Psychopaths and Leaders – same or different?

‘Business psychopathy’ now attracts a great deal of media attention. Headlines scream “Is your boss a psychopath?” Psychology terms and jargon are now common language: ‘repressed’, ‘psycho’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘in denial’. So when we see the pen portrait of the ‘successful psycho’, we can start looking at some of our colleagues in a new – and somewhat unflattering – light.

Dictionary definitions of ‘psychopath’ typically include: mentally ill or unstable, lack of empathy, violent or aggressive behaviour, amoral and antisocial behaviour, showing lack of remorse. Psychopaths are said to be manipulative, using a combination of charisma, intimidation and intelligence to control others.

Not surprisingly, those who commit horrific crimes are often found to have these characteristics (although some argue that the term is applied too readily to convicts who might otherwise respond to treatment). Glued to our regular fix of crime-busting TV, we are grimly fascinated by the baddies and their apparent psychological make-up. Add to that the shock-horror media coverage of the ‘dark side’ of leadership, and we start noticing behaviour at work… it’s a slippery slope.

Suddenly we’re surrounded by psycho bosses.

Steady on.

Consider this, from recent postings in the BPS Occupational Digest:

  1. According to Sarah Francis Smith & Scott O Lilienfield at Emory University, USA, there is a substantial gap between the amount of typical media coverage and research-based data in scholarly articles. Despite little hard evidence there are heaps of column inches on psychopathy in the workplace. When research is published it’s seized upon, sensationalised and soon goes viral.
  2. Many of the research studies referred to use small samples and single methods, so thanks to their ‘methodological limitations’ they don’t withstand extensive scrutiny. Yes, there is some evidence that business psychopathy is linked to ‘negative outcomes’ in the workplace (say hello to yet another acronym: CWB, a.k.a. counter-productive workplace behaviour). For example, leaders making unethical decisions, bullying colleagues and using intimidation are widely reported.
  3. But actual psychopathy is not as prevalent as the headlines suggest. So far there is only one study on which the supposed prevalence of ‘psycho bosses’ is based, which found a ‘3% prevalence in managers versus 1% in the general population’.

So far, it’s not conclusive.

Your boss may be selfish, charming, aggressive, intelligent, manipulative, self-controlling, unethical or any combination of these. But a psychopath? Unlikely.

You can check out the BPS articles here.

Smith & Lilienfeld’s paper ‘Psychopathy in the workplace: The knowns and unknowns’ can be found here.

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