Is the “psychopath boss” theme overhyped?

I hear it a lot from people who have endured bad work experiences: My boss is a psychopath. Indeed, if all such claims were true, there must be a lot of psychopaths in management positions, which should be cause for great concern. After all, psychopaths lack a normal sense of conscience, lie with impunity, and target others for mistreatment.

Those who have been severely bullied at work by their supervisors often invoke the term, while others are dismissive, claiming that simply being a bad or abrasive boss does not make one a psychopath.

But hold on: Maybe the claimed prevalence of psychopath bosses is true, or at least close enough to make us feel darn uncomfortable. This isn’t the first or last word on the topic, but let’s play with some numbers and assessments to get a sense of what we’re talking about:

1. Genuine psychopaths — According to ballpark estimates, 1 percent of the population may be classified as genuine psychopaths.

2. “Almost psychopaths” — Psychiatrist Ronald Schouten (Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital), lead author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012), suggests that maybe 10 to 15 percent of the population almost meets the definition of psychopathy. As reported here last fall:

The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates.

3. Drawn to management — A 2010 study by leading psychopathy researchers Paul Babiak, Craig Neumann, and Robert Hare documented higher measures of psychopathy for managers. The Boston Globe‘s Kevin Lewis summarized the study:

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.”

Do the math

Okay, so let’s combine the 1 percent of the population of genuine psychopaths, Schouten’s 10-15 percent of the population of “almost psychopaths,” and evidence correlating higher presence of psychopathic traits among those in management positions.

Conclusion: Based on this reasoning, it’s fair to suggest that some 15 percent or more of bosses fit the psychopath or almost psychopath profile. In other words, between 1 of 6 and 1 of 7 bosses may behave in a manner that causes underlings and other co-workers to think of them as psychopaths.

That makes for a lot of Sunday night and Monday morning anxieties…

24 responses

  1. Hi, David –

    I’d like to include your blog post in a presentation I’m giving in a couple of weeks. May I use it and credit it to you? If so, how would you like me to word the credit.

    Thanks very much.

  2. Yesterday, NPR’s TED Radio Hour covered the nature of violence: The Violence Within Us.

    It was excellent!

    One of the speakers, Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist, talked about his research on murderers. His findings are that the key is a combination of both nature (genetic predisposition) and nurture (early trauma). I highly recommend his piece, as well as all the others featured in yesterday’s 1-hr program.

  3. It was your last line when I said out loud “OH MY GOD!” because I used to call it Sunday Night Stress…my family and neighbors didn’t or couldn’t understand why I had to make sure all was perfect at home before starting a new work week rather than hanging out with them…….:-(

  4. Jim Fallon displays psychopathic traits. On some Internet videos, he has admitted to being a psychopath. Do we really want to be educated about psychopaths by a self-admitted psychopath, with deceit, manipulation, and lack of a conscience being key traits?

    There seems to be an effort underway to portray psychopaths as fun, relatively harmless dare-devils. I happen to think it’s the psychopaths who are up to this. Why? Perhaps because functional MRI studies are revealing brain differences between “normals” and psychopaths. Maybe the psychopaths fear being outed, so they’ve decided to reframe the discussion. It’s like the wolf convincing the sheep that all the wolf wants to do is lick the sheep behind the ear.

    The truth is that these people will bludgeon you to death without a shred of remorse, then step over your body to get something to eat because the exertion made them hungry.

    Given the history of mankind, the biggest question is why is it so hard for normal people to acknowledge that these soulless people exist?

    • Yes, he actually covers this in his piece – which I found to be a fascinating 15 minutes.

      He talks about the combination of genetic predisposition (which he admits to) AND early emotional trauma (experiencing violence – or seeing it in 3D, which engage the mirror neurons) before puberty.

      If continuing research bears this out, then we will be well on our way, I hope, to crafting better interventions and solutions to age-old questions about the nature and origins of violence.

      • You believe everything he says? His childhood was perfect? If we just love psychopaths more they’ll behave? If we were a better society, we wouldn’t have psychopaths? The problem is with us?

        What if psychopathy is primarily genetic? What if, as appears in many cases, there is no emotional trauma, and people are just born that way?

        I read psychopath blogs because I could not (would not) believe it was real. It is real and they (both the psychopaths and the blogs) are disgusting. Many self-admitted psychopaths stated that they knew they were different from a very early age and that they had never been abused.

