Chief executives have the highest prevalence of psychopathic traits of all jobs – a rate second only to prison inmates.
This is according to Dr Renata Schoeman, psychiatrist and associate professor in Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), who said that while it is estimated that 1 in 100 of the general population has psychopathic traits, this rises to 1 in 25 in business leaders.
In what she calls ‘the curse of confidence’, Schoeman said that many of the traits characteristic of psychopaths – such as charm, fearless dominance, boldness and a ‘grandiose sense of self” – are also what help people get ahead in business.
However, she emphasised, that “not everyone with loads of confidence and who is successful, even if they have a brash approach to people, has a personality disorder”.
The workplace bullies to be most concerned about, she said, are those with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.
Schoeman said that narcissists can be brilliant strategists, have the courage to take risks and push through massive change and transition, and use their charisma and compelling visions to inspire others – fitting into conventional ideas of leadership.
“These masters of self-image, who take credit but deflect blame, tend to gather a group of co-dependent people around them to support and reinforce their behaviour. They profess loyalty to the organisation but are really only committed to their own agenda, and people may experience them as distant and cold.
“Narcissists tend to be over-sensitive to criticism, over-competitive, and often engage in counter-productive work behaviour when their self-esteem is threatened. They expect great dedication and may overwork others without any regard for the impact on their lives,” she said.
Schoeman said narcissists favoured ‘indirect bullying tactics’ such as withholding information, ignoring people or giving them the ‘silent treatment’, spreading rumours to discredit others, and inflating their contribution or taking credit for achievements they had little to do with.
Narcissists are also more likely to engage in sexual harassment, due to their inflated sense of importance and tendency to exploit others.
The ‘darker personality’, she said, is the psychopathic character, the boss or colleague with an antisocial personality disorder – who replaces the narcissist’s exploitative tactics with a predatory drive for strategic conquests, domination and cruelty.
Schoeman said that ‘successful psychopaths’ share the same core characteristics as those who become criminals – deceit, manipulativeness, indifference to the consequences of their actions, superficial charm, lack of empathy and lack of remorse – but tend to come from more privileged backgrounds and have higher IQ.
“Successful psychopaths tend to be more conscientious than those with a criminal record. They are less impulsive, negligent and irresponsible, but this doesn’t mean they are always law-abiding citizens – they may just be better at avoiding being caught,” she said.
Dr Schoeman said the bullying tactics of the ‘successful psychopath’ were based on assessing the usefulness and weaknesses of those around them, manipulating others to bond with them, using their victims’ feedback to build and maintain control, and then abandoning them when they were no longer useful.
“They are extremely efficient at using and manipulating communication networks to enhance their own reputation while discrediting others and creating and maintaining conflicts and rivalries amongst colleagues.
“They are excellent at spreading disinformation while covering up their own association with this false information,” she said.
How to deal with them
Schoeman said both narcissists and psychopaths had traits that could be positive and they could be highly successful in business.
“But they can also create highly toxic environments with just as significant an emotional and financial toll on employees and organisations as other more obvious workplace stress factors”.
“It is important to be equipped to recognise and safeguard oneself against these workplace bullies,” she said.
Below she shared the following tactics to cope with these types of colleagues and bosses:
- Avoid contact;
- Ignore their actions;
- Stay neutral, calm and professional;
- Resist the urge to challenge or confront them;
- Don’t offer or give any personal information or opinions;
- Ground yourself;
- Realise it is not personal;
- Realise their insecurity;
- Accept that change likely won’t happen;
- Build a supportive network;
- Reach out for help;
- Know your legal rights;
- Protect yourself;
- Set clear boundaries (be assertive but not aggressive);
- Have a witness;
- Get everything in writing;
- Be alert: when a narcissist can no longer control you, they will try instead to control how others see you;
- Disarm the narcissist (this is perhaps the most difficult strategy as you might feel dishonest);
- Always empathise with your boss’s feelings but don’t expect any empathy back.