Management and Leadership Series Posted by David McDermott

Snakes in Suits

Is there a psychopath in your office?

Most of us have an internalised idea of what a psychopath is, the Fred Wests and Ted Bundys of this world – rotting in prison cells for heinous crimes, locked away from society. What if the reality was that the modern psychopath was a little closer to home, say, in the office at the end of the hall?

A recent publication by Professors Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, SNAKES IN SUITS: WHEN PSYCHOPATHS GO TO WORK, highlighted an evocative theory about where some ‘psychopaths’ fit into society. Where only one percent of the average population qualify as psychopaths, studies have suggested that among CEO’s this number jumps to 4% or even higher.

When we consider the 20 points in The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), a diagnostic tool used to rate a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies, this increased frequency doesn’t seem so far fetched:

  • Glibness and superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/Manipulative
  • Lack of remorse
  • Emotional shallowness
  • Unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions
  • A lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility
  • Callousness and lack of empathy
  • A tendency to boredom
  • A parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of behavioral control
  • Behavioral problems in early life
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Criminal versatility
  • A history of ‘revocation of conditional release’ (i.e. broken parole)
  • Multiple marriages
  • Promiscuous behavior

If we consider the cut-throat nature in the higher tiers of business some of these characteristics could be useful, or even desirable in a future employee. A charming and overtly confident individual may seem like the perfect candidate for a high profile job in sales.

It is also this charm and overt sense of self-worth which allows such individuals to progress in this world; high functioning psychotic individuals have an amazing affinity for hiding the darker aspects of their personality. If you consider a highly intelligent, outwardly confident and charming individual in an office environment, their callousness and impulsivity could be mistaken for drive or ambition.

So do you have a psychopath in your midst? Perhaps not, the statistics are still relatively low. However, it must be considered that it is impossible to test every individual for psychopathy and so the reality could be much higher.

How to spot them? According to professor Hare’s checklist an individual would have to score highly on most of the characteristics listed above. A ‘yes’ to less than ten of these points may mean your colleague isn’t the friendliest person in the office, but they are probably harmless. However if someone in your office appears to exhibit a twenty out of twenty, perhaps avoid stealing their coffee in the staff room, you know, just in case.

Babiak, P. and Hare, R.D., 2006. Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY: Regan Books.

Boddy, C., 2011. Corporate psychopaths: Organizational destroyers. Springer.

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