Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, Leonardo Di Caprio’s Wolf of Wall Street, or the late Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell – what do these fictional and real characters have in common?
They are all examples of a corporate psychopath, the second category we are exploring in our look at psychology’s Dark Triad (with narcissism and Machiavellianism) of personalities, and, say researchers, often over-represented at the top levels of the business world.
The US criminal psychologist Robert D. Hare called such people Snakes in Suits while both Oliver James, UK psychologist and author of Affluenza and Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks, and Clive Boddy, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at Middlesex University, have suggested that the 2008 Global Financial Crisis was the result of a mass outbreak of corporate psychopathy.
So, what is it about such people that makes their behaviour potentially so toxic and ultimately damaging to business?
Corporate psychopaths, the good the bad and the ugly
As with the Dark Triad’s two other elements, narcissism and Machiavellianism, the propensity for damage both to colleagues, employees and to a business by a corporate psychopath is all a question of degree.
Typically, they are charming, intelligent, sincere and have powerful personalities, all of which arguably are needed to propel the individual to the top in their career. Often such people perform well at interview, appearing alert, friendly and easy to talk to. They seem to be able, emotionally well-adjusted and reasonable. All traits of a high functioning psychopath.
However, the negative qualities underlying these apparent positive qualities are callousness and insensitivity even if well hidden behind a smooth façade.
Clues to the corporate psychopath’s real persona emerge over time, however. They may repeatedly humiliate colleagues or subordinates to get their way, perhaps regularly lose their tempers, take credit for others’ accomplishments and be “economical with the truth”, all forms of bullying and coercion with little or no regard for their victims.
They will typically set unrealistic goals for others to meet or come up with new ideas without properly assessing them or following through and this can be a problem when they are in positions of power, where they can issue directions for others to carry out, or try to, thereby setting their victims up to fail in a way that undermines them.
It is no surprise that the consequent working atmosphere for colleagues and its effects on business productivity can be dire.
Dealing with the toxic behaviour of the corporate psychopath means trying to anticipate their actions, documenting all instances of abuse, somehow not taking their behaviour personally and always having witnesses during confrontations; easier said than done but essential to prevent serious or even fatal damage to a business.
“Psychopaths loot corporations. They gamble with our money and then turn to the public to bail them out,” says Oliver James.