Credit: The Shining

Climbing the corporate ladder is often a ‘dog eat dog’ world where you have to make a lot of compromises to be successful. Bearing this in mind, it’s unsurprising to learn that many psychopaths — people with little to any consideration for other people’s feelings and livelihoods — often find themselves in key executive positions throughout many corporations. These sort of psychopathic managers and executives might be more common in the workforce than most of us care to imagine, though. As many as one in five CEOs might be psychopathic, according to a new study.

Good for business, bad for society

Nathan Brooks, a forensic psychologist at Australia’s Bond University, surveyed 261 senior professionals in the U.S. supply chain management sector, with the help of colleagues from the University of San Diego. Their analysis suggests that 21 percent of the study’s participants can be clinically diagnosed within the limits of psychopathic traits. That’s a striking figure considering this incidence is found in only one percent of the population.

According to the research of journalist Jon Ronson, who studied psychopathic behaviour in American business for two years and wrote a book about it called “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry”, four percent of CEOs are psychopaths. That’s why off Brooks’ findings, which either means the supply chain business is totally nuts or one of the two groups used seriously flawed methodology.

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Both kinds of research, however, are pretty clear that you’ll find the most significant concentration of psychopaths in upper management positions.

Typically, we ought to despise psychopaths simply because they lack some of the most basic human values: empathy, remorse, loving kindness. Many businesses, however, glorify this sort of behaviour. Sure, you’ll never see a corporation list “ruthlessly step on dead bodies” as its mantra, but when a board is only interested in the bottom line — and most are — that person who will be willing to deliver it no matter what will not only be successful, but celebrated as well.

Psychopaths are cool and calculated, and this can be a useful skill for all stakeholders involved since a CEO will often be under a lot of pressure. They’re also prone to boredness, so you’ll rarely see them idle which is another useful trait. However, you can never fully trust a psychopath and a society where most of its psychopaths are in charge of companies is definitely a no-no. The last financial crisis, the 2008 depression, is a direct consequence of psychopathic behaviour in the banking and real estate sectors.

“A really interesting question is whether psychopathy can be a positive thing. Some psychologists would say yes, that there are certain attributes like coolness under pressure, which is sort of a fundamental positive. But Robert Hare would always say no, that in the absence of empathy, which is the definition in psychology of a psychopath, you will always get malevolence,” Ronson told Forbes.

“Basically, high-scoring psychopaths can be brilliant bosses but only ever for short term,” he added.

Brooks suggests that many companies screen their executives better before recruiting them for key management positions. He and colleagues are already working on a suit of tools to aid recruiters.

“We hope to implement our screening tool in businesses so that there’s an adequate assessment to hopefully identify this problem – to stop people sneaking through into positions in the business that can become very costly,” Mr Brooks said, who presented his findings at the Australian Psychological Society Congress in Melbourne.

If you’re interested to find out where you land on the psychopath spectrum, consider taking this quick test.