Since I began looking into the murky area of corporate psychopaths I have been astounded by two things. Firstly, the level of interest in the area among family, friends and even colleagues where the mere mention of the word 'research' would have previously stopped conversation in a millisecond.
Secondly, corporate psychopaths are lying, cheating, arrogant, irresponsible, cold manipulators - and apparently everyone knows one. As an example, in July, I contributed to a blog about how to spot a corporate psychopath. Within 24 hours it had 1.1K shares and 298 comments. Not enough to be viral but certainly of interest because 98% of comments related to the author having either worked with a corporate psychopath or naming various public figures as psychopathic.
My concern is how quick and almost eager we are to assign the label 'psychopath'. A key differentiator of psychopaths is that they have zero capacity for empathy. Using this term should not become routine, especially in our current era, as we are attempting to make workplaces more harmonious.
The December 2016 edition of the Harvard Business Review reports on research among CEOs who have been successful, making the cover of Forbes, Fortune or Business Week. This research showed that over a 30 year period, CEOs with an MBA were significantly the most destructive within their organisations and more self-seeking than those who had never stepped into a business school.
As an MBA Director I found this worrying but frankly, I was not surprised. It has only been in relatively recent years that MBAs have focussed on the importance of collaboration, ethical issues and emotional intelligence. The link between those in senior leadership positions and power exhibiting traits associates with psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellian (known as the 'Dark Triad') have widely been reported since the publication 'Snakes in Suits' by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare in 2006. The book explored why despite psychopaths being the rare one percent in society, more than a third are found in senior leadership positions. Generally, we can attribute this to the fact that we have been seeking to place these highly charismatic individuals in the most senior positions.
Self-confidence, charisma, creativity and an aptitude for strategic thinking are found in abundance within psychopaths. It would be unusual for any selection process or promotion criteria not to highly score these attributes. Combined with Oscar-worthy skills in lying and manipulation, parasitic behaviour and ability to control impulsive emotions and risk taking tendencies, it is easy to see why rising to senior positions becomes easy for such individuals. After all, we prize many of the traits associated with psychopaths, and some authors even suggest it is positive to adopt these traits in order to gain the 'killer instinct' and drive to succeed.
In reviewing a book by self-diagnosed psychopathic neuroscientist James Fallon titled 'The Psychopath Inside' psychiatrist Professor HHA Cooper made two sobering points*:
1. There is no official or widely agreed diagnosis of psychopathy. We know that is has yet to feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
2. You can be no more a little bit of a psychopath than you can be a little bit pregnant
While there are frequently used tools to assess level of psychopathic traits, we can never be absolutely sure this is a correct diagnosis, especially as it is common for other personality and mental disorders to share similar traits.
In the same way studies have shown over cautious parenting is prevalent and can risk damaging the development of children, overzealous labelling and hypersensitivity when faced with toxic colleagues damages ourselves and our workplaces.
Emotionally intelligent people are highly empathetic. In jumping to a premature conclusion that a nasty colleague is a psychopath we inadvertently create or worsen an already toxic environment. In times where more and more people are reporting leaving a role because they disliked their boss, we need to find ways of reconnecting with our colleagues.
To build successful working relationships empathy is everything and paranoia has no place. We must recognise that building alliances, working with peers and generating positive mind-sets means that if we do ever have the misfortune of facing a real psychopath, we stand a better chance together of reducing their capacity for damage.