Happy Halloween! That Psycho Executive Isn’t Just a Costume

psycho executive
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It’s Halloween once again and a wonderful opportunity to display our inner desires, fears, and humor. Fourteen years after American Psycho came out, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale’s character) remains a popular choice for young white men, primarily in the finance industry. While the violent and murderous tendencies are atypical, the disregard for others and the high risk taking is among the growing population of psychopaths in the management and leadership roles at corporations. If you have one at your company, can you spot them without the bloody face and axe?The word “psychopath” or “psycho” more colloquially usually evoke images of a rampaging monster, someone completely absorbed with committing violence against others. Due to the general lack of pre-production fact-checking by today’s news companies, the term psychopath is used much more frequently than the situation warrants. If a persistent pattern, the individual probably suffers from Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), one estimate is that 50-75% of the US prison population has ASPD, but only 15-25% suffers from psychopathy.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV), ASPD is categorized by a systemic violation of others rights since the individuals age of 15 (and now over 18) with demonstrations of at least 3 of the following behaviors: failure to conform to social norms, impulsivity, deceitfulness, reckless disregard for safety of self or others, irritability and aggressiveness, lack of remorse.

Take for example the financial crisis and Bernie Madoff’s 65 billion dollar Ponzi scheme. How did he carry out such an elaborate plan over 30+ years? Bernie Madoff is a psychopath as are many within the financial industry. A psychopath is a great planner and able to carry out those plans over a longer period of time than their more impulsive counterparts. They also lack the regard for others well being and rights and think only of their own survival. This allows them to lie and cheat others without remorse, also to put billions of dollars of other people’s money at risk without the normal inclination to worry about the potential harm that it may cause others. If you’d like to take the test yourself, you can do so here anonymously (for entertainment only, not a diagnosis).

What are the implications of having a psychopath running your company? They are much more likely to take great risks with the company finances or to act in underhanded ways if it means furthering their own careers. If the psychopath also happens to be the founder and/or the CEO, this will have dramatic effects upon the company culture and what values and behaviors get rewarded internally. There is a common phrase among startups that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. This is true when actually worthless bureaucracy has put up meaningless obstacles to progress. It doesn’t hold when those rules or laws are in place to keep people from being killed by dangerous products or services. A psychopath won’t actually ask for forgiveness in these instances though, they will make a “sorry I got caught” form of an apology and work harder to not get caught the next time.

Groundbreaking research in psychiatry by a University of Huddersfield undergraduate student has shown for the first time that people with  psychopathic tendencies and that also have high IQs can mask their symptoms. She found that in viewing images of other people suffering a person with Factor One psychopathic tendencies – the sort more likely to become a business manager – would display little or no emotional response; while a Factor Two psychopath would demonstrate a heightened response due to excitement.  This is what is expected, except that it only followed for those with lower levels of IQ. This new finding shows that those with high IQ and demonstrating psychopathic behaviors know what emotional response they are supposed to show and this can fool the observers and testing equipment.

Approximately 1% of the population demonstrate psychopathic behaviors, yet over 3% of business managers do. While still a relatively small number of the total, it is 3X times what it would be on an even distribution. What are the implications for business?

“Perhaps businesses do need people who have the same characteristics as psychopaths, such as ruthlessness. But I suspect that some form of screening does need to take place, mainly so businesses are aware of what sort of people they are hiring,” Carolyn Bate, lead author

Do we need to develop new testing and alter our laws to allow medical testing for more jobs? Currently, it is illegal to screen for mental illness or other physical conditions prior to a job offer unless the job entails carrying a gun, flying a plane or other similar activity where people’s lives could be threatened. What if the job also has the ability to ruin thousands or millions of people’s lives? What about in the case of Enron and Arthur Anderson or the most recent financial crisis?

Do the managers of your business units or those in the C-suite demonstrate these behaviors? Is that Patrick Bateman mask just a costume, or are they showing you what lurks inside..?

 Photo Credit: Paul Stein

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