October 31, 2017

Is Your Workplace Leader a Psychopath?


When you hear the word “psychopath,” what comes to mind? It probably involves images of terrifying murderers, horror movie villains, and the worst criminals who populate our prisons – all perfectly fitting for the Halloween spirit, right?

In reality, psychopaths account for roughly 1 percent of the population, and being a psychopath isn’t necessarily an indication that a person will commit a crime at all. It’s likely you’ve met a psychopath yourself before. You might have one living on your street. In fact, you may have even worked for one.

Psychopaths are often drawn to positions of power, and they can climb the ranks quickly and efficiently thanks to their superficial charm and determination. According to some sources, psychopathic behavior is very common in the higher ranks of senior management. One study found that as many as one in five CEOs are psychopaths.

This isn’t all bad news, however. According to CNBC, a psychopath’s fearless dominance, boldness, and lack of emotion an actually help both them and their company thrive.

That said, psychopathic leaders are not perfect. They often demonstrate behaviors that are detrimental to business operations and employee morale. Below, we’ll cover five warning signs that your boss is, in fact, a psychopath:

1. A Grandiose Sense of Self

As Linda A. Hill writes for Harvard Business Review, great leaders lead from behind. They know the importance of empowering their teams, uniting employees behind common goals, and giving employees the skills they need to thrive. In essence, great leaders make it all about the team. Their own egos don’t factor in.

This is certainly not the case for a psychopathic leader. According to premier criminal psychologist Robert Hare psychopaths have an abundance of self-esteem. They see themselves as the center of the universe, and the people around them are simply tools to be used. This mindset can be tremendously damaging when attempting to encourage camaraderie and teamwork. Employees will ultimately feel demotivated, unfulfilled, and superfluous if leaders approach them in this way.

2. Insensitivity and a Lack of Empathy

Increasingly more companies are implementing regular performance discussions between managers and employees, thanks to a growing understanding that more frequent communication improves performance. Employees like to develop trusting relationships with their superiors, and regular performance conversations necessitate the exchange of honest, meaningful feedback. Employees need to feel they are able to approach their managers with any and all concerns that might impact their work. Given their innate lack of empathy, psychopaths will have a problem with creating such trust-based relationships.

shadowFaced with an employee who is having trouble at home or struggling with an aspect of their job, a psychopath is more likely to be frustrated than sympathetic. Rather than working with employees to resolve problems, a psychopath leader will tell them to pull themselves together and get their tasks completed. Unfortunately, this attitude will deter employees from approaching their manager in the future, and team performance will more than likely plummet as a result.

3. A Tendency to Shift Blame Onto Others

Two very important things to know about psychopathic leaders: They are very comfortable lying, and what matters most to them is their own success. A good leader shoulders the blame for their team when it flounders. This is not the case for a psychopathic leader, who will find a way to shift the blame onto someone else.

Where the blame really lies is irrelevant to this type of leader, as they will find a way to manipulate and distort the situation. Psychopaths are masters of manipulation, deflection, and deception. This is how they keep themselves above water and thriving. Of course, blame-shifting is toxic to a healthy workplace culture, as employees will be crippled by their constant fear of failure.

4. Unpredictable, Erratic Behavior

People like their leaders reliable, steady, and predictable. This helps us know where we stand with them, and we don’t have to worry they’ll fly off the handle for no particular reason.

One glaring sign of psychopathic leaders is their very short tempers. Even the smallest incident can send a psychopath into a rage. You can never entirely predict a psychopath’s behavior, which makes them troubling to be around. One minute they can be entirely charming and polite, and the next they can turn on you with no warning. This unpredictability makes it impossible to develop trust in a psychopathic leader – and as we all know by now, trust is critical to good leadership.

5. Unrealistic Attitude Towards Goals and Objectives

It is impossible for an employee to excel at work unless they have realistic objectives to aim for. Impractical goals are stressful for employees, who will react in one of two ways: They will either work themselves to the bone attempting to accomplish impossible tasks, or they will give up as soon as they realize there is no possible way to succeed. Neither option is healthy or conducive to a successful business.

Psychopaths often impose grandiose goals for themselves, and their outsized sense of self-esteem makes them feel they are more than capable of achieving such goals. They are also happy to impose impossible goals on their employees, and they have little sympathy for those who struggle to meet these goals. A manager who is unwilling to work with employees when setting objectives is unlikely to see results from their team.

If you find yourself working for a psychopathic leader, you’ll likely be left with two choices: grin and bear it, or look for opportunity elsewhere. The former will give you a fantastic – but frustrating – chance to develop your ability to “manage up” with one of the most difficult types of leader. The latter, on the other hand, may lead you to a remarkable company culture where you feel valued, welcome, and secure.

Nick Davis is a business psychologist and director at Davis Associates.

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Nick Davis is a business psychologist and director at Davis Associates, a UK-based HR consultancy. Nick works with companies of all sizes in order to promote greater levels of individual, team, and organizational performance.