Acting Like a Psychopath Can Help You at Work, if You're a Man

Men and women are perceived differently when they display traits like aggression and dominance in the office.

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Oct 17 2018, 4:00pm

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Consider the psychopath: dominant, impulsive, lacking in empathy. For most people, that doesn’t describe the ideal boss. But to a certain way of thinking, the prototypical ruthless psychopath is the near-perfect model for a CEO. (Though that impulsiveness might pose a problem; see: Musk, Elon.) Anyone frustrated by corporate power can easily imagine C-suites swelled with the likes of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Despite some well-hyped research, though, it wasn’t clear that psychopaths were actually overrepresented among business leaders.

A new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, however, used data from 92 independent samples to examine just how common psychopath bosses are. The findings suggest that, yes, people with psychopathic personality traits are slightly more likely to be bosses. It doesn’t find, though, that leadership roles are teeming with psychopaths—that worry is probably overblown.

Those findings are based on analyzing 92 independent samples from previous research. Yet the study did find that while psychopathic tendencies aren’t running wild in workplaces, they are being obscured by a gender double standard. Breaking down the data, researchers found that the psychopathic traits valued in men—aggressiveness, a willingness to assert dominance—can help them emerge as leaders and appear effective. Those same traits, though, are perceived negatively when found in women.


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“The existence of this double standard is certainly disheartening,” Karen Landay, lead author on the paper and doctoral student in management at the University of Alabama, said in a statement. “I can imagine that women seeking corporate leadership positions getting told that they should emulate successful male leaders who display psychopathic tendencies. But these aspiring female leaders may then be unpleasantly surprised to find that their own outcomes are not nearly as positive.”

Any woman who’s been dismissed as “shrill” while her male equivalent is lauded for being “assertive” is probably giving a knowing eye-roll right about now—this is very much a case of research validating many people’s everyday experience. But beyond provoking a “no duh” response, studies like this can become fuel for action, by making clear that yes, there is a problem.

Beyond the infuriating gender disparity, the study also suggests psychopaths just aren’t that great for business. While psychopathic characteristics might help someone survive in the C-suite, the findings suggest, they don’t make for effective leaders.

“Overall, although there is no positive or negative relation to a company’s bottom line when psychopathic tendencies are present in organizational leaders, their subordinates will still hate them,” Peter Harms, associate professor of management at The University of Alabama, said in a statement. “So we can probably assume they behave in a manner that is noxious, and whatever threats they make to ‘motivate’ workers don’t really pay off.”

Psychopaths, in other words, don’t play well with others. A lack of morality and empathy don’t make for good leaders—and that’s true regardless of gender.

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