FEATURED ESSAY

Toxic leadership—psychopaths and psychopathic behaviour in organisations

Charmine Härtel

 

Charmine EJ Härtel is professor of human resource management and organisational development at The University of Queensland Business School. She is a registered member of the College of Organisational Psychologists (Australia), fellow and past president of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management (ANZAM), fellow of the Australian Institute of Management (AIM), and fellow of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI). She has substantial experience in senior management roles and almost 30 years of experience working in the public and private sectors including consultancies in Australia, Europe, Asia and the United States. Charmine is recognised internationally as a leader in developing and translating new knowledge into management practices to create and maintain jobs and workplaces that foster the opportunity for all workers to contribute to their potential. She has won numerous national and international awards for her research, including five awards for innovation in organisational practice.

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Toxic behaviours do enormous damage, both public and private, within organisations. The damage is worse where the offender has charmed their way to a position of leadership. Often the most vulnerable are the ones who get hurt.

Charmine Härtel’s chapter offers important insights about psychopathic behaviours, and strategies to combat them—such as the creation of a positive work environment. These insights will help protect you in navigating your path to leadership, and enlighten you as a steward of the wellbeing of those affected by your leadership.

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Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. 

—attributed to Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 BCE

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Bullying behaviour isn’t just found in the schoolyard. There is growing awareness that mean and scheming behaviours are all too common in our workplaces. No area of work is immune—toxic behaviours are reported across private, public and not-for-profit sectors including volunteer organisations and charities.

For those contemplating a career in public life, the problem of toxic work environments has two-fold importance. The first consideration is how to manage one’s career, from first role to formal positions of leadership. The second is the policy implications for a healthy society. Sadly, the workers most vulnerable to experiencing and enduring toxic work environments are first job holders, unskilled labourers, stigmatised group members, and casual workers. Lacking the power and status of other members of the workforce translates for most into a heightened sense of fear, but also into perceived and often real limitations to stopping the mistreatment. The dilemma is worsened when the offender is your boss.

The aim of this chapter is to help you gain insight on the nature of psychopathic leaders and leadership behaviour and contrast it with the features required for positive work environments. In doing so, you will learn the antidote to psychopathic behaviour at work, gaining an important tool for choosing where you work, developing as a positive leader, and understanding the elements required to grow a healthy organisation and workforce.

The corporate psychopath

To put the issue into some context, it is useful to consider the enormous cost of ‘corporate’ psychopaths and toxic leadership. According to Dr Paul Babiak and Dr Robert Hare, authors of Snakes in suits[i], corporate psychopaths ‘can do immense amounts of damage to those who cross them, or frustrate their goals. They can cost companies millions’.[ii] Most recently, Babiak and Hare were part of a team comparing the effects of corporate psychopaths in a private financial services organisation and a public organisation. In both organisations, subordinates of leaders that scored high on corporate psychopathic behaviour reported the same damaging effects on job satisfaction, and employees of the public organisation also reported psychological distress.

My own research reveals that toxic leaders serve as negative role models, with evidence showing that their followers are more likely to engage in self-serving and deviant behaviours. The public cost of toxic leadership is made clear in a 2014 newspaper article[iii] which highlights growing anger and loss of confidence and trust in the ethics of politicians, public officials and bankers.

At this point, you are probably wondering what a corporate psychopath is, especially as most public portrayals and indeed research focus on the criminal psychopath rather than the type of psychopath that can survive and even thrive in an organisation. Defining a corporate psychopath means not only understanding their dark characteristics, but also the strategies by which they survive in the business world.

Babiak and Hare’s extensive work on the topic identifies the following six dark characteristics of corporate psychopaths:

  1. they are insincere, arrogant, untrustworthy, manipulative, and insensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others
  2. they are inclined to blame others
  3. they have a low tolerance for any sort of frustration, and are therefore impatient
  4. they are erratic, unreliable, and unfocused
  5. they are selfish and parasitic; they take advantage of the goodwill of people they work with as well as the company itself
  6. they are inclined to treat people, including their families, like objects.[iv]

Psychopaths and their protectors

Although psychopathy has only recently been examined by management research, Babiak and Hare’s work indicates that most psychopaths gravitate to high-powered or high-authority vocations like law, politics, entertainment, the church, the military, trade unions, the media, academe, charities, and the arts. Highly functioning corporate psychopaths, they say, have a veil of normality and are liked by many others and by organisations due to being perceived as charming, persuasive, and charismatic.[1] They avoid detection by finding protectors or people who can help their career. These protectors operate at all levels of the organisation. For example, protectors more senior than the corporate psychopath defend the person against any criticism, whereas those more junior protect the corporate psychopath by excusing their behaviour and covering for them by doing work they are unable to do. The tactic of finding protectors makes it challenging even for senior people to disarm a psychopath they uncover in their midst. Babiak and Hare’s case studies uncover examples of ethical leaders trying to address the destructive effects of a psychopath, including one where the attempt was thwarted by the psychopath who successfully convinced his protector to dismiss the leader who posed a threat.

