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Is one in 25 business leaders a psychopath?

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Research claims psychos are attracted to corporate life. News from Simon Hayward, Managing Partner of Cirrus

Could one in 25 business leaders really be a psychopath? That’s the claim made by psychologists Paul Babiak and Robert Hare on BBC2’s Horizon programme. Babiak and Hare have been researching how psychopaths operate in corporations since they co-authored the book Snakes in Suits in 2007.

Although a mere one percent of the general public can be classed as psychopathic, it seems that psychopaths are four times more prevalent in corporate life because they are adept at identifying and displaying the kind of attributes than tend to be admired in the workplace. Many psychopaths have the ability to charm others – or in the case of business leaders, to be charismatic and engaging. Should we be worried? And how can we spot – and stop – a psycho? Hare describes corporate psychopaths as manipulative, arrogant, callous, impatient, impulsive, unreliable and prone to fly into rages. He claims they break promises, take credit for the work of others, and blame everyone else when things go wrong. So how do they get away with it?  Hare claims this is where the psychopath’s ability to appear charismatic and engaging really comes into its own. They are skilled at identifying the traits their employer values and projecting them. In other words, they are master manipulators.

Babiak also claims to have dealt with corporate psychopaths who enjoy causing others pain. For example, they may take pleasure in firing others or giving them a public dressing-down. This type of behaviour can create a culture of fear and paranoia. It can dominate an organisation and erode trust. Babiak actually believes that the pace of change in corporate life is increasingly appealing to psychopaths. These people are not attracted to bureaucracies, but thrive in environments with few rules and regulations. Empathy and authenticity are also valued leadership characteristics today. Psychopaths are clever at making you think they are genuinely interested in and understand you, but they are simply doing this to serve their own purpose.

How can non-psychopathic leaders address this issue? One thing they can do is to connect more widely with colleagues across all organisational levels. They can also avoid some of the more extreme behaviours mentioned above. There are of course degrees of psychopathy. So while it’s a good idea to be aware of it in the workplace, there’s no need to get too worried that your charming and charismatic colleague is turning into Hannibal Lecter next time he says to you, “I do wish we could chat longer, but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” That would just be paranoia – which is a different blog post altogether.

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