Corporate Psychopaths are 4:1

Key Thought

Toxic leaders demonstrate psychopathic behaviours that place them on the spectrum of Antisocial Personality Disorder. Their prevalence is 4 times higher in corporate organisations than in the general population.

If you find yourself going to work each day silently dreading your next encounter with what you might describe as a toxic leader, you are not alone. In fact, one study reported that a startling 94% of people surveyed claim they have worked with a toxic leader.

Toxic (definition: acting as or having the effect of a poison; poisonous) can’t be good for you. Neither is it good for an organisation. Research findings from Michigan State University put the cost of uncivil behaviour in toxic organisations at $14,000 per employee. Yet there appears to be remarkably little effort made to detox unhealthy organisations, rid them of harmful characters or even acknowledge the level of dysfunction such leaders channel.

If the topic of toxic leadership is somewhat awkward, unpalatable – even taboo – then try tackling corporate psychopathy in your workplace. A real conversation killer. Why? Because in all likelihood, that tag probably rests most aptly in your leadership ranks and it may go right to the top.

The discomfort in addressing this matter is understandable – the language associated with it seems better suited to hospitals, mental facilities and prisons than corporate offices and business parks. Psychotic, devious, narcissistic, hostile, remorseless.

Here’s the thing: corporate psychopathy exists not on a dichotomic platform (you are or you aren’t), but rather on a spectrum. From low, whereby you display some dysfunctional behaviours, to high, where you consistently have a destructive impact on others, to extreme, where you should be treated for a mental illness.

Corporate psychopaths demonstrate behaviours associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD). APD is a DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), diagnosis assigned to individuals who habitually and pervasively disregard or violate the rights and considerations of others without remorse.

At the extreme, corporate psychopaths are highly manipulative, self-aggrandising, deceitful and have a complete lack of empathy for others. Yet they are often highly charismatic, using charm, power and assertiveness to drive their agenda. The trappings of money, power and status that come with organisational leadership roles make these highly attractive to corporate psychopaths and they readily find their way into our workplaces.

Consequently, it may or may not surprise you that the clinical definition of psychopathy is met by 1% of the general population, but an alarming 4% of leaders in large corporations.

How do they get away with it?

Simply put, we let them.

  • High charisma: Characteristics such as confidence and charisma frequently dazzle recruiters, hiring managers and board members searching for exemplary and compelling leaders.
  • High performance: Their ability to influence and manipulate enables toxic leaders to showcase superior performance outcomes, making it difficult for others to confront or criticise them.
  • High stature: Toxic behaviours progressively emerge as these leaders reach higher levels of power and authority in organisations, increasing their immunity from challenge and accountability for their behaviour and impact.

How do workers respond to such a leader?

  • Fight: They confront the behaviour. In the case where the issue is with a specific leader, calling the behaviour directly, or indirectly via peers, other leaders or HR professionals may instigate remedial action.
  • Flight: They leave the organisation. In the case where the toxicity is systemic and either condoned or reinforced by the culture, exit may be the best strategy.
  • Freeze: They persevere. Sadly, many workers remain fixed in their jobs due to personal or financial circumstances, fear of change or lack of courage to act.

Both fight and flight reflect an internal locus of control and enable self-driven actions. The freeze response continues to give power to the toxic leader and subject workers to the toxic environment.

The question for you is this: are you harbouring corporate psychopaths in your organisation?



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