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…