10. Accountant

Here we see people who want to make the world a better place, in positions where there is little opportunity to take advantage of others.

The tiniest clues might help if you suspect that a psychopath is at large. The fact that they cause discomfort by their mere presence may be an indicator, such as a tendency to use coercive power to affect your actions. Deflecting blame when they’re at fault seems to be an indicator, and being certain of their own correctness in a way that draws all around them along their path. And keep an eye open for the emotionless psychopath stare.

One hard truth, incidentally, is that you can’t cure them[vi]. Repeated attempts to foster empathy have failed. They’re just hard wired not to care.

Internal haemorrhaging…

This can be bad for business[vii], [viii]. Psychopathy is an undesirable trait in a manager of people, for example, when team morale is important. Valuable staff may choose to leave rather than endure the discomfort of a value-set that does not comply with their own. And of course the psychopath will slash costs and boost sales for you as long as your business goals are aligned with their own motives, but if they have to choose then don’t expect them to make personal sacrifices for the good of the organisation.

They can also be dangerous in inspiring a false sense of confidence in their abilities. Capable of being arrogant and supremely persuasive, they have their own barometer of their abilities and decisions, not an objective one. Beware of being lulled into a false sense of security that your best man is on the case, when they may be incompetent or even corrupt, but very good at appearing to be in your corner.

…or on your side in a fight?

But it may not be all bad[ix]. Looking at the leadership styles for different situations in the HND module Working With and Leading People, or even Project Management, we see that an exploitative dictator may be a necessary evil when faced with make-or-break decisions, when pitiless action for survival is a necessity. Start ups and projects need a steely determination. A clear example is Sir Alistair Morton who took over the floundering Channel Tunnel project. Despite a reputation for being unnecessarily rude, he pulled the venture together and steamrollered stakeholder interests and contractual niceties in a successful drive to get the project completed. Many caring types simply don’t have a head for the risks involved at the top of an organisation, or the heart to trade one aspiration off against another.

Sir Alistair may or may not have been a psychopath, but his behaviour was typical of one. When we become aware of the tell tale signs we see them everywhere.

 They’re here already, and you’re next!

body snatchersThere’s a classic old sci-fi thriller from 1956 called Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You may have seen the 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. The story is about alien pods that replace human beings with identical soul-less clones who promise a world free of care and pain. At first there are just a few of them, picked out with the comment “That’s not my wife. It looks like her, but it isn’t her”. Gradually, however, they take over, as their way of seeing things becomes the norm.

At the end of the original movie our hero escapes from the small town which has been all but taken over, and tries to flag down passing traffic with the cry “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!”

Could this be said to mirror psychopathy by osmosis? Is it possible to see opinions swayed by the nerveless confidence of the psychopathic mind set, and values established that include the ‘all is fair in business’ view of the Mafia? To what extent is this dehumanising the world of business?

Which brings us to a question we must each answer for ourselves: should people work for businesses or the other way around? Where does the balance of importance lie between profits and the people in the workplace who help make them? If there are psychopaths who gouge and bite their way to the top and become the de facto opinion formers, are we allowing ourselves to be led by their certainty, becoming a clone of their value system, when it may simply be a veneer for cold-hearted incompetence and corruption? In short, are we losing our humanity?

Of more direct concern is the one psychopath causing pain in your workplace, dumping blame and hiding rash decisions with deceit. Do you keep them because they’re a pro, taking a professional business view where many of us would be clouded by our conscience and fear of consequences? Or do you remove them because they’re a con, conning us into thinking that they’re doing more for us than they really are?

They’re the pros and cons in your business; you’ll have to decide.




[iv] Cooper J: Face to Face in the Workplace (Careertrain, 2012) ISBN 978-0955968037






This article was first published in the academic journal of Oxford Business College

By | 2017-03-30T14:12:17+01:00 March 30th, 2015|People Tips|1 Comment

About the Author:

I am trainer, coach and author specialising in one to one skills.

One Comment

  1. David Peck 08/04/2018 at 18:11

    Interesting read. It squares whith what I have already read. Wouldn’t suggest a psychopath makes a good leader. A tough boss (with a heart, though possible well hidden) will make a better decision every time.

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