We have all come across narcissists, psychopaths and Machiavellians in the workplace, perhaps without recognising it at the time. The problem with personality disorders, particularly with antisocial personality disorder, is that red flags are often undetected by others in the workplace until significant damage has already been done. It is especially hard to detect candidates with these particular personality disorders during the interview stage, because the dark side tendencies often create favourable first impressions.
For the last 25 years, research in psychopathy has largely been driven by Professor Robert Hare of British Columbia University. Hare explains that psychopathy is a clinical construct characterised by a cluster of features and behaviours. His book, Without Conscience, explains this research in detail. I highly recommend this book.
Hare developed the widely used instrument for the assessment of psychopathy, the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist – Revised), which is underpinned by four correlated factors or dimensions:
Interpersonal – glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, conning /manipulative
Affective – lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callous/lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility for actions
Lifestyle – need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, parasitic lifestyle, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsive and irresponsibility
Antisocial – poor behavioural controls, early behaviour problems, juvenile delinquency, revocation of conditional release, criminal versatility.
Other characteristics & behavioural attributes of dark triad personalities
When examined broadly, Machiavellianism, narcissism and the psychopathic personality disorder show extreme manifestations of unconscious insecurities. Ironically, egocentricity is a key psychopathic trait. When interactions are analysed closely, it becomes clear that the ego helps to present a mask of normality and further helps to conceal the deep insecurities buried within.
Individuals with these personality disorders usually score high on characteristics associated with dominance and control. They are often found in high risk-taking professions and tend to find temptations difficult to refuse, to have poor impulse control and to gravitate towards excitement seeking opportunities.
Pathological lying is a key characteristic of psychopathy. In fact, psychopaths tend to lie even in circumstances where it is more logical and favourable to tell the truth. Narcissists and psychopathic individuals are very good at knowing what other people are thinking, but are poor at understanding the feelings of others. They lack empathy. To the untrained lay person, psychopaths are generally considered puzzling in nature.
My thoughts are that psychopathy has manifested from generations of untreated trauma. This has genetically changed brain structure and functionality somewhat, particularly in the pre-frontal cortex. The brain has the ability to block out emotion for self-protection. Perhaps this personality disorder is the long-term result of untreated abnormal defense mechanisms – untreated over generations.
B-Scan-360 – Testing for psychopathy in the workplace
One of the major difficulties in conducting research on corporate psychopathy is the absence of a validated instrument adapted to business settings. Because the PCL-R relies on the expertise of the assessor, typically a psychologist or psychiatrist, it is rarely used for organisational research. Nonetheless, organisations definitely need a tool for measuring psychopathy, especially when hiring new CEOs or senior leaders. Thankfully, instruments are now in development that will allow employers to screen for psychopathic behaviours in the corporate environment, in order to identify individuals with these personality constructs more easily during the interview stage.
In a recent PCL-R study of 203 upper-level managers, researchers found that psychopathy – particularly its interpersonal components – was positively associated with in-house company ratings of charisma/presentation style, including creativity, strategic thinking and communication skills, and negatively associated with ratings of responsibility/performance, including being a team player, leadership and management skills, and overall accomplishments.
The authors concluded that the ability to charm, manipulate and deceive others allowed psychopathic leaders to achieve apparent success in their careers, despite negative performance ratings and behaviours potentially harmful to the corporation.
Based on experience using the PCL-R in organisational settings and their work with business personnel, Babiak and Hare developed the B-Scan-360, an instrument for rating psychopathic-related features in corporate workplaces.
The B-Scan-360 is a rating scale in which various members of an organisation rate their co-workers, that is, their supervisors, peers and subordinates, using the same four-factor scale as the PCL-R, including:
Manipulative/Unethical – uses charm and deceit to manipulate others
Callous/Insensitive – cold disregard for the feelings of others
Unreliable/Unfocused – lacks commitment to goals and objectives
Intimidating/Aggressive – generally intimidating in the workplace.
Psychopaths do well in certain risk-taking professions. On the whole, however, they tend to cause far more damage to corporate business than any positive they deliver in return. Incalculable damage to colleagues and other business associates, including harassment of the opposite sex, has often been experienced and reported.
Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. (2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY: Regan Books/Harper Collins.
Cleckley, H. (1941). The mask of sanity: An attempt to reinterpret the so-called psychopathic personality. Oxford, England: Mosby.
Mathieu, C., Neumann, C., Babiak, P., & Hare, R. (2014). ‘Corporate Psychopathy and the Full-Range Leadership Model’. Assessment 22(10).1177/1073191114545490.
Theaanna Kiaos is an organisational anthropologist, specialising in organisational culture and diversity. Theaanna is completing her Ph.D. in Management (ethnography) through Macquarie Graduate School of Management. Theaanna's media and presentation skills are strong. She has been a sought-after and successful speaker at numerous D&I conferences. She has been interviewed on SBS World News on the topic of "Most Australian workplaces are failing to achieve diversity": she has also been interviewed as a subject matter expert by Women's Agenda and Shortlist.