Back in a 2011 Forbes article , a book about psychopathology (“The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry”, by Jon Ronson) revealed that around 4% of corporate CEO’s are sociopaths. (Sociopath: One who is affected with a personality disorder marked by antisocial behavior – www.thefreedictionary.com) In case you were wondering, the term sociopath is often used interchangeably with the term psychopath, but clinically is used to refer to an antisocial person who became that way from being brought up in an antisocial or criminal subculture, while a psychopath has somewhat different personality traits and a condition that is often inherited. (Psychopath: A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse – www.thefreedictionary.com). The most severe among psychopaths sometimes become serial killers or other types of criminal, and many wind up in jail but, more importantly, the less severe cases are much harder to spot without extended interaction and observation. Thinking on this made me wonder if the seemingly predatory behavior of some corporations isn’t indicative of psychopathology at the top. Needless to say, people with this disorder can be very harmful to their employer and the people around them, and often behave in ways business managers, coworkers, and investors would not appreciate, so how can you avoid hiring them in the first place?
Psychopaths and sociopaths can be very hard to detect. There is no reason psychopaths have to be weird or unlikable. In fact, many of those with a less severe condition learn from childhood to get along relatively well in society and many are quite charismatic and likeable, though they may have few close social relationships because they tend to be manipulative and cold. They get educations and jobs just like the healthy folks, but they can at the same time be self-centered and ruthless, not because they are mean people but because true psychopaths are often incapable of understanding or even perceiving the feelings of others. This key fact means they can be extremely ruthless or vicious, often in subtle and sophisticated ways, and that they essentially have no conscience. When efforts are made to teach them empathy they may learn to mimic emotions to manipulate people, thus becoming even harder to detect. Many at the low end of the scale are characterized as having narcissistic personality disorder, which means that everything they do and think is about and for them alone. These people walk among us, and though their numbers are small (0.6% of the population according to one British study and around 1% in some other studies), they can be very ambitious, successful, and can attain high position in business or government. Some of them become entrepreneurs, which makes sense since they tend not to “play well with others” in the long term, and some are very successful, in spite of or sometimes because they don’t cooperate well with others. This makes it pretty obvious that you should avoid hiring such people. Unfortunately they can be extremely difficult to detect.
Addendum 4-Sep-15: A newly released study provides new insights into psychopath behavior and speech patterns that can be used to identify them. While a clever psychopath can imitate emotions and feign concern in conversations, hiding their condition from those with whom they interact, they can’t experience empathy nor recognize when they are speaking unemotionally, patterns which can be used to identify them.
Working with a psychopath, or being in any kind of relationship with one, can be extremely difficult. A psychopath is likely to wreak havoc on an organization, sooner or later, and in the meantime they can traumatize good coworkers and damage the performance of otherwise effective teams and departments, almost always in blind pursuit of their own ambitions. The old (and stupid) game of “Not from MY budget you don’t!”, that sub-optimizes so many organizations internally, takes on new meaning when one or more of the key players is a psychopath, as they may be charismatic and convincing to higher management and quite capable of distorting the internal politics and workings of an organization while at the same time making their own performance numbers and those of their team or department look exceptionally good. The tragedy is that, as they accomplish their ends, they tend to harm the careers of good people around them and often traumatize coworkers and drive them from the organization.
