Both narcissists and psychopaths will use a range of strategies to advance themselves in the business world. If you're working with one, you might not even realise it – until they do something devious and underhand to crush you.
It is estimated that 1% of the general population have psychopathic traits, and this figure rises to 4% among business leaders. Chief executives have the highest prevalence of psychopathic traits – a rate second only to prison inmates.
Professor Renata Schoeman, psychiatrist and associate professor in leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), says it is often the leaders – who should be at the forefront of reducing workplace conditions that lead to stress and burnout – who contribute to the problem, rather than the solution.
“We are not talking about the ‘difficult’ boss here, but the boss who is a bully – many of whom can be defined as corporate psychopaths."
Schoeman highlights the following "officially acknowledged" psychopath subtypes:
Primary psychopaths are unemotional, callous, manipulative, do not take risks, and experience little to no fear and anxiety. The scary part? They have no guilt or remorse. They have a very strong association with antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.
If your boss or colleague’s behaviour is motivated by personal gain, and they seem to demonstrate a lack of emotional sensitivity towards others, you might have a "classic psychopath" among you. Those with this subtype also exhibit "good intelligence", which means they avoid the social deviant label and channel their manipulative behaviour in socially acceptable ways.
Secondary psychopaths are emotionally unstable, and although their traits are more associated with criminal behaviour, you're still likely to find them in the workplace. They’re rash, impulsive, emotional, anxious, hostile, aggressive and self-destructive. However, unlike the primary psychopath, they’re disorganised and associated with risky decision-making.
They have the capacity to experience some degree of fear and remorse and to empathise effectively, but due to their emotional disturbance, these emotions are often covered up by their hostility and aggression.
Other subtypes include:
They crave excitement and have a low tolerance for boredom, and are drawn to dangerous sports and activities.
This subtype of psychopaths are "hotheads", predominantly males, and are most likely to be aggressive and violent, frequently flying into rages.
Is your boss or colleague charming and uses it to their advantage to effortlessly manipulate others? Apart from their charm, charismatic psychopaths are irresistible pathological liars. They can talk people out of almost anything. According to the Harvard Business Review, the main reason for their charm is that it allows them to mask their antisocial tendencies, enabling them to get away with things.
Bending the rules; manipulating and lying to gain personal benefit; unable to commit to long-term goals; and having a Machiavellian egocentricity – these are all characteristic of egocentrically-impulsive psychopaths.
They are narcissistic and see the world as a hostile place, and themselves as innocent victims of circumstances, which also means they tend to rationalise their aggressive behaviour and to blame others for their own problems or failures. It has been shown that there is a strong link between egocentrically-impulsive psychopathy and borderline personality disorder.
Psychopaths thrive under abusive bosses
According to a study published in the Journal of Business Ethics, primary psychopaths flourish under leaders who are also psychopathic and narcissistic. This is mostly because they don’t respond to stress the same way as others.
It turns out that many CEOs have psychopathic traits, and management researcher Charlice Hurst told Business Insider that this may perpetuate a cycle of abuse, while they reach the top of their companies.
Additional bullying tactics of the successful psychopath include:
- Manipulating others to bond with them
- Using their victims’ feedback to build and maintain control, then abandoning them when they are no longer useful
- Taking credit and deflecting blame
- Creating and maintaining conflicts and rivalries among colleagues
Schoeman adds that both narcissists and psychopaths have traits that could be positive and that they can be highly successful in business, but that their ability to create a toxic work environment can increase conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism.
Schoeman cautions employees to be equipped to recognise and safeguard themselves against these workplace bullies:
- Ground yourself and realise that their behaviour is a result of their insecurity, and that it likely won’t change.
- Protect yourself in the following way: know your rights; build a support network; have witnesses; and get everything in writing.
- Build your reputation and relationships.
- Keep your emotions in check and don’t show that you are intimidated.
- Where possible, opt for online communication, as negotiation and manipulation are more difficult when you have a record of all communication.
However, “not everyone with loads of confidence and who is successful, even if they have a brash approach to people, has a personality disorder,” says Schoeman.
The ones to be most concerned about are those who display narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.