Understanding the psychopath’s use of protectors is useful in thinking about the potential risks in some common organisational practices. For example, when a new leader is appointed to a department or organisation, it is not uncommon to see turnover among staff to make room for installing workers from the new leader’s former place of employment. This can be a positive practice if the change is effected to address toxicity, corruption or incompetency. It could, however, be effected for the purposes of bringing in protectors to cover for a corporate psychopath. Another common organisational practice is mentoring. Career counsellors advocate for the benefits of mentoring and indeed there are many such benefits, including the development of networks, career planning and problem solving. There is a potential dark side, however. What if the mentor is a psychopath looking to develop a protector from below? Or the mentee is a psychopath looking to develop a protector from above? These are real issues of which one should be mindful when seeking a mentor as well as setting up and evaluating mentor programs.

Psychopathic behaviours

Babiak and Hare developed a taxonomy of corporate psychopaths, which distinguishes between three types of psychopathic behaviour or strategy:[2]

The con

A person identified as a con ‘deals one-on-one with individuals, primarily tries to exert influence over them, and then swindles them out of something. It’s a very simple process, and they may not make it into the high levels of the corporate structure, but they can do some serious damage’.

The bully

A bully is ‘a person that influences others by intimidation. It could be overt, verbal threats, maybe even physical violence, but it can also be very covert intimidation’.

The puppetmaster

‘That’s an individual who is very savvy, is quite a student of human behaviour, is quite capable of manipulating individuals into hurting other people. So it’s a two-step process. The puppetmaster manipulates individuals and these people whom they are manipulating do the dirty work for them.’ Interestingly, evidence suggests that clinical psychologists are amongst the most vulnerable to being exploited by this category of psychopaths due to the psychologists’ close adherence to clinical expectations of normal human behaviour.

At this point, it is important to note that not everyone engaging in the behaviour described above is a psychopath. To meet Babiak and Hare’s diagnostic criteria, they must have the six dark characteristics I described at the beginning of this chapter. If a person does not meet Babiak and Hare’s criteria but engages in the psychopathic behaviour above, the damage is equally harmful. Such persons are referred to as toxic or destructive co-workers or leaders. Drawing on the broader literature on psychopathy including that of Dr Hare, the list of psychopathic behaviours in the workplace can be expanded to include aggression, lying, exploitation, conniving, rationalising corrupt or disrespectful behaviour, insincere flattery, discrediting others’ reputations to bolster one’s own, dishonesty, creating power networks for personal gain, smooth-talking with the appearance of caring, a sense of entitlement, duplicitousness, changing emotional displays to create desired impressions or gain and maintain control or power over others, creating false relationships to obtain some advantage, distorting or hiding information in order to influence others’ choices, taking credit for others’ work, not walking one’s own talk, having hidden agendas, sending messages that create fear or guilt, having a win-at-all-costs attitude, retribution, taking more than giving, being unapologetic for bad behaviour, and blaming others for one’s shortcomings rather than taking responsibility. Although this is not an exhaustive list, it captures the essence of the activities that constitute psychopathic behaviour.

The case of ‘Bob’

Consider the example of Bob, who had a meteoric rise in the public sector. Bob was considered very intelligent and a rare and valuable talent that his organisation needed in order to succeed. His manager thought very highly of him and identified him as his eventual successor, subsequently grooming him for the role. He had had responsibility for a few subordinates but these employees never lasted long, seeking transfers to other roles or leaving the organisation. He explained each case to his boss and HR as being due to his high standards and to these employees lacking the drive and talent required. He correctly judged that this would impress his boss, who was keen on improving the standards of the department and having a reputation as the best. The boss also only knew Bob as a friendly, sincere and committed person. When my consulting team was involved in leadership profiling to identify individuals to fast-track, Bob was put forward as a candidate.

During the assessment, Bob’s reactions to the evaluation exercises were to aggressively challenge when confronted and to glare. These displays of hostile and intimidating behaviours during assessment were recorded as part of the feedback report and submitted to HR. Upon learning he was not selected for fast-tracked leadership development, he requested a meeting with the HR director saying he wanted to discuss his feedback report. During the meeting, Bob appealed to the director’s background and desire to help by describing a difficult childhood and some social awkwardness including what he claimed were people’s misinterpretations of his difficulty expressing emotions and use of eye contact as intimidating and uncaring.

When he left the meeting, the director felt pity for him and was convinced he wanted and would respond positively to help. After she conveyed this to my team, a meeting was scheduled for us to review his assessments and identify a developmental plan to assist him. At the meeting I was confronted—not by a willing participant, but rather by a cold individual with a hard, intimidating stare. Bob denied he had said he was concerned about his ability to deal with emotions and refuted every piece of feedback presented. He made it clear he was not interested in pursuing a conversation or development in this area.

The strong incongruence between the person the HR Director experienced in her office and the one that presented to me was a clear sign of psychopathic behaviour. The way he controlled his boss, his HR director and others suggested he was playing the role of a puppetmaster. He was never identified by the organisation as a problem, but in retrospect, a review of the evidence suggested that the department and his co-workers had been damaged by his behaviour. Despite HR having access to all of these records and being aware of his history, Bob managed to keep them on side and have them serve as protectors. A key lever that psychopaths play on is people’s strong preference for praise over criticism.

