Psychopaths will rise to the top in almost any walk of life, but their prevalence is highest in the business world. Here’s why… and how they manage it.
A study conducted by researchers at Bond University in Australia in conjunction with the University of San Diego, and published in September 2016, revealed roughly 4.8% of top corporate professionals have ‘extremely high’ levels of psychopathic traits, compared with only about 1% of the general population. This is about the same rate seen among prisoners.
Psychopaths get to the top because they have a natural talent for charm and manipulation conveniently coupled with a complete lack of empathy for their fellow human beings. A true psychopath is in possession of an emotional and interpersonal deficit, perfectly blended with an uncanny ability to hide it and appear intensely empathic.
They also lack the ability to feel remorse, and can be inhumanly callous in their relationships with others. Perhaps worryingly, individuals whom psychologists refer to as ‘successful psychopaths’ are becoming increasingly more common.
Psychopathic bosses are fearlessly dominant, bold, and lack any vestige of emotion – exactly the sort of personality traits found in many CEOs. They handpick people they can use as lackeys and supporters and employ similar-minded people in HR positions. Protected by weak HR departments that unwittingly enable and reinforce the psychopathic behaviour, their rise to high-power positions and dominance goes unopposed.
More often than not, investors too protect malicious bosses because the success of their investment depends on their entrepreneur’s ability to deliver profits – everything is riding on that person and investors will feel tied to them and so tend to ignore bad behaviour.
To run a successful – and profitable – company depends on a certain amount of egotism coupled with the kind of determination needed to make sacrifices, including marriages, family, and friends. Bosses have to convince other people, so a certain amount of charm and charisma are basic requirements, enabling the CEO to suspend the disbelief of their audience when they convince them that certain things can be done. Psychopaths are ideal for this kind of work.
Of course, many of the attributes of psychopathology can be advantageous in a business setting in terms of cost-cutting, firing staff and the relentless pursuit of profits – but psychopathic bosses can also create a toxic workplace.
There is a real cost to having a psychopath at the head of your organization, especially if they indulge their willingness to manipulate through deception. Having a psychopath within a company can lead to poor employee retention – departments managed by psychopaths can suffer decreases in productivity and morale. They will happily play people off against each other. Psychopathic bosses have been known to engage in unethical and occasionally illegal business practices.
While they may indeed be charming, psychopaths will show their true nature when things cease to go their way. When this happens, their carefully crafted persona quickly fades. If they don’t get their own way, their veneer of charm will miraculously evaporate. Then there comes the bullying, the targeted venom and the ruthless destruction of dissenters, and anyone seen as a threat.
Spotting them however is a real art and can take hundreds of hours of careful observation. But there are some tell tale signs to watch out for. They tend to use few anxiety-related words, but they do use a lot of hostile language and in a way that lacks fluency, and full of hesitation and repetition, and yet the mock sincerity is still there.
Tony Blair is a prime example. Hesitation gives the psychopath time to think on their feet, to engage their brain before operating their mouth. Because they are more interested in themselves than others, they tend to refer to other people a lot less than non-psychopaths. Psychopaths also find it difficult to adapt their language for different forums, ranging from a private message as opposed to a public post.
Text-based communication is a much better way to communicate with someone you suspect may be a psychopath, since it will remove some of the tactics they rely on, like their charm and supreme confidence. In non-verbal communication, they are unable to display their grandiose self-worth, although it will not stop their pathological lying.
It’s easy for people to find psychopaths intriguing, but are usually unable to put their finger on just why. This is almost certainly linked to the psychopath’s ability to fake or mimic normal emotional reactions, even though they are incapable of experiencing these emotions for real. They cover their true intentions extremely well because they have become skilled in the arts of guile and deception. They strive to be the most interesting person in the room, quickly able to pretend suitable interests and adapt their responses.
Enthusiasm is also a weapon in their armoury – Paul McKenna’s gushing enthusiasm for anything and everything is delivered with the ease of the seasoned professional. He displays a joie de vivre second to none with people he may find useful. Watch him carefully in interviews – look out for lashings of bonhomie interspersed with moments of gravitas and deep sincerity he plays like a well-tuned violin.
But there is a manipulative ulterior motive to everything psychopaths do and say. Sharing fake secrets while carefully recording real ones and doing favours is all part of the wicked web they weave to gain the trust of others.
Occasionally though, they do slip up and give away unconvincing emotional responses in tone of voice and body language and sometimes their air of superiority is momentarily revealed – but not for long. They can easily spot other psychopaths and they avoid them studiously, lest they are themselves revealed.
Anyone can be duped by a psychopath – it happens all the time and their victims never realise it’s happening until it’s too late. It’s nothing to be ashamed of – how are you supposed to know you’re being conned? After all, the psychopath is first and foremost, your best friend.