Does your boss seem unusually charming? Have an inflated idea of his (or her) own importance? Abandons current tasks carelessly for new possibilities? Lies, cheats, cons, or manipulates to achieve selfish ends? You could be under the leadership of a psychopath.
There are a fair few around. Research indicates while 1 in a 100 people display concerning psychopathic tendencies, 4 per cent of CEOs, top management and business leaders qualify for the title.
Illustration: Angela Keoghan.
That may not be surprising. Psychopaths – people characterised by being amoral and concerned only with their own power and selfish pleasures – like to hang out near the top. In fact, it could be said that capitalism rewards them.
Although as an employee you may feel trampled on, smooth-talked, or callously disregarded by your boss, shareholders could consider this person a “real hard-hitter” who “gets things done”.
Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test – A Journey into Madness, has an anecdote about “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap – former CEO of US home appliances firm Sunbeam.
An employee came up to tell Dunlap he’d just bought a new car. “Well you might have a new car, but you know what you don’t have – a job,” was Dunlap’s response.
Studies show this complete lack of empathy is typical of a psychopathic boss. On the flipside, quite a few people generally seen as high achievers – Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Gordon Ramsay, Naomi Campbell, Bill Clinton and Walt Disney – are all on the psychopathic spectrum, according to people that study that sort of thing.
Devon Polaschek, associate professor at the Victoria University School of Psychology puts it quite well. “There are some positive characteristics – stress immunity is one of them. [Psychopathic tendencies] enable you to put yourself into novel and challenging situations in a way that other people can’t. Clearly that can go well or it can go badly.”
Fortunately, there are clever tests coming through to help companies avoid hiring psychopaths; a team of researchers at Binghamton University in the US has developed a computerised content analysis tool to measure narcissistic and psychopathic traits that will be available next year. And we all can probably identify with some psychopathic traits – great leaders have a very fine line to walk.
How to spot a psychopath
Dr Robert Hare has developed “The Psychopath Test” – a helpful checklist of 20 traits that psychopaths have in common. Here are 10 that could help your boss make tough decisions, lead fearlessly, and pursue exciting new opportunities. Or they could help make an enemy out of nearly everyone in the office.
1. Glib and superficial charm.
2. Grandiose self-worth – a grossly inflated view of one’s abilities.
3. Low boredom threshold – an excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation.
4. Pathological lying – on a scale from being crafty, cunning, and clever, to being deceptive, deceitful, and dishonest.
5. Manipulativeness – the use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from number four in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present.
6 No empathy – tactless, cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate.
7 Poor behavioural controls – irritability, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse.
8 Promiscuous sexual behaviour – a variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners.
9 Lack of long-term planning – persistent failure to develop and execute long-term goals.
10 Failure to accept responsibility for own actions – low conscientiousness, absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility.
It’s confirmed – my boss is bonkers. Now what? Don’t expect they’ll change – being nice and bringing them cookies isn't going to help.
There are really only three approaches you can take:
Encourage teamwork – this scares them; they don’t enjoy working with others.
Tell the boss – give concrete examples of how it’s affected your morale and work.
Leave – if your psychopath is the boss, then get the hell outta there. You’ll suffer smart-bullying and manipulation as long as you stay.
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