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

—Norman Vincent Peale

Ethics and the positive work environment

If you pursue a career in public life, the knowledge of what constitutes psychopathic workplace behaviour carries not only personal meaning for managing your own career, but also responsibility, as befits your role as a steward of national wellbeing. There is an important public interest in holding organisations and their workers accountable for creating workplaces devoid of psychopathic behaviour and ensuring vulnerable workers can avoid coming under the destructive hold of toxic leaders.

At this point, you would be right to ask why organisations would hire and even promote psychopaths and why non-psychopaths would engage in psychopathic behaviour. It turns out that it has to do with the type of work environment the organisation has created or let develop.

Negative work environments are characterised by unethical practices, toxic emotions, bullying, discrimination and destructive leaders. In contrast, positive work environments are characterised by psychological wellbeing, work–life balance, a sense of meaning at work, and ethical behaviour.

When we look at organisational incentive systems and how leaders are selected and trained, we often see a fixation on performance and growth at the expense of staff; sycophancy; treating workers as a means to an end; and neglecting the emotional, ethical, and spiritual dimensions that make up human beings. These sorts of incentives promote toxic leadership, reward psychopathic behaviours, overlook the importance of character—instead focusing on the appearance of authenticity and morality—and in so doing foster negative work environments. Interestingly, recent research by my team conducted with a government department revealed that training in moral reasoning and authentic leadership, while generally very beneficial, does not solve the problem with psychopathic behaviour, as psychopaths can leverage these skills for their own schemes rather than for benefiting others and the organisation.[v]

People displaying these psychopathic behaviours simply should not be put in positions of power or authority as the risk for destructive consequences for others and for society is too high. In contrast, positive work environments have reward systems that foster other-interest (in contrast to self-interest), collegiality, honest and open dialogue, and ethics in leaders and co-workers alike. They also have procedural transparency such that practices related to promotions, performance appraisals and increments are standardised and transparent. Additionally, positive work environments use leadership selection methods that include rigorous assessment of ethics, authenticity and character. This truth is captured by the following quotes:

Character is higher than intellect.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

—variously attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, James D. Miles or Malcolm Forbes

Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.

—John Adams

Neutralising or avoiding the psychopath

Understanding the context in which corporate psychopaths and psychopathic behaviour thrives provides an important lesson in how to avoid coming into contact with toxic individuals in your career. The fruits of positive leadership are positive work environments and so investigating a potential employer to determine whether they offer such an environment is an important tool for finding a healthy place to work.

My research[vi] and my consulting on positive and toxic work environments provide useful indicators of the characteristics and drivers of such cultures. For example, positive work environments exist when employees see their workplace as respectful, inclusive and psychologically safe, policies and decision-making as just, and leaders and co-workers as trustworthy, fair and open to diversity. Positive work environments provide the set of emotional experiences necessary for human flourishing. That means positive emotional experiences outweighing negative emotional experiences, and an absence of emotional game playing and manipulations. It also means a special kind of leadership: one that focuses on the needs, concerns and growth of followers and that sees the role of leader as stewardship, making a positive difference and upholding the principles of social justice. Tellingly, this type of leadership is not described or labelled as ‘charismatic’ in the academic literature, but rather as ‘servant leadership’. This is in contrast to the pure focus on performance and success pursued by many organisations.

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Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.

—Albert Einstein

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The real antidote to letting psychopaths reign is keeping the focus of one’s career, organisational incentive systems, and indeed governmental and national culture, on service to the wellbeing of others and society.

 

[1] One group in particular is likely to be taken in by a corporate psychopath. You might like to guess which group. I will disclose the answer in a moment.

[2] Quotations in this section are from Babiak, P & Hare, RD 2007, Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work, HarperCollins, New York.

[i] Babiak, P & Hare, RD 2007, Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work, HarperCollins, New York.

[ii] Radio National, Background Briefing 18 July 2004–Psychopaths in Suits, http://netk.net.au/Psychology/Psychopath1.asp.

[iii] Vogl, F 2014, ‘Stop corruption—anger to rise in 2014’, The World Post, 2 February, www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-vogl/stop-corruption-anger-to-rise_b_4498875.html.

[iv] Radio National, Background Briefing 18 July 2004–Psychopaths in Suits, http://netk.net.au/Psychology/Psychopath1.asp.

[v] Härtel, CEJ, Butarbutar, I, Sendjaya, S, Pekerti, A, Hirst, G & Ashkanasy, NM 2013, ‘Developing ethical leaders: a servant leadership approach’, in Sekerka, L (ed.), Ethics training in action (IAP Ethics in practice series), Information Age Publishing, Charlotte.

[vi] Härtel, CEJ 2008, ‘How to build a healthy emotional culture and avoid a toxic culture’, in Cooper, CL & Ashkanasy, NM (eds), Research companion to emotion in organizations, Edwin Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham.