Managing extreme personalities: the corporate psychopath

By Rachel Sullivan

We all have our personality quirks that either endear us to others, or drive them to distraction, often simultaneously. But when does a quirk become a liability in the workplace? And how can you minimise the fallout?

Some extreme personalities may be good for business, but there’s one that most would steer well clear of: The corporate psychopath.

While the term ‘psychopath’ usually suggests highly antisocial individuals with a long and abhorrent criminal history, most aren’t. Psychopaths are found working in every field, comprising between one and three per cent of men and less than one per cent of women.

Essentially, psychopaths are people without a conscience, who inhabit their own world and break society’s rules at will. According to Dr Robert Hare, who has made studying psychopaths his life’s work, they are ‘social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plough their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets… selfishly taking what they want and doing as they please without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.’

Dr John Clarke, a consultant psychotherapist and author of Working with monsters: how to identify and protect yourself from the workplace psychopath, writes, ‘Different personality types often clash in the workplace, leading to conflict that has nothing to do with psychopathy. A major factor that differentiates a personality clash from psychopathy is the psychopath’s lack of remorse as well as experiencing pleasure from any psychological and/or physical injury caused to the victim.’

A 2010 study, Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk, found that three to six per cent of corporate employees may be responsible for the majority of ethical breaches in corporations, with corporate psychopathy tending to be concentrated at the higher levels of organisations.

This is because their often outstanding communication skills, creativity and strategic thinking, and charismatic, confident, persuasive and courageous personalities are characteristics that commonly define great leaders; many successfully exploit these traits to rise rapidly through the ranks and assume senior positions.

 ‘I can’t see that a corporate psychopath could ever ultimately benefit the bottom line, as good as they might be at a particular task,’ says Peoplebank’s Peter Acheson, adding that he has learned from a bitter experience to never hire one, no matter how charming they may be.

‘We hired a new CEO [for one of our businesses],’ he says. ‘He did a lot of good things in the time he was with us, but also nearly ran the business into the ground. ‘He was charming, persuasive, and really good at managing the board — that is, twisting their arms.’

Acheson says the CEO went on a hiring spree, and employed a number of high remuneration senior executives who were all friends or former colleagues. ‘This was all done on the promise of being able to grow revenue with them on board, and that we couldn’t afford to wait for revenue to increase before hiring them.

‘Eighteen months later, it appeared that things were going really well, but in fact the costs had just doubled, without delivering the promised revenue.

‘In our case, this CEO’s impact was disproportionately large: It affected potential clients’ perception of the company, investors were unwilling to invest because of him, staff [members] were unhappy and the technology plateaued.

 ‘So yes, I would say it is fine to employ extreme personalities, as long as they’re not psychopaths, and the nature of their personality means it won’t damage the business. ‘[Our mistake] nearly drove our business into the wall.’

Dr Clarke says rehabilitating a corporate psychopath is a difficult proposition at best, with studies of violent criminal psychopaths suggesting that rehabilitation programs actually do the reverse: They help the psychopath develop new skills that they can then use to manipulate people more effectively.

‘The most effective strategy when dealing with the organisational psychopath is to have a detailed knowledge of how they operate,’ he says.

‘Once the psychopath’s modus operandi is understood, it becomes much simpler to predict, to some extent control, their behaviours. ‘However, you need to remember that they are, and always will be, self-serving.’

Recognising the office psychopath

The majority of dysfunctional employees are unlikely to be psychopaths, says Dr John Clarke. But if four or more of the criteria below applies to a member of staff, then it might be worth calling in an expert.

  • Are they prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they want, regardless of how it affects other people?
  • Have they ever taken credit for work done by someone else?
  • Do they come across as smooth, polished and charming?
  • Do they enjoy others being afraid of them?
  • Are they opportunistic, ruthless, and do they hate to lose and play to win?
  • Do they consider people they’ve outsmarted to be dumb or stupid?

A longer version of this article first appeared at CIO.