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Are CEO’s psychopaths?

Australian psychologists released research three weeks ago which showed that, on average, one in five CEO’s are psychopaths. The study, which focused on a group of 261 senior business professionals in the supply chain management industry in the US, found that twenty-one per cent had “clinically significant psychopathic traits” in comparison with the general population, where these traits are found in around one per cent of people.

Psychopathy, otherwise known as antisocial personality disorder, forms part of a group of mental health conditions which can affect the way a person can think, perceive, feel and relate to others. Symptoms can include a lack of empathy or guilt, a disregard for normal social behaviour, and the inability to control anger. To date it´s unknown what causes the disorder, although it´s thought that both genetics and traumatic childhood experiences may contribute.

The research was carried out by Nathan Brooks, a forensic psychologist at Bond University in Australia, with one colleague in his department and another from the University of San Diego. In an interview with the Telegraph Brooks said: “typically psychopaths create a lot of chaos and generally tend to play people off against each other. For them, it [corporate success] is a game and they don’t mind if they violate morals. It is about getting where they want in the company and having dominance over others.” As such, Brooks is recommending that businesses begin to revise their recruitment screening process, warning of the dangers of hiring “successful psychopaths” as a result of prioritising skills above personality traits when considering candidates. The research team are working on a screening tool to assist businesses in identifying this problem sooner.

But is there a possibility that this might be to the benefit of the company? Psychopaths put their own needs ahead of all others and are willing to do anything to ensure this. If you occupy a senior management position within a big company what is to the benefit of the company is to yours also, and as such psychopaths in these roles are likely to defend the company´s interests extremely well, albeit regardless of the consequences for other people.

Research by Russell Reynolds shows that two of the three attributes which most distinguish CEO’s from non-CEO’s are a willingness to take calculated risks, and an ability to efficiently read people. These two traits tie in with the accepted definition of antisocial personality disorder; in a business environment, a disregard for consequences could easily be mistaken for a ´calculated risk´, and reading people is an essential stepping stone to being able to manipulate them.

On the basis of this alone you could conclude that psychopathic traits in fact make a good CEO. Yet the same research indicates a requirement that successful professional corporate leaders be emotionally sensitive, as well as inclusive. Equally there is a mountain of research to indicate that businesses thrive when a healthy atmosphere is encouraged internally, something you are unlikely to find with a psychopath at the helm. A CEO Reputation Survey conducted by public relations firm Weber Shandwick
showed that three qualities which differentiate a well-regarded CEO from one who is poorly regarded are a focus on customers, a care for whether the company is a good place to work, and being honest as well as ethical. This seems to point away from a conclusion that antisocial personality disorder lends itself well to being a successful corporate executive, although it´s important to remember that being poorly regarded as a CEO does not necessarily equate to being unsuccessful.

So it would seem an interplay exists between the psychopathic traits which work in the favour of a would-be director, and those which work against. At the Australian Psychology Society Congress where the findings were announced Scott Lilienfeld from Emory University in Atlanta was also presenting on psychopathy. Speaking to Australian news site news.au he said: “being a psychopath might predispose someone to short-term success. They tend to be charming and flamboyant, which makes it easier to be successful in the short-run, although that may be purchased at expense of long-term failure.”

Interestingly, at one in five, the occurrence of antisocial personality disorder among CEO’s is the same as that among prison populations. It has to be asked whether perhaps a class issue exists here – do the same traits which might wind you up in prison if you come from a working class background work in your favour if your upbringing was a privileged one? It´s no secret that the working class make up the vast majority of our prison population, and on the flipside it´s more common than not that the managers of big corporations come from families of at least middle class status. Although there is no research currently supporting this hypothesis, given all we already know about the far-reaching effects of a privileged background it seems more than likely.

Considering this research from a wider perspective, in many ways it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. We’ve seen for many years now the willingness of corporate directing bodies to pursue success and profit, often at the cost of anything else. In the 1970’s, a movement to boycott Nestle gained considerable strength in the United States, after the corporation was accused of using aggressive marketing of infant formula towards mothers in developing countries. This inspired a host of concerns for the babies, from the obvious deprivation of all the natural benefits of breast feeding to basic sanitation standards which many mothers in developing countries simply do not have the means to uphold.

As recently as last year we were made aware of multi-national companies putting profit before ethics. The Volkswagen emission scandal eventually cost the company billions in compensation, as well as a loss in the value of their shares of around a third, but the carmaker had been fixing the fuel consumption data for a long time before they were caught. However, possibly the most troubling thing was the implication that the practice might in fact be much more widespread. Various regulatory bodies are beginning to look into the possibility that other car manufacturers may have been doing the same, but until concrete evidence is found the general public is very much at sea.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to demonise big corporations or use them as a scapegoat for global problems. Many successful CEO’s are seen to do great work in the wider world, such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who funnels much of his wealth into charity. Another example of ethics in the sphere of global corporations is Dell, named World´s Most Ethical Country by the Ethisphere Institute in 2014 and 2015. Dell seems to demonstrate a commitment to ethics not only on a global basis but on a smaller scale too, running programmes to encourage teenagers from less privileged backgrounds to pursue careers in business.

Brooks has not yet announced how soon their screening tool for businesses will be ready to try out. It´s equally unclear at the moment how businesses are to test their potential CEO’s without offending them. What is certain is that it will be interesting to see the impact such a screening tool has on the companies themselves as well as the wider business community.

Image: Bernd Zube

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