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Skilled Executive or Psychopath?

Do you have a psychopath employee in your organization? Here’s a six-step action plan to follow if you find that you do.

Psychopaths. The term conjures up images of serial killers like Ted Bundy and con artists like Charles Ponzi, as well as financial fraudsters like Bernie Madoff who have followed in his footsteps. Recent media reports suggest that psychopaths are more common in the corporate world than one might suppose with every company harboring one or more of these sinister characters. Are there psychopaths in your organization? To answer that, we first need to define psychopathy.

Understanding Psychopathy

Psychopathy involves the consistent presence of specific characteristics: glibness and superficial charm, conning and manipulative behavior, deceitfulness, grandiosity, lack of remorse and empathy, blaming others for problems, impulsivity, absence of goals, failure to meet obligations, poor control over behavior, and antisocial behavior as an adolescent or adult. Psychopaths know the difference between right and wrong; they just don’t care about that difference if it’s not in their interests. The only thing that matters is satisfaction of their immediate goals.

Although the number of psychopaths in the corporate world is subject to debate, one thing is certain: psychopathic traits can be found in a small, but significant, percentage of executives. In a study by Babiak et al (Babiak P, Neumann CS, Hare RD. Corporate psychopathy: talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences and the Law. 28:174-193 (2010)), of 203 executives from 7 companies,, 3% of the corporate sample scored in the “psychopath” range, as opposed to 1% of the general population. And approximately 6% of the corporate sample had scores in the middle range of the scale, with 1.2% of the general population scoring in that range. Babiak et al refer to those in the mid-range as “potential” or “possible” psychopaths. In our recently-released book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy we refer to these people as “almost psychopaths.”

A useful way to explain psychopathy is with an example:

Jason had the perfect credentials for his position as a director of purchasing for a retail firm. Well-educated, charming, and garrulous, he was strongly recommended by a business colleague of the CEO. Jason came in to work early and left late. He offered to travel when others balked,, and made it a point to have a genial chat with the CEO as often as possible.

Then the firm noticed a significant amount of merchandise was disappearing, and the evidence pointed to Jason. Ultimately, the investigation included forensic accounting, a search of his email, and surveillance of Jason on several business trips. The results were damning: visits with call girls billed to the company credit card and listed as business expenses and emails and shipping documents showing that Jason had been diverting goods to an overseas competitor. Confronted with all this evidence, Jason calmly denied any wrongdoing. When it became obvious that he could not lie his way out of it, Jason threatened to “go to the papers” and tell them about inappropriate business practices and embarrassing sexual escapades of the CEO if the company took legal action against him. Even though baseless, the allegations alone would attract plenty of negative publicity for the company and the CEO.

Was Jason a psychopath? Probably, and if not, he would meet our almost psychopath definition.

The Challenge of Psychopathy in Business

It seems obvious that every organization should avoid hiring potential Jasons and, failing that, get rid of them once they are found out. This can be more of a challenge than it might seem, for several reasons.

First, some of the traits associated with psychopathy can be highly adaptive in the business world. In fact, you may actually look for some combination of these same traits in people you hire and promote: the ability to turn personal charm on and off as needed, a ruthless approach to competition, the capacity to manipulate both situations and individuals to personal and corporate advantage, the ability to make tough decisions without being deterred or troubled by remorse, lack of empathy for the harm their actions cause to others, and a willingness to take risks.

While these are all considered to be elements of psychopathy, whether the person in question is a psychopath or almost a psychopath depends upon the quantity and quality of the characteristics. The smaller the number, the less likely the person falls into psychopath territory. Traits that are used to further group, rather than individual, goals are more likely to reflect true business skills rather than psychopathy. But if they are present in greater numbers and intensity, they may be indicators not of a corporate star but of a serious threat to ,corporate security.

The second aspect of the challenge is that those with significant psychopathic traits can be skilled at concealing their true natures. Most corporate psychopaths are “successful psychopaths.” They are able to effectively use some of their psychopathic traits and function for years, perhaps their entire lives, without getting into serious trouble. They are frequently skilled at conning and manipulating those around them, taking particular delight in deceiving their superiors.

How do you know?

Diagnosing psychopathy is a job for behavioral health specialists with appropriate training and experience. The following warning signs may indicate that it is time to bring in such professional help to determine if you are dealing with a psychopath or almost psychopath:

  • Glibness and superficial charm
  • Lack of empathy
  • Consistent self-interested decisions, even where it is ethically questionable
  • Chronic, sometimes transparent, lies even about minor things
  • Lack of remorse and indifference to right vs. wrong
  • Failure to take responsibility for one’s actions, and instead blaming others
  • Shallow emotions
  • Ignoring responsibilities
  • Persistent focus on gratifying personal needs at the expense of others
  • Conning and manipulative behavior

The presence of a few of these characteristics, especially intermittently, is usually not a problem. Nevertheless, if you see these in combination, it is time to take a closer look.

What to do if you suspect you have a psychopath in your organization.

Harvard professor Thomas Gutheil advises physicians to “Never worry alone” when they run into clinical problems. The same holds true for CEO’s dealing with suspected corporate psychopaths. If you see the warning signs listed above, reach out for expert assistance and advice. A team approach, combining behavioral health expertise, human resources, corporate security, and investigative services is optimal for conducting a thorough assessment and identifying any harm that may have been done to the organization.

If the consultation indicates that you have a psychopath or almost psychopath in your organization. There are several key considerations in deciding on an action plan of and then putting it into operation.

  1. Any action must be based on behavior that has violated company policy, broken the law, or disrupted the organization and its employees, and not merely on the presence of a suspected psychological condition. Otherwise, you may find yourself facing a disability discrimination claim.
  2. Expect wave after wave of denials and excuses, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
  3. Expect that the individual in question will have supporters—including supervisors– who have been charmed by him or her.
  4. Those who have learned to fear the person in question will be reluctant to come forward. They will need reassurance that it is safe and appropriate to share their observations and concerns.
  5. Expect to be met with threats—disclosure of alleged corporate misconduct, defection to a competitor, “you’ll be sorry” comments that suggest possible physical violence or other harm, and litigation. Consult with counsel and be prepared for the onslaught.
  6. Stay the course.

Psychopaths and almost psychopaths achieve their ends by taking advantage of the kindness and trust of others. They are successful, in part, because most of us believe the best of our colleagues and have difficulty fathoming how they operate. William March, the author of The Bad Seed put it well: “[G]ood people are rarely suspicious; they cannot imagine others doing the things they themselves are incapable of doing . . .” The best defense lies in paying attention to the warning signs, using a team approach, and mustering the resolve to act for the sake of the organization.

About Ronald Schouten and James Silver

Dr. Ronald Schouten, MD, JD, is a former attorney who left the practice of law to pursue a career in medicine. He is currently on staff at Harvard Medical School. James Silver, JD, is a former federal prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney who has tried cases and handled appeals on offenses spanning illegal behavior, from shoplifting to murder. Their book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy is published Hazelden Publishing/Harvard Health Publications.