BBC Capital

When the boss is a psychopath

Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' (20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

Michael Douglas plays Gordon Gekko in 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Corporate bullies may make spellbinding film leads for a couple of hours — think Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko or Leonardo Di Caprio’s Wolf of Wall Street—but in real life, they wreak havoc on workers and businesses.

Miranda, a journalist for a Dutch news agency for 20 years, who did not want her last name used for fear of harming professional relationships, said she once worked for a tyrannical, manipulative manager.  “Everyone would get blamed if things went wrong,” she said. “There were overnight emails copied to everyone, where a person would get humiliated.”

His actions undermined stability and trust. “Middle managers and editors were fighting between themselves to be his favourite,” she added. “He was very Machiavellian, playing everyone off [against] each other.”

Though these office monsters are often portrayed on-screen as mostly harmless anti-heroes, there is growing anxiety over a large crossover between bullying in the workplace and what’s being termed ‘corporate psychopathy.’

Post global financial crisis, a growing body of research has accumulated on the bad behaviour of corporate bullies — in particular in the banking sector. The research is beginning to pinpoint traits that are no longer deemed just nasty and disruptive, but altogether psychopathic, experts suggest.

The clinical list of common psychopathic traits — which include a lack of remorse, charm that can be turned on and off like a spigot, egocentricity, lying, manipulativeness, impulsiveness and emotional poverty — are prevalent among people drawn to positions of power.

It is important to make the distinction between psychopathic behaviour and psychotic.  Psychosis is a symptom of mental illness. Broad speaking, it means someone has lost contact with reality. When psychologists talk about psychopaths, however, they are talking about a person with a personality disorder showing a distinct set of characteristics such as ruthlessness, charm and extreme coolness under pressure, as well as a lack of empathy and conscience. These traits often crop up among personality types looking for wealth, glory and the need to control others, the experts say.

Looting

It’s not just their immediate underlings in the office who should be quaking in their boots. “Psychopaths loot corporations. They gamble with our money and then turn to the public to bail them out,” said psychologist and broadcaster Oliver James, author of Affluenza and Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks.  “Almost all recent [financial]crashes” can be blamed on people showing psychopathic behaviour, said James.

Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and victim of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, has said “psychopath” is “too nice a word” to describe the American, who is now jailed for spearheading what is considered to be the largest financial fraud in US history.

British academic Clive Boddy even goes so far as to blame the 2009 global financial meltdown on business leaders showing psychopathic behaviour. “I believe they influence the whole ethics of an organisation in a downward spiral and influence the people around them,” he said.

It is hard to say just how prevalent people showing psychopathic behaviour are in the workplace. Psychologist Robert Hare, whose 20-item Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is the standard diagnostic tool for measuring the condition, estimates they make up around one percent of the general population.

Less scientific studies, carried out mainly online, also suggest the number may be higher in the corporate boardroom. The Great British Psychopath Survey was launched in 2011 by University of Oxford psychologist and author Kevin Dutton. Dutton used a psychometric test to survey 5,500 people asking them to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements ranging from: “In today's world, I feel justified in doing anything I can get away with to succeed” to “Love is overrated.”

While not a scientific study, the results do give an indicator to which professions people with psychopathic tendencies are most attracted. CEOs head the list, followed by lawyers, broadcast professionals, sales people and surgeons. Journalists, police officers and clergy also rank high. The least likely professionals to exhibit psychopathic characteristics? Care workers, nurses, therapists, artists and teachers.

The upside to psychopathy?

There is, however, office ruthlessness can have a few benefits which can lead to a highly successful career in some fields. Though these leaders cause misery and mayhem, “those who can curb their tendencies to ignore society’s rules are at a great advantage,” said James. “If you take away the concern with other people that figures in most people’s calculations, you are more free and can think outside the box.”

So-called highly functional psychopaths, who are unlikely to pose a physical threat to colleagues, can be very effective in some corporate settings because they lose no sleep over firing staff and take credit for other’s ideas while passing their own failures off as colleagues’ mistakes, James said.

“Greed is good in a globalised economy, where you need people at the top who are pretty damn ruthless,” said James, especially when it comes to crucial business decisions such as downsizing a business and making job cuts. But that same ruthlessness, if left unchecked, is high risk he said, and could “crash the company.” James currently works with chief executives to help them become “psychopathic enough.”

Some bosses who display narcissistic or Machiavellian traits can be worked with, said James. Employees can try flattery for the former and making yourself useful to the latter. But, for many, the situation may be untenable.

“It’s like working for a six-year old,” said Amsterdam-based psychotherapist Audrey Kraft.  “If that’s your boss, you’re in trouble. You’re not going to change them and they won’t learn from their mistakes.”

British academic Boddy, who has written widely on business ethics, offers some  suggestions for beleaguered workers: Know your enemy by familiarising yourself with the corporate psychopath literature so you can anticipate her actions, document all instances of abuse; don't take it personally; have witnesses when during confrontations, to prevent any possible backlash and crucially be prepared to be disbelieved by management higher up in the company.

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Psychopaths loot corporations. — Oliver James