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Psychopaths in the boardroom! (But YOU knew that…. :-) )

British researcher, Clive Boddy’s paper, “Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis” in the Journal of Business Ethics (an oxymoron, according to the late George Carlin :-) ), follows a study coauthored with Dr. Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist who is co-author of the book “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work.” The study found that THERE ARE FOUR TIMES as many people displaying psychopathic tendencies among senior managers as there are in the general population, i.e., 4% instead of 1%.

“People tend to think of psychopaths as criminals. In fact, the majority of psychopaths aren’t criminal,” said Hare, a pioneer in the study of psychopathy who developed the first diagnostic test for the mental disorder in 1980. “They don’t go out and maim, rob and rape but find other ways to satisfy themselves without doing something necessarily illegal … such as taking risks with someone else’s property or money.”

If you are a LONG-time reader of this blog, you may remember the “Snakes in Suits….” book. I wrote a blog entry on February 13, 2008 called “Workplace bullies and psychos…” that cited a article in which Dr. Hare’s work was quoted. Also in that blog, I mentioned the award-winning film, “The Corporation,” which examines the question, “If corporations are people, then what KIND of people ARE they?” :-) The conclusion was that they are psychopaths, and the evidence is substantial. My 2008 blog entry seriously underestimates the number of likely psychopaths in my life. The one in graduate school clearly remains, but I think that I can safely increase the estimate in business from 1 to 4.

Most of us have an image of psychopathy that’s inaccurate — we think of the killer, a crazy person … the fact is, psychopathy is a personality disorder that may or may not result in criminal behavior,” said Paul Babiak, a New York industrial psychologist who has teamed with Hare on “Snakes and Suits” and a range of studies on psychopaths in the workplace over the past 16 years.

Psychopaths are drawn to powerful people and positions. “They like to play head games with people and make good money at it,” said Babiak, who coaches executives on dealing with psychopathic colleagues — and most of his clients are in the financial services industry. “They’re not stupid. They can decode what’s expected of them and play the part.”

Dr. Hare notes that it far easier to study psychopathy in prisons than in corporations, because the psychopathy of prisons is well-documented, but in corporations, “…companies don’t want to know.”

The difference between “high-flyers” and psychopaths is that high-flyers exhibit different personas at work vs. at home. (If you think about it, this is ANOTHER kind of mental illness. :-) ) Psychopaths do not vary their behavior and treat friends and family as badly as they do colleagues at work.

The CNN article notes that “…these are golden times for cold, career opportunists like psychopaths, psychologists say.” The damage done in terms of bad morale, poor teamwork, and ineffective execution of strategy can be hard to quantify, unless the psychopath deviates into actual crime. I have seen the negative effects in corporations, and the likely psychopaths involved were rewarded.

And crime in the workplace is rising. A November report from PriceWaterhouse Coopers shows global economic crime is rising — a 13% increase since its 2009 world survey, with an average cost per company of $5 million. And most of the crimes are inside jobs: 56% of companies say the offenders were employees.

“You may have people who defraud your business ranging from taking change out of the register to stealing tens of thousands,” Babiak said. “The psychopath sees no difference and feels no remorse.”

Some of the likely psychopaths for whom I worked were laid off, but most have been promoted.

-Bill at

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