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What happens when psychopathy invades the workplace?

Max

Dr. Max Tookey

By DR. MAX TOOKEY*

The initial impression most people have of psychopaths are dangerous criminals who are incarcerated in prisons or institutions for a matter of public safety. While individuals such as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy or Peter Sutcliffe tend to fit commonly held cliché’s of what most of us would regard as a psychopath, it is interesting that psychopathy is thriving outside the prison population. My own naivety about this fact was brutally tested some years ago when I went through a period of profound stress after being on the receiving end of an individual who I now know had all the characteristics of a psychopath, though at the time, I just did not see them coming. Yet my own horrible experience actually reflected a unique quality of psychopathy – namely, this is one of the hardest conditions to actually spot!  The typical psychopath appears to be normal, and even charming, with highly developed social skills, and often a good ability to lead others. However, the friendly and innocent exterior of the psychopath belies a ruthless individual whose apparent interest in anyone is often based on satisfying their end purposes.  Duplicity, manipulation, persuasiveness and ruthlessness are the tools of the psychopath’s trade and there is now a growing body of research which suggests that psychopaths are drawn to many positions of professional responsibility because they provide them with the sources of power, prestige and money they seek to accrue for themselves (Boddy, 2005). Indeed, while the character of Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street banker who would kill a colleague over a business card in the movie American Psycho is fictitious, the presence of psychopaths in the corporate world is becoming a reality that many organisations should recognise.

But what is interesting about “workplace psychopathy” is how pervasive this phenomenon has actually become.  Not only are psychopaths found in professions which include corporate management, the media, the civil service and sales (Dutton, 2012), but they are also found in an occupation that one would normally associate with a duty of care and responsibility – namely, the police! In The Coming Age of Altruism, Babula (2013) presents an account of how Levenson’s 26 item psychopathy scale (Levenson et al, 1995) was used to measure psychopathic behaviour amongst law enforcement officers in a mid-Atlantic area of the United States. It was found that this sample exhibited significantly higher levels of psychopathy than the general population, with scores that would normally be seen within a prison cohort! So as the insidious phenomenon of psychopathy appears to be increasingly more endemic within modern working life, it is worth thinking about what happens when you actually work with a psychopath – to simply recognise some common warning signs of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

Arguably one of the best accounts of the modus operandi of the workplace psychopath can be found in Snakes in Suits by Baibak and Hare (2007). These authors create a five phase model of how a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power – consisting of: (i) entry; (ii) assessment; (iii) manipulation; (iv) confrontation and (v) ascension.  In the entry phase the psychopath will use highly developed social skills and charm to obtain employment into an organisation. At this stage it will be difficult to spot anything which is indicative of psychopathic behaviour, and as a new employee you might perceive the psychopath to be helpful and even benevolent. However, at the assessment phase, the psychopath will weigh you up according to your usefulness, and you could be recognised as either a pawn (who has some informal influence and will be easily manipulated) or a patron (who has formal power and will be used by the psychopath to protect against attacks). By the third, manipulation phase, the psychopath will create a scenario of “psychopathic fiction” where positive information about themselves and negative disinformation about others will be created, where your role as a part of a network of pawns or patrons will be utilised and you will be groomed into accepting the psychopaths agenda.  By the confrontation stage the psychopath will use techniques of character assassination to maintain their agenda, and you will be either discarded as a pawn or used as a patron.  Finally, in the ascension stage your role as a patron in the psychopath’s quest for power will be discarded, and the psychopath will take for himself/herself a position of power and prestige from anyone who once supported them.   So essentially, when you work with a psychopath you exist solely to be manipulated as the psychopath will pursue his or her aims at any cost – even if this means backstabbing every person who supported him or her in his/her ascent.

While the course of behaviour a psychopath embarks on is certainly harmful, the damage they can inflict on both an organisation, and the whole economy, should not be underestimated. In Corporate Psychopaths: Organisational DestroyersBoddy (2011) presents a comprehensive account of the consequences of work psychopathy and identifies a number of ways in which this effects an organisation. This includes a rise in fraudulent activities, unnecessary employee redundancies, an exploited and disheartened workforce, a rise in workplace bullying, environmental damage, decisions of questionable legality, business partnerships with other psychopaths and lost economies of expertise.  But probably the most destructive consequence of work psychopathy documented in this book concerns the occurrence of the recent global financial crisis and how this may have been brought about by the abundance of psychopathic personalities in the executive boardroom.

So if there is a proliferation of psychopathic behaviour in the workplace, it would be interesting to speculate on how perceptions of moral values may have changed. As highlighted in another posting in The Coming Age of Altruism blog, the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, Michael Jeffries believes that young people are vain and motivated by self-interest. There is strong evidence to suggest that Jeffries is wrong.  Babula (2013) identified that a sizable minority of the population are pure altruistic value types and are driven by a desire to help others rather than greed.  But while it is encouraging that altruism might be alive and well in the workplace, the pervasive spectre of small minority of corporate psychopaths is disturbing, and perhaps more of us should take heed of a simple, yet poignant piece of advice when working with others.  Just “know who you are dealing with”!!

References

Babiak.P and Hare.R (2007) Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work Regan Books

Babula.M (2013) Motivation, Altruism, Personality and Social Psychology: The Coming Age of Altruism Palgrave Macmillan

Boddy. C (2005) “’The Implications for Business Performance and Corporate Social Responsibility of Corporate Psychopaths” in 2nd International Conference on Business Performance and Corporate Social Responsibility, ed. M. Hopkins, Middlesex University Business School, London

Boddy.C (2011) Corporate Psychopaths : Organisational Destroyers Palgrave Macmillan

Dutton.K (2012) The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers can teach us about success Scientific American Books

Biography

*Dr. Max Tookey is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Greenwich who specializes in the study of psychopathy and organizational behavior.

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