        People are born with all nature of birth defects – missing limbs, missing organs, blindness, deafness, mental retardation, etc. Isn’t it conceivable that some people are born without the brain structures necessary for normal empathetic feelings? MRI studies are showing both functional and structural differences between normal people and psychopaths.

        My point – psychopaths tell convincing lies by mixing truth with fiction. As far as I’m concerned, that man is not credible.

  5. PS….My case goes to final step in court in less than a month – without the Bill being passed.
    My anxiety level is off the charts but I am thankful for all of the blogs for a venue to vent.

    • It’s not about legality, rather MORALITY: it’s NOT OK to treat people like this and take their lives / livelihood / pride from them intentionally, with malice. Work has always been the area of my life where I had the most confidence and now I wonder after a year of being invisible to the world whether the world will let me back in. I have tried finding online just how to explain that sort of gap in employment to a future potential employer without being sent to the bottom of the pile or judged incorrectly. Interviewing has always been easy for me, but now will undoubtedly stumble with this. Any ideas onlne?

      • I certainly agree wholeheartedly with the morality issue of mistreatment. While I was enduring eight plus years of abuse, I wasn’t able to garner any support for the mistreatment visited upon me, as I tried so very hard.

        Even now that I have been fired, I still cannot seem to garner anyone’s legal interest in my plight.

        Admittedly I do not know what your story entails, but it sounds as though you have been able to obtain some legal support.

        As far as online ideas, I am in the process of registering with as many sites, as possible,. Sites such as Indeed, Simply Hired, etc.

        From there once in a while a recruiter might contact someone on those sites.

        I, can, also, empathize with struggling with the gap due to the firing. In my case, the job I was fired from spanned a twelve plus years time frame.

      • I was not fired, I walked out after the Owner tried to convince me and a (jellyfish) coworker that he had videotape of me on my cell during work hours. I stood up (he hated that), told him that was the LAST lie he was going to tell about and me and here I am. You’ve been doing this for years? God Bless You! I don’t know what state you’re in, but do not stop insisting to be heard – it’s your right to fight! (and your responsibility so that this doesn’t continue). You should research HARASSMENT in the workplace and go from there?

      • Thanks, Laurie, for the moral support. I have research any and every law that is currently on books, so to speak.

        I have asked about harassment, as that is exactly what I was experiencing. Attorneys tend to say that employment related harassment is tough to prove in terms of how the laws are currently written, which covers only the protected classes of folks (race, etc.), and even, then, those laws are very specific in their scope.

        Short of hiring a good employment attorney on a contingency basis, all of that research goes up in smoke, so to speak, unless I can pay privately, which is not an option.

        Now I have a firing on my record. In my case, I still work two part-time jobs. Nonetheless, twelve years of one’s work life is a chunk of time.

  6. Furthermore, I was told my several coworkers that the Owner/my boss was on meds for bi-polar and funny in hindsight I saw SO SO many receipts for his chargecard(s) detailing numerous medications; I was told they were for is aged, ailing mother. Just too many lies to keep track of. This an is a repeat offender and I know that narcissists deny deny deny, but at the end of the day, he can’t possibly like himself or sleep in peace.

  7. Former students have informed me that in order to obtain a management trainee position, they must score the highest score for being a psychopath in the compulsory psychometric tests they take on interview.

    After unsuccessful job applications when honestly doing this test, students have been successful after answering as a psychopath would.

    This shows that institutions and companies are deliberately recruiting such personalities to be managers.

    • OUCH !!!! Nice guys/gals finish last aka do not get hired…..sad….pathetic, actually. What ever happened to TEAM BUILDING? That was one of my most proudest qualities and when I tried and actually got things done, the Owner couldn’t handle it because it was something he had never achieved because of his demeaning, intimidating, harassing ways. He would demand an answer “in 5 minutes” ALWAYS and ALWAYS left the building unreachable within 2. We are destroying our fellow coworkers and fellow humans as well: why are people so blind, so accepting of this?

  8. You don’t need to build teams, under the new, euphemistically named ‘collaboration’ culture, the team is already built, static and sealed.

    Workers on fixed, or zero hour contracts must collaborate to the letter of the policies of their uber managers, and are subject to vague, draconian codes of conduct,their employment made permanently ad hoc. Their compliance assured by line managers of small groups.

    This entrenches policy and practice, whether poor or inappropriate, as the worker literally becomes a human resource. And this, frighteningly, is the management model in public service, charity (including University and Schools) and larger businesses.

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