Research Explores Who Thrives Under Psychopathic Leaders

A study conducted a few years ago found that CEO was the profession most likely to attract psychopaths, and it’s really easy to picture such individuals in an incredibly negative way.  As with most personality traits however, there is a spectrum of psychopathy that we all sit somewhere along.

This matters, because whilst it’s tempting to imagine a psychopathic boss is a fundamentally negative thing, the reality is that our response to such a leader tends to rely on our own levels of psychopathy.  That was the finding of a new study from the University of Notre Dame.

“There are primary and secondary dimensions of psychopathy,” the researchers explain. “Both consist of high levels of antisocial behavior; however, people who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless. They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful or angry. Secondary psychopaths are more hot-headed and impulsive.”

The team believe that those veering more towards primary psychopathy do well when working under psychopathic bosses.  Such employees tend to feel much less anger than their peers at the behavior of the manager, and subsequently exhibit higher engagement levels.

Far from condoning abusive leadership however, the authors are at pains to point out that there are many ways in which organizations enable abusive managers, and these are nearly always harmful.

“It may reward and retain exactly the kind of people who are likely to perpetuate abusive cultures,” they explain. “Psychopaths thriving under abusive supervisors would be better positioned to get ahead of their peers.”

The findings also underline the importance of going beyond basic engagement levels as a metric of organizational health.  In abusive environments the employee turnover can be so high that it’s very difficult to get an accurate gauge of engagement levels.  Indeed, in such environments, the employees that remain might be high in psychopathic traits themselves, resulting in a highly engaged, but psychopathic workforce, which is probably not something organizations would strive for.