Many associate the term “psychopath” with serial killers and movies such as “Silence of the Lambs.” But those of us who have been studying the dark side of work know that on occasion, psychopaths appear in the workplace, and the damage they can do — legally and illegally — is tremendous.
If you want to learn more about the kinds of psychopaths who show up in boardrooms rather than on Most Wanted lists, the documentary “I, Psychopath” (2009) — now available on various free documentary websites and on demand from Amazon — may be of interest.
Meet Sam Vaknin
Sam Vaknin is a businessman and author of Malignant Self-Love — Narcissism Revisited (2001), a book about, umm, himself. A few years after penning his magnum opus, he agreed to be filmed for a documentary that would follow his “journey into diagnosis,” featuring meetings with leading researchers in the field of psychopathy.
The result is the oddly compelling “I, Psychopath.” From the site Top Documentary Films, here’s a description:
In this intriguing documentary, Sam Vaknin, a self-proclaimed psychopath, goes in search of a diagnosis. . . . Vaknin and his long-suffering but ever-loyal wife, Lidija, embark on a diagnostic road trip. . . . The 47-year-old convicted corporate criminal has agreed to take part in the pursuit of his own diagnosis… meeting the world’s experts in psychopathy in the hope that science will provide some answers for why he is like he is. These experts put Vaknin (and his wife) through a battery of rigorous psychological tests and neuro-scientific experiments.
I watched the documentary last week and was struck by three things:
First, Vaknin comes across as being no different than a number of other workplace jerks I’ve encountered over the years, arrogant and full of himself.
Second, he goes about meeting with several psychopathy experts as if he was seeking advice on his 401k or a case of persistent dandruff, and the experts respond accordingly. Yikes!
Third, his loyal wife is by his side throughout the film. Are we talking Smart Women, Foolish Choices here, or does she see a warm fuzzy side that the rest of us don’t?
Robert Hare’s work
Among those featured in the documentary is Dr. Robert Hare, whose psychopathy checklist, which measures traits such as pathological lying, lack of guilt, and anti-social behavior, has become a standard diagnostic tool. Hare’s work on psychopathy has led to two important books:
Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (1999)
Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (2007)
Snakes in Suits has become a special favorite among those trying to understand psychological abuse in the workplace. I’ve had more than one bullying target tell me that the book is tremendously validating of their experiences and impressions.
Psychopathy and abuse at work
Hare estimates that one percent of the American population are psychopaths. I’ve heard that figure dismissed as “only” one in a hundred, but to me it’s alarming.
In any event, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute urge us to distinguish between psychopathic behaviors at work and individual diagnoses of psychopathy. Their point is that workplace cultures can become psychopathic, even in workplaces not populated by hordes of actual psychopaths.
This helps to explain how some workplaces become rife with bullying behaviors. All it takes is a psychopath or two at or near the top of the management chain to establish an organizational culture of ruthlessness and abuse. Thus, the behavior is modeled, and the rest of us pay the price.