A path lit by words

Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

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On the HBR Blog Network this month, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD, referenced The Wolf of Wall Street in his post, “Is Your Boss a Psychopath.” It took me back more than ten years, when I started to write a mystery novel—and realized I knew nothing about how villains think.

Forensic psychologist Barbara Kirwin introduced me to sociopaths and psychopaths in The Mad, the Bad, and the Innocent. Kirwin used murderers, serial killers, and rapists to illustrate the distinction between insanity and evil. At the core is the M’Naghten Rule—the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Simply put, the psychopath knows the difference. S/he just doesn’t care.

Repelled and intrigued, I moved on to Robert Hare, Ph. D., whose forty-year career includes developing the psychopathy checklist and the P-scan to test for it. In Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Hare points out the chilling fact that most psychopaths never go to prison. The rest—Hare refers to them as “subcriminal” psychopaths while others call them “successful”—are found in our churches, our governments, our schools, and—badum ching—our corporations.

It was 2002 and we’d just lived through the WorldCom and Enron scandals that gave us Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. Hare’s book got me thinking about the CEOs, C-suite executives, and other managers I’d met over the years—some who destroyed one corporation and moved on to the next, others who seemed to thrive on using and abusing their employees. Hare showed me why psychopaths so often end up in leadership positions:  Their essential characteristics—such as superficial charm, self-confidence, and calm reaction to rapid change and chaos—make them attractive to corporate boards in troubled companies. More often than not, their lack of empathy, high tolerance for risk, and love of power sink the ship instead of turning it around.

In 2005, after more scandals had emerged, Fast Company published an article (also called “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?”) that quoted Hare and mentioned the B-scan, an assessment tool adapted by Hare and industrial psychologist Paul Babiak from the P-scan. “We screen police officers [for psychopathy],” Hare said at the time. “Why not people who are going to handle billions of dollars?”

Fast forward through ten years of corporate collapses and scandals and we still don’t have a screening tool suitable for an organizational setting. Apparently, it’s not easy to validate such a tool, and you have to believe there are legal issues. Psychological Assessment recently reported progress with the B-Scan 360, which uses ratings of others to measure an individual’s psychopathic features in workplace settings. Unfortunately, it still isn’t ready for prime time.

While we’re waiting, psychologists like Clive R. Boddy and others writing business and management articles and blogs are teaching us to spot these real-life villains, so we can eradicate them from our careers and our lives—and keep them in fiction, where they belong.

Author: Jean Bardo

I'm a freelance Human Resources consultant and blogger, a published short story writer, and an aspiring author of fiction I call "literary mysteries."

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