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Executive Psychopaths

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Most people automatically think of an axe wielding maniac when they hear the term psychopath. An axe wielding maniac may well be a psychopath but most psychopaths are not like that. A Harvard Business School article summarises the situation “they are in your organisation – and they’re easy to mistake as high potential”.

True psychopaths are diagnosed according to very specific clinical criteria, and they are very hard to spot. They’re chameleons. They have a cunning ability to act perfectly normally and indeed to be utterly charming, as they wreak havoc on the lives of the people around them and the companies they inhabit.

Robert Hare a prominent researcher in the field of corporate psychopathy in his book Snakes in Suits estimates that 1% of the population is certifiably psychopathic and that it is 3-4 times higher in the business world. According to Dr Kevin Dutton, a British Psychologist, the top four professions with the highest concentration of psychopaths are CEOs, Lawyers, Media (TV/Radio) and Salespersons.

Many of psychopaths’ defining characteristics—their polish, charm, cool decisiveness, and fondness for the fast lane—are easily, and often, mistaken for leadership qualities. That’s why they may be singled out for promotion. But along with their charisma come the traits that make psychopaths so destructive. They’re cunning, manipulative, untrustworthy, unethical, parasitic, and utterly remorseless.

There’s nothing they won’t do, and no one they won’t exploit, to get what they want. A psychopathic manager with their eye on a colleague’s job, for instance, will doctor financial results, plant rumours, turn co-workers against each other, and shift their persona as needed to destroy their target. They’ll do it, and their bosses will never know.

These are the reasons that they are likely to be CEO’s, and in other professions where the salaries are high (lawyers, sales) or where there is fame and recognition (TV/Radio).

You may have encountered psychopaths in your career, they create a great impression with the CEO, but tend to bully their co-workers. Bullied co-workers don’t want to report this behaviour as they fear that they won’t be believed and that the bullying will get worse. CEO’s are reluctant to believe that their “high flier” who is so charming towards them is capable of such behaviour, further psychopaths have a way of finding plausible reasons as to why they may have been misunderstood and that no malice was intended. The likelihood of action taken against them is very low, as there are contradictory accounts and the CEO will claim that they “know” the psychopath as being incapable of such behaviour (read blogg Managers not particularly good at rating their teams).

It’s difficult not to be charmed by a psychopath. But its also difficult for psychopaths to hide from the data. Teams that have an unusually high staff leaving rate, and/or there are significant inconsistencies in 360° feedback (some are in adoration, and others scathing) are all warning signs that there may be a psychopath in your midst.

This is where data driven segmentation, based on a Single Employee View™ that identifies “Pretenders” and “Rising Stars” can be particularly useful.

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