Corporate psychopaths destroy morale, cause the best employees to flee and even commit whole-scale fraud, yet often use blatant lies and cheating to fool their bosses into believing they are valuable assets.
Psychopaths are manipulative, bullying, lying and egocentric people without a conscious. They use coercion and intimidation to get what they want, and never have a sliver of remorse for their deceit or the pain that they cause. Some psychopaths become criminals and end in prison. Others, called corporate psychopaths, use lies and intimidation to succeed in business — bullying their employees, lying to their superiors, and even committing fraud.
There are more corporate psychopaths than one might think. With approximately 1% of the population qualifying as psychopaths, according to research, and with most people knowing at least 5 to 15 people well at work, there is a 5% to 15% chance that someone will be working with a corporate psychopath.
A team of researchers from Middlesex University used in-depth interviews with seven managers and executives who had worked with six corporate psychopaths to explore the characteristics of these toxic business leaders and the damage that they brought to their organizations.
This research confirmed results and predictions in other types of academic studies on the modus operandi of corporate psychopaths and the negative results of their toxic behaviour. Specifically, the research found the following:
Corporate psychopaths fool the bosses. One of the terrifying characteristics of corporate psychopaths is that through their lies and manipulation, they ingratiate themselves to the top level of the organization, which is disconnected from the day-to-day operations of the company. Specifically, the corporate psychopath’s ability to blatantly lie and their willingness to steal other people’s work and pass it off as their own, combined with a myopic focus by many top leaders on short-term results rather than sustainable success, enable them to masquerade as successful, competent leaders in their organizations. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the corporate psychopaths studied had so endeared himself to the company board that a whistleblower who revealed this psychopath’s criminal fraud was not believed until he submitted incontrovertible proof.
Corporate psychopaths destroy employee morale and engagement. Whether at a corporate level or a departmental level, corporate psychopaths obliterate the commitment to the company of employees who are not only violently bullied and harassed, but also find their performance constantly undermined by the fickleness and deceit of the psychopath. One psychopath caused a major project to fail after lying about his previous approval of the project. Another psychopath had a new manager almost immediately thinking about leaving after just being hired. The manager stayed for two years, but all the while managing his exit.
Corporate psychopaths cause massive turnover of high-value employees. Working in unbearable conditions, totally unvalued by their manager and subsequently the top leaders of the organization, and having lost any previous commitment to the organization, employees seek to escape corporate psychopaths as quickly as possible — even, in many cases, if they don’t have another job to go to. In the non-profit organization of one of the interviewees, the organization’s corporate psychopathic CEO had caused nearly 90% of the non-profits employees and managers to leave since his appointment — and the remaining 10% were planning to leave at the time of the interview.
Corporate psychopaths create a toxic environment. Corporate psychopaths seem to enjoy causing pain. One of their favourite manner of communication is to yell at the top of their lungs, publicly humiliating their employees on a daily basis. Thus, if employees are not themselves on the receiving end of the psychopath’s wrath, they are watching others suffer. This toxic environment is compounded by the frustration of having their hard work consistently torpedoed — all the while, watching top executives faun over the psychopath. No wonder that one of the people interviewed for the study could contribute little: The harrowing memories of the environment created by the corporate psychopath were so disturbing that the interviewee cut short the interview and could not go on.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, top leaders in an organization may be blind to the long-term damage caused by a corporate psychopath. They see work stolen from the psychopath’s employees or produced by management consultants and think it reflects the competence of the psychopath. They appreciate the psychopath’s cost-cutting or short-term results without recognizing the destruction of employee engagement or the devastating loss of human capital. Finally, skilfully manipulated and completely fooled, they are blind to any fraud and other irregularities committed by the corporate psychopath.
Business leaders and board members must not believe that corporate psychopaths “only happen to other companies.” They need to pay attention to the red flags, including sudden and rampant turnover or the sudden decrease of performance, such as a rapid decline in customer service or the inexplicable loss of creative results in a once-creative and innovative unit.
And if an employee or manager complains, do not — as one board did — blame it on jealousy or sour grapes.
Corporate psychopaths are not the rare occurrences one might think. And they not only create a toxic environment, they also destroy the long-term success of the company. One interviewee described how the successful manufacturing plant he once worked in failed once a corporate psychopath took over. Today, the plant has been demolished and replaced by a housing estate.
If you think your corporate or organization is immune, think again.
Extreme managers, extreme workplaces: Capitalism, organizations and corporate psychopaths. Clive Boddy, Derek Miles, Chandana Sanyal, Mary Hartog. Organization. (July 1, 2015).
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