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Collaborate, ideate, exterminate… Could you be working with a ‘corporate psychopath’?

Friday 03 November 2023 | By Nik Malane
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How would you describe a ‘psychopath’? Books and movies like the chilling American Psycho and Tom Harris’ thriller Silence of the Lambs would have us believe that the definition of a ‘psycho’ is a cannibalistic, chainsaw throwing, crazed individual. A loner who bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone we know or interact with in our day-to-day lives. However, research undertaken by Curtin alumnus Professor Clive Boddy reveals that the definition of a psychopath is much broader than initially thought, and suggests that a breed of psychopath, the ‘corporate psychopath’, can be found leading corporations and maintaining influential political roles that see them apparently representing the values and interests of the remaining 99 per cent of people who are deemed to be ‘normal’.

Boddy, now a Professor of Leadership and Organisation Behaviour at Middlesex University in the UK, began researching corporate psychopaths over a decade ago. His interest in the subject area stemmed not only from a genuine interest in research and research techniques but also because he himself had personally encountered potential corporate psychopaths in the workplace, and set out to enhance his understanding of the corporate psychopath’s mind.

“I’m interested in research techniques themselves such as projective techniques, focus groups and qualitative research, but also in toxic leadership in the form of corporate psychopaths in management and leadership positions. My interest in both of these stems from my work in commercial market research when I met some people of unusual cunning and manipulative abilities”, Boddy explains.

His initial research led him to investigate the connection between corporate psychopaths and workplace bullying. Turns out there’s a natural crossover between the two.

What’s more, Boddy found that the prevalence of bullying was far higher among organisations that had a higher percentage of managers who were identified as corporate psychopaths, or had psychopathic traits. His 2008 research project, which involved surveying and interviewing 346 managers throughout organisations in Western Australia, revealed that the one per cent of corporate psychopaths within organisations accounted for 26 per cent of the bullying. In addition, employees supervised by a ‘normal’ manager encountered bullying less than once a month, as opposed to those with corporate psychopath managers who encountered bullying 1.3 times a week. Boddy has found that for some unfortunate employees, psychopathic bullying is a repetitive daily event.

Corporate psychopaths deconstructed

They go by many other names. ‘Executive psychopaths’, ‘industrial psychopaths’, ‘organisational psychopaths’, and even ‘organisational sociopaths’. The concept of ‘corporate psychopaths’ marries the terms ‘psychopath’ from psychological literature, meaning someone with a distinctive lack of emotional response in the brain, resulting in a lack of empathy and care for others, with the term ‘corporate’ from the area of business, to denote a psychopath who works and operates in an organisational environment.

Corporate psychopaths, Boddy explains, are generally charming, sociable, initially friendly and even seductive towards those who assist them in achieving their goal or meeting their agenda. However, to others, particularly subordinates, they are quite the opposite.

“To people they need to impress, the corporate psychopath’s image or façade almost never varies and those above them typically think of them as ‘star’ employees – marked for further promotion and advancement in the organisation. To everyone else – especially those below the corporate psychopath – their true manipulative, bullying, ruthless, callous, uncaring, untruthful, parasitic and abusive personality soon becomes apparent”, Boddy says.

Representing approximately one per cent of the population, it’s thought that while ‘psychopaths’ from disadvantaged backgrounds will tend towards criminal psychopathy, often resulting in prison time and recidivism, those from more privileged and educated origins gravitate to positions that provide them power, control, prestige, wealth, and other attractions that essentially embody ‘success’.

“Positions such as CEO and in corporate banking or finance would theoretically be especially attractive to them, whereas the lower paid ‘caring professions’ would hold less interest to them”, says Boddy.

They can typically be categorised as having one or more of three personality types, otherwise known as the ‘dark triad’. The ‘narcissist’ is characterised by grandiosity, entitlement, dominance and superiority. The ‘Machiavellian’ is described as cynical, unprincipled and likely to use manipulation for self-gain and life success; and the ‘psychopath’ demonstrates high levels of impulsivity and thrill-seeking behaviour along with low levels of empathy.

And in the corporate world, where strong and capable leaders are often branded as ‘ruthless’, ‘autonomous’ and ‘emotionless’, Boddy explains that the corporate psychopath is frequently enabled in such an environment, and can even flourish.

“I’m afraid we are encouraging psychopathy to some extent. My research supports the notion that the only real ‘rational, economic person’ – so beloved of economic theory – is actually a cold, rational, unemotional psychopath. The rest of us are rightly influenced by emotional considerations which temper any ruthlessness and selfish greed because we care about other people”, he says.

Girl looking overwhelmed siting at desk with lots of files.

Corporate psychopaths make the perfect workplace bullies. Image: Shutterstock

Mind your business: impacts on organisational culture

Boddy’s research indicates that bullying and corporate psychopathy marry well, which means the impacts of having corporate psychopaths within an organisation, and the subsequent effects on staff, can be detrimental.

Boddy explains that they typically bully for two main reasons: firstly, for predatory purposes; because they enjoy damaging people and their careers, and secondly, they do it to cause confusion around them enabling them to get ahead while everyone else is distracted by chaos; something Boddy refers to as ‘instrumental bullying’.

A prevalence of bullying can result in a range of negative emotions, including stress, anger, humiliation, shame and isolation, and can also disrupt lives outside of work. Staff who are victims of workplace bullying often have a ‘flight or fight’ reaction, withdrawing their effort and commitment to their jobs or even sabotaging projects and deadlines, thus negatively affect the organisation as a whole.

What’s more, a psychopath’s behaviour can become accepted within an organisation.

