Fewer psychopaths in the C-Suite?

Posted on under Today's research

The seemingly never-ending stream of corporate scandals over the past decades, from Enron and Worldcom to the recent US and Australian bank scandals, suggests that something is rotten in the brains of many corporate leaders. Many researchers place the blame on psychopaths, who are characteristically superficially charming but lack empathy, anxiety, or any sense of blame or guilt.

While the term “psychopathy” may bring to mind violent criminals, individuals with psychopathic tendencies are not uncommon and tend to frequently engage in bad, but not necessarily criminal, activities—think the character Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street”, not Hannibal Lecter. In the business context, psychopathic tendencies appear as a constellation of personality traits such as boldness, meanness, and disinhibition. All of us possess these traits to some degree.

In some ways, psychopathic tendencies in moderation might be good for leaders. After all, we often need leaders who can make the tough decisions. The wrong combination of these traits, however, can have dire consequences. At some point, psychopathic individuals tip from assertiveness to bullying and worse.

To investigate the effects of psychopathic tendencies among those in leadership positions, the researchers behind this study systematically surveyed the scientific evidence collected to date and re-analyzed the results of prior studies.

What the researchers say: The researchers located 92 studies containing data on people’s psychopathic tendencies, whether they became leaders and how their performance as leaders was rated by themselves or others. Results showed that individuals with psychopathic tendencies were slightly more likely to become leaders but were less likely to be effective leaders.

Their study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The analysis uncovered a critical gender difference within the results. Men with psychopathic tendencies were more likely to become leaders and were rated as more effective leaders. However, women who displayed psychopathic tendencies were less likely to be selected as leaders and were rated as less effective.

Although higher levels of psychopathic tendencies may provide a small advantage in attaining leadership positions, the researchers found no evidence to suggest that the majority corporate leaders are full-blown psychopaths. Previous studies reported in TR found that 15% of CEOs of Fortune 500s could be classed as psychopaths.

Of greater concern is the gender difference, which occurred along stereotypical lines. Acting in a psychopathic manner seemed to provide an advantage for men, but a disadvantage for women.

So, what? This study has two important implications. First, these findings contribute to the growing evidence that bad behavior by males in the workplace is too often tolerated or dismissed, and that this can have long-term detrimental effects for organizations.

Second, advice given to women in the workplace to act more “male-like” in order to get ahead is likely to backfire—they can just as easily become bullies or indulge in unethical behavior in order to be seen as “leadership material.”

As a behavioral scientist I can attest to the fact that there is no biological reason why it is “natural” for men to be better leaders or for psychopathic qualities to be effective in management—quite the reverse on both counts.