Understanding the executive psychopath

Think your boss should be feared?  Well, you may not be imagining things. In some cases, you may be dealing with a psychopath — someone who lacks a normal conscience, targets others for abuse and termination, and manages to lie with impunity.

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe‘s Kevin Lewis summarized a recent study by Paul Babiak, Craig Neumann, and Robert Hare, documenting higher measures of psychopathy for managers:

One of the authors of the study was hired by companies to evaluate managers — mostly middle-aged, college-educated, white males — for a management development program. It turns out that these managers scored higher on measures of psychopathy than the overall population, and some who had very high scores were candidates for, or held, senior positions. . . . The authors conclude that “the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.”

Babiak, Neumann, and Hare are leading researchers on psychopathy.  Here’s the citation for their article: Paul Babiak, et al., “Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law, Vol. 28, Issue 2, Pages 174 – 193 (2010).  (An individual or institutional subscription is necessary to access it.)

Helpful background info

Industrial relations professor Mitchell Langbert (CUNY Brooklyn College), in a piece titled “Managing Psychopathic Employees” (link here) published in the Cornell HR Review, provides a useful overview on psychopathy in the workplace:

What if a small but definable subset of the employee population were responsible for a major share of corporate crime and ethical breaches? If so, then developing policies that target them would improve the firm’s performance, not to mention its ethical climate. In this article I claim that psychopathic employees constitute such a subset, and I suggest human resource policies that can help firms cope with them.

In this piece, Langbert draws heavily upon the work of Hare and Babiak, including the aforementioned article and Hare’s important Psychopathy Checklist Revised. Hare maintains a website, Without Conscience, devoted to his study of psychopathy.

What does this mean for the anti-bullying movement?

The worst — and scariest — workplace bullies have these personal characteristics. In fact, they make the “regular” workplace bullies — petty jerks with short fuses and insecure, dysfunctional managers — seem like lightweights by comparison. True, the psychopath workplace bullies may be very small in number, but they make up for it with a cold, calculating lack of conscience and a recidivist nature.

Many also are adept at escaping detection, having mastered the art of kiss up, kick down. Their friends at work — mostly peers and higher ups but rarely subordinates — cannot believe they would treat anyone in an abusive or predatory manner. If legal counsel gets involved, the cloaking effect often succeeds, because the attorneys will seldom go beyond the inner circle to learn what’s really going on, especially if the alleged targets are rank-and-file workers.


This post is the third of several devoted to 2010 Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week.

18 responses

  1. Very well put. As we are focusing more on profits at any cost, this behavior is being encouraged. It is extremely damaging to the individual, victim, organization and society. However, very little focus is being put to set things right.


  2. I am living this! The word psychopath has come up more than once about this person that is my boss at the moment. She truly is a nutcase and we all know it. The term Kiss up, Kick down applies!
    Hopefully this week I will have a new job, loss of pay I am sure but health and sanity is priceless. Its hard to be in the presence of evil everyday.

    • I hope you get good news about your job situation! As you know as well as anyone, the challenging reality is that removing one’s self from these toxic situations is often the only recourse in terms of preserving your health. Best of luck.

  3. I have recently submitted a letter of resignation from a well-paying position because of such a person. Sad that it gets to this point.

  4. Coastal and CatTaiMom: I did the same about a year ago (resigned to escape). I’ve been studying this very topic (sociopaths in positions of power and elsewhere) ever since and trying to regain my health and everything else that I lost. Ugh. This is definitely not the best time in history to be going through this.

    Thanks as always for the outstanding article, David.

  5. I have long believed that the psychopathic or sociopathic bully is by far the most personally destructive, and these sad comments bear me out. It can be almost impossible to fight from within the organization, esp. if one is not protected by dint of contractual or organizational status.

    What I have gleaned from the psychological/self-help literature on dealing with these folks is that there often isn’t any dealing with them — it’s stay and be tortured or leave, and hopefully the latter will free one from the ongoing torment.

    A terrible state of affairs.

  6. At work yesterday the Boss told my coworker not to ask anyone for help on things, that we all have enough to do already. What kind of boss says that!! Why? We all helped each other for 4 years until she walked in.
    Stunned, I am stunned. One more reason to get out of there! Very unhealthy.