Economic downturns, and a lot of bad corporate behavior, can’t be blamed on sociopaths. A CBS news article makes some very good points, more in addition to the discussion than opposed to it. While individual CEO’s can make decisions affecting thousands of people inside and millions of people outside their organizations, the recent economic problems, the mid-2000’s housing bubble and the deep recession that closely followed it, were not due to the actions of a few people, but were systemic problems that arose from poor decisions by heavily corporate-lobbied legislatures over decades along with many other factors I won’t attempt to mention here. As usual, it is the systems we set up that define most of what the people within them will do. Much as people might like to, we can’t hang the responsibility for our national or global problems on a few psychopathic CEO’s. Still, I have to believe that, when a media empire like Fox News creates a political movement fueled by fear, half-truths, and lies, or a few big energy corporations have secret meetings with top government heads after which the EPA somehow fails to carry out its mandates for protecting air quality effectively, there are quite possibly one or more psychopaths in positions of power behind it. When a major multinational corporation repeatedly reports record profits during the worst economic collapse the United States has experienced since the great depression, one has to wonder if something is amiss. I have not looked into whether an organization can, systemically, behave in a psychopathic way, but there is no doubt that charismatic psychopaths can and do rise more rapidly in many organizations than healthy people, and that some can reach top management positions where they can turn what might otherwise be publicly responsible corporations into vicious, litigious, and marauding multinationals. As one of the developers of the psychological metrics for identifying psychopaths, Robert Hare said “Serial killers ruin families,” and “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.” Certainly, “economies” can just as easily refer to businesses.
Only recently I’ve considered how all this impacts interviewers, recruiters, and human resource departments. For years, especially since at least once having worked for one, I have pondered how organizations, companies, non-profits, or governmental agencies can avoid hiring psychopaths that could potentially be destructive to the organization as well as individuals who come in contact with them on their way “up the ladder”. I hadn’t been able to think of a simple way to avoid this until I read a recent posting by successful entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Branson in his blog on LinkedIn.com. I interpret his method for hiring as including a simplistic way to limit the influx of psychopaths to an organization: hire based on personality first. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that an average healthy person with a good outlook can perform well in the right environment with good management, and can learn and grow in most positions if given the opportunity and reasonable management support. Avoiding hiring psychopaths isn’t easy, however.
How can you avoid hiring a psychopath? It is hard to tell, when considering a candidate for a job, how much of their past sometimes-stellar performance was due to being in the right place at the right time, let alone how much of it might actually be factual. It is even harder to consider the impact they might have if they turn out to be not just poorly suited for the position, but actually dangerous to the operation in some way. Richard Branson’s hilariously simple statement regarding this (which he attributes to Funding Circle CEO Samir Desai) is: “It’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole in your team.” This doesn’t mean you can screen out sociopaths easily, as some will be too sophisticated in the way they present themselves to the world to easily permit detection, but as an interviewer you can study and understand this problem and ask probing and educated questions. As always, intuition may be your best and final arbiter when all the facts you can get are before you, but you can enhance your skills by familiarizing yourself with an analytical tool originally developed by Robert Hare, the B-Scan 360, at this website (http://www.decision-making-confidence.com/psychopath-test.html). This site also provides links to a number of related resources and articles, including computer and smart phone apps, and provides helpful learning tools for HR interviewers and managers.
This may be new thinking to some in the human resource profession. While Richard Branson’s priority for hiring (putting personality first) may seem counter to past teachings for a lot of human resource professionals, it is pretty clear that hiring based on personality first makes a great deal of sense. Personally, I can’t agree with Mr. Branson more and I hope you will educate yourself on psychopathology and adopt Richard’s thinking in your future hiring activities. “It’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole in your team.”
Richard Branson’s blog article: http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130923230007-204068115-how-i-hire-focus-on-personality
The Forbes article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/06/14/why-some-psychopaths-make-great-ceos/
Additional reading on this important subject:
http://www.lovefraud.com/beware-the-sociopath/whats-a-sociopath/ NOTE: I find this chilling – the comments of apparently admitted psychopaths in the forums on this site who believe that love and trust aren’t real but are weaknesses, and that since these things “aren’t real” the sociopath can’t base any part of his or her life including relationships on them. Even more chilling are those that believe that they (psychopaths) are an evolutionary advance over healthy people, apparently using this to justify their actions.
Interesting video on this topic:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUsGDVOCLVQ Are You a Psychopath? Take the test – Kevin Dutton – BigThink on youtube.com