Psychopaths are the 1 per cent of people who possess absolutely no empathy. They may be rare among society as a whole, but Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, authors of Snakes in Suits, estimate that more than a third of them occupy senior leadership positions.
Books on psychopaths can be found everywhere, and many promise to help you identify and deal with toxic colleagues. They are often polarised in their positions. Some encourage you to be more psychopathic to ensure success in the workplace. Others advocate running and hiding, or risk serious damage to yourself and your career.
But how can you identify if your colleagues are psychopaths, and if you yourself fit the profile?
Can they be good?
Authors in the “be psychopathic” camp include academic Kevin Dutton and ex-SAS author Andy McNab. Together, they have written books which depict personality traits like a series of internal dials. When in optimal position, these dials can make you highly successful. They argue that “good psychopaths” are beneficial to society and use fictitious characters like James Bond to illustrate their point, counterposing them against that of the surgeon, unable to insert a scalpel into their patient, paralysed by an overdose of empathy.
The “dark” traits
Studies have found that self-confidence and charisma, combined with an aptitude for strategic thinking and creativity, are found in abundance in psychopaths. Equally, they perform well in one-to-one situations, which allows them to ingratiate themselves with their managers and climb the career ladder quickly.
Clearly these are levers for promotion into powerful positions. However, corporate psychopaths also exhibit the tendency to lie, manipulate, steal others’ work, and engage in irresponsible and impulsive behaviour.
This tends to be well disguised by the most successful psychopaths. Academics like Clive Body argue that psychopathic colleagues have often done their damage while still being viewed by their peers as the ambitious and efficient charmer everyone loves.
In your office?
Various researchers and authors have pointed to certain industries and types of working environments which attract high-functioning psychopaths. These include the public sector, media, marketing, procurement, law, senior medical roles and areas where opportunities for grandiose self-promotion generally exist.
Pointing the finger
The term “corporate psychopath” easily captures our attention, and discussion tends to lead to identifying these traits in at least one of our work colleagues. As we have become fearful to let our children play in the streets, I wonder whether we risk hyper sensitivity and paranoia in the office.
A growing awareness of “dark” leadership may inadvertently lead people to falsely label their colleagues with a range of personality disorders, simply because they are not kind to us or because we don’t get on with them. Such suspicion may lead us to react in a disproportionate way, and one which is unconducive to a harmonious working environment.
In The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson argues that such concern is a sign of some degree of empathy. So if you are personally worried you might be a psychopath, you may have failed the litmus test already.