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Workplace blogs

Is Your Workplace Psychopath-Friendly?

I recently read the fascinating (if not disturbing) book, The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson. There’s a chapter in the book that talks about the presence of psychopaths in corporations, speculating that psychopaths show up at a higher than expected rate in leadership positions. Other books, including Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, as well as countless articles and research papers, also suggest that there are more psychopaths prowling the corridors of power than we might imagine.

What concerns me, beyond the obvious “creepy factor” is this: What does it say about business norms and workplace cultures that someone who possesses the traits of a psychopath is considered a prime candidate for a senior leadership position!?

Shouldn’t having psychopathic traits be considered just a wee bit of a red flag when hiring or promoting someone up the food chain? The fact that someone who is capable of faking human emotions, particularly empathy, is deemed as the ideal candidate to lead and inspire other human beings should be more disturbing than the infamous shower scene from Psycho!

Consider how likely you are to hire someone into any position, let alone a senior leadership position, who possessed the following traits that characterize a typical psychopath.

Your garden-variety psychopaths…

  • Don’t express remorse or take personal responsibility for their actions;
  • Are enormously arrogant with a grandiose sense of self-worth;
  • Are master manipulators;
  • Compulsively lie;
  • Are glib and ooze of superficial charm;
  • Are callous and unable to express empathy;
  • Have difficulty setting long term goals;
  • Take huge risks;
  • Are impulsive and irresponsible.

It is estimated that about 1% of the general population is a psychopath, yet 3-5% of senior leaders are psychopaths. Even more frightening, an Australian study found than 21% (one-in-five) of senior leaders display clinically significant traits of psychopaths.

So what does this reveal about our expectations for what makes a successful leader? Are we too quick to hire and promote glib, overly-self confident leaders because of a false belief that the most effective leaders are highly charismatic extroverts? Is it because businesses too often overlook traits such as empathy because those characteristics are considered “soft skills,” perhaps even, gasp, signs of weakness? Does this reflect the old-fashioned take-no-prisoners, macho ideal of what a real business leader is supposed to resemble?

It’s worth taking an honest look at your own workplace’s culture, leadership styles, and business norms and asking whether or not your workplace culture provides a safe haven for psychopaths to flourish.

Or do your values reflect what it really takes to create an inspiring workplace culture in the 21st century – a humane, caring, empathetic, and yes, even loving workplace culture that puts humanity and people first.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments on this topic.

Michael Kerr is a sought-after international business leader, trainer, motivational speaker, and author of six books, including The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing All the Way to the Bank.

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