Beware the corporate psycho

2004

Have you ever secretly thought that a colleague – or even your boss – behaves like a psychopath? Well you may well be right.

A study published in New Scientist magazine has found that there are far more sub-criminal psychopaths - self-serving, narcissistic schemers who display a stunning lack of empathy, but are not criminally inclined - at large in the population than had previously been thought. And many of them end up in managerial positions.

Around one per cent of the population – or 600,000 people in Britain alone – can be categories as psychopathic, according to Professor Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia in Canada.

And because 'corporate psychopaths' display similar ruthless traits to sadistic killers, they often gravitate towards roles in business the media, law and politics where their scheming and bullying is just part of everyday working life.

They tend to be manipulative, arrogant, callous, impatient, impulsive, unreliable, superficially charming and prone to fly into rages. They break promises, take credit for the work of others and blame everyone else when things go wrong.

Sounds like somebody you know?

“Psychopaths are social predators and like all predators they are looking for feeding grounds,” Professor Hare said.

“Wherever you get power, prestige and money you will find them. The most important thing is to be aware, if you suspect you are working with a psychopath. Once you take that position you are in a better position to deal with them.”

But the research – which is not the first to find that sub-criminal psychopaths tend to show up more in management ranks than elsewhere in companies – has a deadly serious message. Because the same characteristics that can propel a psychopath into a management role can also lead to embezzlement or corporate fraud.

In an attempt to root out undesirable employees, Professor Hare and organisational psychologist Paul Babiak are developing the 'Business Scan 360' test based on profiles of people convicted of fraud or embezzlement, profiles of ordinary managers and a group of high flyers.

According to Babiak, "if you imagine the conscientious employee at one end of the continuum and a prototypical 'corporate psychopath' at the other end, the test attempts to gauge where the individual is."