Psychopaths in the C-Suite?

October 15, 2018

The seemingly never-ending stream of corporate scandals over the past decades, from Enron to Theranos, suggests that something is rotten in corporate leaders. Many 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 Gordon Gekko, not Hannibal Lecter. In the business context, psychopathic tendencies appear as a constellation of personality traits such as boldness, meanness, and disinhibition. Any given person may possess these traits to some degree.

To some extent, psychopathic tendencies might be good for leaders in moderation. After all, we often need leaders who can make the tough decisions. The wrong combination of these traits, however, could have dire consequences. At some point, these individuals may tip from being assertive to being a bully.

To investigate the effects of psychopathic tendencies among those in leadership positions, Landay, Harms, and Credé (Online First) systematically surveyed the scientific evidence collected to date using meta-analysis. The authors also re-analyzed the results of several prior studies.

In their recently published paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers located 92 independent samples containing data on people's psychopathic tendencies and (1) whether they became leaders and (2) 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 seen as effective leaders. This was especially true when ratings were made by their followers.

Subsequent analyses uncovered a critical gender difference within these 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 leaders.

The overall findings also showed small curvilinear effects. Compared to those with low or high levels of psychopathic tendencies, people with moderate levels were more likely to be rated as effective leaders.

Taken together, the results do not support the idea that corporate leaders tend to have substantially higher levels of psychopathic tendencies. Although higher levels of psychopathic tendencies may provide a small advantage in attaining leadership positions, the researchers found no evidence suggesting that most, or even many, corporate leaders are psychopaths.

Of greater potential 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.

This 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.

Landay, K., Harms, P. D., & Credé, M. (In press). Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology.

The APA Journals Article Spotlight features summaries written in collaboration with authors of recently published articles by the Journals Program of the American Psychological Association. The articles are nominated by the editors as noteworthy to the scientific community.

American Psychological Association

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