This is an excerpt of an article by Gardiner Morse in the Harvard Business Review. You may expect an article like this to appear only in psychology journals but it’s becoming clear that psychology is taking a prominent role in the workplace:
Chances are good there’s a psychopath on your management team. Seriously. I’m not talking about the “psycho” boss that employees like to carp about the hard-driving supervisor who sometimes loses it. He’s just difficult. Nor am I referring to the sort of homicidal “psychopath” Hollywood likes to serve up Freddy Krueger, say, or Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Neither is, clinically speaking, a psychopath.
I’m talking about the real thing, the roughly 1% of the population that is certifiably psychopathic. True psychopaths are diagnosed according to very specific clinical criteria, and they’re nothing like the popular conception. What stands out about bona fide psychopaths is that they’re so hard to spot. They’re chameleons. They have a cunning ability to act perfectly normally and indeed to be utterly charming, as they wreak havoc on the lives of the people around them and the companies they inhabit.
Many of psychopaths’ defining characteristics – their polish, charm, cool decisiveness, and fondness for the fast lane – are easily, and often, mistaken for leadership qualities. That’s why they may be singled out for promotion. But along with their charisma come the traits that make psychopaths so destructive: They’re cunning, manipulative, untrustworthy, unethical, parasitic, and utterly remorseless. There’s nothing they won’t do, and no one they won’t exploit, to get what they want. A psychopathic manager with his eye on a colleague’s job, for instance, will doctor financial results, plant rumors, turn coworkers against each other, and shift his persona as needed to destroy his target. He’ll do it, and his bosses will never know.
That makes them particularly dangerous to organizations, says Robert Hare, a University of British Columbia psychologist whose psychopathy checklist, the PCL-R, is used worldwide to screen for psychopathic personalities. Hare believes that psychopaths are increasingly common in business because they’re attracted to the pace and volatility of today’s hypercompetitive workplaces. And because companies unwittingly nurture them, Hare and his colleague Paul Babiak, a New York-based industrial psychologist, think they’re rising through the ranks. To find out, this summer Hare and Babiak began testing a screening tool specifically devised to expose psychopathy at work.
Some of these people are undoubtedly in your organization, and you certainly don’t want to promote them. How do you tell a true high-potential from the likely psychopath? Hare’s track record in the field suggests that the experimental screen he and Babiak are currently testing, the 360-degree B-Scan, could become the standard tool for exposing corporate psychopaths. But it will be some months before the preliminary data are in and the tool’s validity can be evaluated.
In the meantime, companies can do several things to contain psychopaths at work, Hare and Babiak say. First, make it easy for rank-and-file workers to express concerns about colleagues. Have an ombudsman or an anonymous tip line. Because regular employees are less useful to a psychopath than leaders, the psychopath’s mask will often come off in front of staff, and employees will pick up on the psychopath’s game before management does.
Second, thoroughly cross-check your impressions of your high-potentials with colleagues who know them well. A psychopath will tell you exactly what you want to hear, and it may be quite different from what he tells others. When the stories don’t jibe, take a closer look.
Finally, be self-aware. Leaders are famously conscious of their strengths but often clueless about their vulnerabilities. A psychopath will manipulate you by exploiting personal weaknesses. Learn about your weaknesses (a coach can help), and beware when someone seeks advantage by playing on them.