Do you have a psychopath on your books?

by HCA03 Oct 2012

The word psychopath is often synonymous with ‘serial killer’ or ‘rapist’ – yet the corporate psychopath is a type of sociopath which has largely flown under the radar, despite the insidious damage they inflict on organisations.

According to Australian psychotherapist Dr John Clarke, the workplace psychopath is more common than generally thought, and the danger is they can isolate and mentally destroy the staff around them. “The workplace psychopath is somebody who psychologically destroys the people they work with to feed their need for a sense of power and control and domination over other human beings. They don’t suffer any guilt or remorse for their behaviour, in fact they enjoy the suffering of other people,” Dr Clarke told ABC radio. What’s more, he estimates that between 1-3% of the adult population is a psychopath, and most large organisations would have at least one psychopath on their books.

“They’re often difficult to identify because they can be well liked and competent at their jobs, but for victims, working with psychopaths can be impossible, and for this reason they must be dealt with,” Clarke added. Yet he also warned against over-diagnosis of corporate psychopaths, and drew a distinction between psychopathy and bullying.

Just as not everyone with psychopathy becomes a criminal, US-based research is revealing that psychopathic traits may be incumbent among the highest tiers of the corporate world – and in fact it’s a likely to be psychopathic traits that landed many high-fliers their positions in the first place.

Over the last three years, Dr Paul Babiak, an industrial psychologist, was hired by seven different companies to help assess whether their employees were ‘promotion material’ or not. He suspected that high performers might have some psychopathic traits, but was shocked by the result that of the 203 people he tested, one in 25 were clinically classified as a psychopath, despite having no criminal background. Babiak said this was four times the number he would have expected to find in the general population.

Dr Robert Hare, who designed the Psychopathy Checklist and is leader in the study of psychopaths took a closer look at Babiak’s data, and uncovered an unexpected twist. After looking at the company evaluations of the individuals who scored highly against his checklist, Hare found that the higher their score, the better the impression people had of them.“[But] when we measured their performance scores, by looking at how effective they were at furthering the company, they went right down as their checklist scores went up. In fact, when you get up at the high levels of the psychopathy scale, their performance was generally unacceptable. They should have been fired, but they weren’t because they were viewed differently by the people – they were great at managing impressions,” Hare said. According to the analysis, the same psychopathic characteristics that had led some to kill without empathy had allowed others to claw their way past their peers and achieve highly in the business world.

HR takeaway

Clarke noted that the data is a reminder to be vigilant in pre-employment screening, as psychopaths are more likely to falsify their qualifications and work experience.


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