Is Your Boss A Psychopath? 7 Ways To Tell

Posted: 28/04/2014


    By Angela Stephenson

According to a recent study, 1% of the UK population are psychopaths. This figure rises to 4% amongst managers and leaders – a 2011 study suggested that this is because ‘psychopathic’ traits are attractive to businesses; for example, the ability to manipulate complicated situations. This means there’s a 1 in 25 chance that your manager is a psychopath.

Let's get this clear: not all psychopaths are like the murderers in horror films. They are not always violent, but they do love power. Psychopaths are characterised by selfishness, persuasiveness, lack of empathy and a desire to win at all costs. The one thing they crave above all things is power. However, they're hard to detect because they are often very intelligent and adept at coming across in a charismatic and convincing way.

Unfortunately, some of these personality traits are positively rewarded in business. Throughout the recession, businesses have wheeled in cut-throat managers who have remorselessly axed whole departments in an attempt to save money. Businesses also need managers who are driven and have a strong desire to win; however, psychopaths tend to prioritise their own interests, goals and ideas over other people’s in a manner which is detrimental to the business.

Psychopaths are incredibly persuasive characters, and when in managerial roles they are able to manipulate a workforce into wanting to please them at any cost, including allowing them to take credit for work that others have done. The psychologist Robert Hare developed a ‘psychopath test’ to rank people against, and here are seven traits from the twenty-point checklist:

1) Grandiose sense of self-worth

Confidence is key in business, but when it gets to the point of delusion, co-workers should be wary. If managers are too egocentric, to the disadvantage of everybody else on the team, this could be the sign of a psychopath.

2) Impulsivity

Psychopaths will act because they feel a sudden impulse to do so, that they feel unable to ignore. This is incredibly problematic in a business situation, when managers are responsible for the direction that a company will take. Instead of considering all potential consequences, psychopaths are likely to leap into big decisions without contemplating the downsides, or considering the opinions of others. Unfortunately, it’s up to everyone else to pick up the pieces. 

3) Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Have you ever found yourself quietly taking the blame for something you were instructed by your boss to do? Or has your boss ever openly denied something that was their idea, or is unable to come to terms with the fact that they made a mistake? Psychopath bosses are so manipulative that they’ll have you willingly taking the blame for something that’s not even your fault.

4) Pathological liar

This is a difficult one to detect, because talented liars are often adept at covering their tracks. However, when it comes to payment, available funds or business problems, it can be easy to spot a boss who is lying to their team. When bosses lie to their direct reports in order to protect their own integrity or reputation, it breaks down trust and poisons the workplace.

5) Superficial charm

This aids a psychopath’s manipulative side. They can come across as incredibly charming, smooth and slick and are not shy or self-conscious in any way. They make an excellent impression without displaying their true intentions, and are often well liked. This makes them successful in sales roles, but the connections they make are only ever self-serving.

6) Shallow affect

Psychopaths have little emotional depth and are unable to react emotionally, even in times of intense feeling. This means they are unlikely to panic, “flap”, or feel anxious in highly stressful situations. This is rewarded in businesses, as keeping cool under pressure is important. However, the shallow emotional affect that psychopaths have extends beyond stressful business scenarios, and into the personal relations they have with their workers and potential management of others’ mental health issues at work.

7) Lack of empathy

Psychopaths are unlikely to understand why you might need to take the afternoon off because your child is sick, or why someone may need to take time off work after witnessing a traumatic incident. This is strongly linked to their shallow affect – they simply just cannot process emotions.

Psychopaths are also incredibly manipulative, and may attempt to turn one team member against another. Remember: this is a sign of a bad leader. Good leaders dispel negativity in the workplace and word hard to unite teams, not divide them. They don’t abuse co-workers and they play by everybody else’s rules. They’re unlikely to take huge risks that may affect business success and team morale, and will always accept responsibility.

If someone is displaying psychopathic tendencies, it may be very hard to confront them on it, given their manipulative and persuasive abilities. Manipulation is commonly understood as the ability to make other people do what you want, even if it is against their own interests, and making them feel guilty for not doing it. However, it’s important to take steps to modify a manager’s behaviour if they seem psychopathic, or to remove them entirely; if they are left to please themselves, they can bring whole teams down and ruin a workplace. The first step to evaluating a manager's behaviour is with 360 degree feedback.

It's much more difficult if you're selling to an organisation where there is a psychopath in charge. If they're at the top of one organisation, they may be controlling expenditure and you could find yourself in meetings with them.

Have you had any experiences working with someone who has psychopathic tendencies? Comment below to let us know!

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