When you hear the word psychopath what do you think of? Most people typically think of some of the more famous serial killers like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, or maybe a Hollywood depiction like American Psycho or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But what about the psychopaths that live normal lives amongst the population? They could be your neighbor, your cousin, your coworker or even your significant other. According to the Law Enforcement Bulletin, it is estimated that approximately 1 percent of the general male population are psychopaths alluding that most people already know or will meet a psychopath during their lives (Babiak & O’Toole, 2012). Psychopaths are master manipulators and are skilled in portraying a version of themselves they want their victims to see. This is especially true for a subset of successful psychopaths that Babiak, Neumann, and Hare studied called corporate psychopaths. “Using a sample of 203 corporate professionals from seven companies scattered across the United States, the researchers reviewed records, conducted interviews, and administered the PCL-R, discovering that the prevalence of psychopathic traits was higher than that found in community samples (C & A Bartol, 2021, p. 221).” This research demonstrated what psychologists knew to be true; not all psychopaths commit crime or acts of violence. Hare was famously quoted saying that, “not all psychopaths were in prison, some were in the boardroom (C & A Bartol, 2021, p. 221).”
Since psychopathy is on a continuum and not an identical from person to person, the corporate psychopath may appear differently in each instance. “This personality disorder is a continuous variable, not a classification or distinct category, which means that not all corporate psychopaths exhibit the same behaviors (Babiak & O’Toole, 2012).” Psychopathy is sometimes difficult to identify for even the most skilled law enforcement officer and even psychologists, how is the average citizen going to be expected to recognize this in someone in their lives or their workplace? “According to Drs. Robert Hare and Paul Babiak, corporate executives are about three and a half times more likely to be psychopathic than members of the general public. Positions of power attract a disproportionate number of pathological individuals (not just psychopaths) (Hartley, 2016).”
The concept of corporate psychopaths making their way to the top of businesses has become a common theme in many mainstream media shows and movies. Some that came to mind were The Devil Wears Prada, Office Space, and Horrible Bosses. In each of these movies, it is portrayed in a comical or relatable manner that these highly manipulative and selfish individuals climbed their way to positions of power. Although these movies make light of the situation, this is a very plausible scenario since psychopaths can be highly successful in their professional lives. It is critical that others in leadership positions are able to identify these types of callous and deceptive individuals in order to ensure they do not continue to gain validation or influence.
In my professional career I have almost certainly met individuals that exhibited psychopathic characteristics. As a leader it is your job to protect your team, subordinates, and organization from toxic behavior regardless of how it presents itself. Most psychopaths will initially come off as powerful, smart, charming, and almost too good to be true. An experienced leader may be able to see through the façade, but most people will likely be under their spell initially. Although many of their skills like boldness, quick wit, and charm may initially impress those in a workplace, immediate supervisors, peers, and subordinates will likely see through the mask a psychopath is wearing. Therefore, as a leader it is critical to consider how subordinate and peers view others in your organization.
Bartol, C. R., & Bartol, A. M. (2021). Criminal behavior: a psychological approach (12th ed.). Pearson.
Paul Babiak, PhD., and Mary O’Toole, PhD. (2012). Law Enforcement Bulletin: The Corporate Psychopath, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/the-corporate-psychopath
Dale Hartley, MBA, PhD. (2016), Psychology Today: 5 Ways of the Corporate Psychopath, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/machiavellians-gulling-the-rubes/201609/5-ways-the-corporate-psychopath