“If a corporate psychopath attains a leadership position then their influence on cultural norms and morals can be so influential that a large number of employees become more or less socialised towards behaviour with no conscience or ethics. This can be referred to as socialised psychopathy or sociopathy, as some people call it”, Boddy says.

Vector image of businessman carrying an axe.

How do you identify a corporate psychopath? Image: Shutterstock

On the watch: 10 traits of a corporate psychopath

While it’s comforting to know that not everyone has the inner-makings of a corporate psychopath; around 99 per cent of us are ‘normal’, it’s unnerving that the ‘normal’ percentage isn’t an even one hundred. So how do you measure corporate psychopathy, and what are the tell-tale traits to look for?

For qualitative investigations, Boddy utilises the PM-MRV2 (Psychopathy Measure Management Research Version 2), which is a ten-item measure based on observations of psychopathic characteristics. All ten elements have been judged to be among the most highly typical of psychopaths.

Here they are. Be sure to keep your eyes fixed on your computer monitor or electronic device rather than darting around the office accusingly:

  1. Superficial charm and apparent intelligence: They’re friendly and easy to talk to, agreeable, make a positive first impression and are apparently a genuine person who is socially at ease.
  2. Untruthful and insincere: They lie but are convincing liars because of their apparent sincerity and honesty.
  3. Cheating personality: They fail to live up to promises, and deceive, seduce and desert others. They are good at organisational politics, claim the good work of others as their own and would probably steal, forge, commit adultery or fraud if they could get away with it.
  4. Totally egocentric: They are egocentric and self-centred, cannot love or care for others and can only discuss love in intellectual terms. They are totally indifferent to the emotions or fate of their colleagues.
  5. No remorse about how their actions harm other employees: They deny responsibility for their own poor behaviour and accuse others of responsibility for failures that they themselves cause. If they admit any fault, they do so without any regret or humiliation. They put their own career advancement above their colleagues.
  6. Emotionally shallow: They can readily demonstrate a show or display of emotion but without any true feeling. They cannot experience true sadness, woe, anger, grief, joy or despair and are indifferent to the troubles of others.
  7. Unresponsive to personal interactions: They don’t respond to kindness or trust in the ordinary manner. They can display superficial reactions but do not have a consistent appreciation for what others have done for them. They are indifferent to the feelings of others and can openly make fun of other people.
  8. Refuse to take responsibility for their own actions: While initially appearing to be reliable and dependable, they can then act unreliably and with no sense of responsibility or regard for any obligations to others.
  9. Calm, poised and apparently rational: They do not display neurotic or irrational characteristics. They are always poised and not anxious or worried even in troubling or upsetting circumstances which would disturb or upset most other people.
  10. Lack of self-blame and self-insight about own behaviour: They blame their troubles on other people with elaborate and subtle rationalisations. They do not think of blaming themselves, even when discovered in bizarre, dishonest or immoral situations that would promote despair or shame in other employees.

Tipping point: dealing with a corporate psychopath

If you find yourself in a professional situation where you’re interacting with a corporate psychopath, here are some tips to consider:

  • Avoid the perpetrator: Employees who come across corporate psychopaths, in all likelihood, will be bullied and abused, particularly if they attempt to thwart the aims of the corporate psychopath. Therefore, people should try and avoid direct conflict with them.
  • Unite with other victims: As there will often be multiple victims, employees could try and band together to present a stronger case against the activities of the corporate psychopath.
  • Get colleagues on your side: There are usually multiple areas of misbehaviour with a corporate psychopath and so one way to defeat them is to get collaborators onto your side. Human resources senior staff are a great place to start.
  • Leave the organisation: Although not always an option, some people leave the organisation concerned as soon as they are able to.

Bridging the research gap

Boddy admits that there are knowledge gaps as to exactly ‘what makes’ a corporate psychopath; specifically, historical, socio-economic, biological (including gender) and environmental factors; gaps that must be filled.

“This hasn’t really been studied much at all. It is such a new area of research that there are multiple gaps in knowledge. However, psychopathy does appear to be a male phenomenon, but even this is under-researched.”

Professor Boddy has released a number of books about corporate psychopaths and workplace bullying, including Corporate Psychopaths: Organisational Destroyers, and more recently, A Climate of Fear: Stone Cold Psychopaths at Work. He is continuing his research, conducting in-depth interviews with people who have worked with corporate psychopaths, in an effort to expand on knowledge in the field and fill research gaps.

“I’m also currently investigating evidence for systemic and individual psychopathy within US and UK health service providers. Many of the stories of abuse, manipulation, lies and coercion coming out of this research are truly heart-wrenching”, he says.

Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump, a self-identifying “productive narcissist”. Image: Gage Skidmore

Modern-day corporate psychopaths

In their quest for prestige, power and control, corporate psychopaths are in some rather conspicuous roles within well-known organisations. They are ambitious, ruthless and lack any inhibitions or conscience, so much so that some are able to ‘get to the top’ and end up controlling an entire nation.

US President Donald Trump has described himself as a “productive narcissist”, and Boddy agrees with the latter half of this statement wholeheartedly.

“As a casual observer, he looks very much like a narcissist, narcissists being the “lightest” of the three “dark triad” of dark personalities known as Machiavellians, narcissists and psychopath”, he says.

Professor Boddy says that business people such as Robert Maxwell of UK Daily Mirror fame and Kenneth Lay of USA Enron displayed many of the characteristics of the corporate psychopath.

“They were charming when it suited them but also ruthless, fraudulent, bullying, lying, self-important, and egotistical. Their companies went bankrupt”, Boddy reflects.

“Personally, I believe that all top political and organisational leaders should be comprehensively tested for psychopathy before they are allowed to stand for the most senior political and organisational positions.”

View Professor Clive Boddy’s Ted talk about corporate psychopaths and workplace bullying.