  7. Hope no one minds an almost daily post but I have to report……..
    Today, at work, the boss who is the same one in the other posts called me from her office phone to my office which is about 10 feet away. We discussed a current project I am working on and she thought that the person I was working with was on vacation next week. I told her no, she is on vacation this week.
    “Well, you could have told me that! Thanks alot!!” Then she hung up the phone! Once again, I am stunned! After the blood pressure was calm I do not take the hang up personally,(consider the source)but, how am I suppose to work with such an unprofessional, immature boss? It took reciting a prayer that is sitting on my desk over and over and over. How do I last until I get another position?

    • I may sound abrupt, but how old are you and how much time have you “served” in this place? Just wondering. If you do not have a lot invested, look for another job WHILE YOU ARE STILL EMPLOYED. I was told this, but I didn’t want to leave after 18 years of a great job performance up until my boss retired….then the abuse began. Don’t “cut off your nose to spite your face.” Pardon the cliche. Good luck, stay strong, and keep a journal if you are mentally and emotionally able to do this. God bless. mj

  8. Psychpathic bullies are indeed the worst of the worst, mine was a sociopath who kissed up and kicked down. It took years of trying various methods to finally come up with one that worked – concerted action by the employee group. Of course, to facilitate that took sending folks to therapy, doing several surveys and giving the employee group feedback and encouraging the concerted activity in every way! It did work!

  9. Update, today I had a final meeting on a project with the boss. She made final corrections to some papers that I submitted to her and I asked for the papers so I could make a copy….she asked “why?” I carefully (you have to say everything very carefully to her so she does not fly off the handle) explained that I wanted to make sure I corrected everything that was marked. She would not give them up! She is so unprofessional and condescending and just plain an awful person to be around! I cant quit, single parent, I will be fired soon though I am sure. I hate to say it but it will be a relief. My wonderful career and great reputation trashed by a psycho. Luckily I have great friends that call me almost daily to ask how I am doing and let me vent. Still looking for another job and have some promising results……….

    • Coastal…. Without letting anyone know what you are thinking, see if youwould qualify for fmla. If this monster is causing high blood pressure, talk to your doc, you may get time off. I found the folks at the undercoverlawyer.com forum supportive as they are all being bullied or lived through it.

  10. Update, the bully boss mentioned in the posts above terminated me today. It’s over, all I could think about walking outside today was it was such a beautiful,blue sky, perfect fall weather day. I know in the days ahead I will feel better and better. I hope no one ever has to go thru what I just did. Working with a psycho is hell.

  11. ARE WE PAYING OUR UNION DUES FOR THIS: Some of these 1199 SEIU EAST delegates needs to stop lying to the members. They are not for us. They are for the companies we work for. They pretend to be on our side until they face management at our work sites. They try to shut us up when we speak up for ourselves and this one delegate had the nerve to tell me that her and I are strong black women and that we can handle the situation. BUNCH OF CRAP. Seven years and nothing done yet. Black has nothing to do with being treated like a human being. No matter what color we are, the delegates are suppose to have our backs, especially when they know we are being harassed, verbally abused, illegally suspended and whatever else these BULLY BOSSES want to do to us.

  12. I reported bullying in my office and basically was admonished for it. It continues and the boss is one of the biggest, undercover bullies, that initiates things against certain employee’s. HR has been no help either, is seems nor is the SEIU either. AS a matter of fact when I stood up for myself that seemed to make things worse for me all around.

    • I am tired… tired of hearing that bullying has affected so many people in such devasting ways, including me. We can speak until blue in the face and out in the street without a roof over our heads. especially now in these uncertain times. None of our testimony will amount to anything unless someone of importance will not only hear us, but understand what this bill is all about and do something positive to eliminate this life-endangering behavior (yes, life endangering) by people in authority who get away with it because they can… I would like Gov. Patrick to become aware of the terrible situation that is, unjusty, destroying so many lives. I am going to contact our Governor You can do this too. Hopefully, he will hear and act. Good luck and God bless.

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