Psychopathic CEOs

Personality traits present themselves on a broad spectrum that, at their extremes, may result in some form of maladaptive behaviour. Therefore, bright traits can have a dark side and dark traits a bright side.

In the case of the Dark Triad traits (narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism), the extreme of the first two traits are identified clinically as personality disorders and much of what is known about these dark traits originates from the study of clinical populations that represent about 1% of the general population. Nonetheless, in seeking to understand the reasons for the numerous corporate scandals and examples of destructive behaviour, organisational researchers have discovered that these dark traits also exist on a spectrum in the sub-clinical (normal) population.

The World’s News Media was again buzzing this week with sensational headlines about the emergence of a new study by organisational researchers in Australia.

As the article upon which these advance reports are based is yet to be published, we don’t yet know the details. However, the press reports that the study has found that roughly one in five CEOs and top corporate professionals are psychopathic to a clinically significant degree [see examples: Is YOUR boss a psychopath? Study finds up to one in five CEOs have high levels of psychopathic traits; and One in five CEOs are psychopaths, new study finds].

Overall, there is nothing new here but what is newsworthy is the finding that 21% of the CEOs involved were found to be psychopathic to a clinically significant degree. This is about the same proportion as has been found in the prison population – and is substantially more than was previously thought: –

⇒  Psychopaths represent about 1% of the general population [1].

⇒  As many as three million employees could be classified as psychopathic [2].

⇒  Two studies [3, 4] each found that between 3.5% to 4% of top executives were psychopathic.

⇒  Caponecchia & Sun found that 13.4% of respondents worked with psychopathic colleague which, overall, suggests that corporate psychopaths lie in the range of 5% to 15% of the workforce [5].

The study also found that high functioning, or ‘successful psychopaths’, have become more prevalent since the financial crisis of 2008. This is broadly consistent with other reports that dark traits, including psychopathy, are increasing [6]. Although the reasons for this have yet to be understood, some think this is because the era of Casino-Capitalism [7, 8] is making  western society more competitive and materialistic than it was in the past; while increasing work load [9] and competitive pressures are causing these dark traits to become more evident [6, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14]. In other words, the anti-social behaviours associated with dark traits, like psychopathy, have evolved as a reflection of the behaviours needed to succeed in modern corporations – and more broadly in western society.

Psychopathy – Like narcissism, psychopathy was originally considered a clinical disorder (antisocial personality disorder), but it too has been recognised to exist on the clinical and sub-clinical spectrum. At the sub-clinical level, high trait psychopathy is characterised by a lack of empathy and concern for other people, social regulatory mechanisms and social norms. Psychopaths are generally bad tempered, highly impulsive and they are completely devoid of conscience, guilt, or remorse when their behaviours are harmful/detrimental to others. Interpersonally, high psychs are skilled impression managers who are slick, charismatic and superficially charming. Emotionally superficial, they tend to adopt parasitic lifestyles and will engage in criminal behaviour to achieve their ends. They employ high levels of deception, manipulation and are described as being crafty. However, they also tend to have an inflated view of their abilities and this creates the likelihood that their true nature will be noticed.

Not all psychopaths are in prison. Misinformation and confusion in the media have created a misconception of psychopathy in the general public. This is more evident still with business professionals who see even less relevance of psychopathy to their daily interactions with colleagues in the workplace. Even so, psychologists have come to recognise that some psychopaths have good impulse control. They are not prone to outbursts of spontaneous, violent, criminal behaviour and they function successfully and exist in society relatively undetected. Such individuals have more recently been referred to as Corporate Psychopaths and they are thought to have certain behavioural advantages over individuals that score lower on the psychopathic scale.

Corporate psychopaths are reportedly the product of the modern corporation where the rapid rate of change, high turnover of staff, and limited recruitment and selection processes ignore their negative traits and allow them to advance to senior positions. A number of studies have shown that psychopathy is over-represented in particular occupations, for example: politicians, CEOs, bankers/financiers, lawyers, professional services, surgeons/medics, show business/media, police, army, civil servants, clergy, etc… a common feature of which is power and/or disproportionately high financial or motivational rewards – such as status, risk-taking, etc.

No doubt this new study will attract a lot of attention because the implication for organisations is that dark personality traits, like psychopathy, are now recognised to be sufficiently represented in some organisation populations to justify corporations assessing for these traits and considering them in recruitment, selection and professional development processes. Hence the suggestion (in the press) that Human Resource (HR) practices are to blame for allowing psychopathic CEOs into the board room.

This is Bad News, Right?

Not really. Overall, this new level of press attention is a positive development. The lack of understanding about these issues is a barrier to progress in resolving the people challenges in strategic themes such as: developing socially responsible corporate cultures, emerging leadership themes, evolving management practices, and pro-social collaborative behaviours required in today’s organisations. Clearly self-awareness is fundamental to self-regulation which in turn is a pre-requisite to achieving the flat, agile, humanistic, organisational structures and socially responsible behaviours that contemporary corporations require.

Research like this enables a wide range of new opportunities for positive impact, but there is also a down-side to sensationalised reporting and sharing such knowledge in bite-sized chunks – it creates further confusion and misconceptions about a complex but important topic. It also creates a false impression/expectation amongst practitioners that hiring a few experts to conduct new psychometrics assessments will result in success – i.e. less dysfunctional behaviour and fewer negative outcomes. Although we’ve yet to understand the value of the tool being created by these researchers, the problem of assessing and addressing unfavourable behaviours characterised by dark personality traits can not be easily solved. So long as people that invest in the idea of these services understand this, all is well. Caveat Emptor!

Despite the challenges, we must continue this research because any advance in understanding will positively benefit society, organisations, and individuals alike. The following are some of the areas that need to be considered and addressed: –


Although there are many studies that cite the wide ranging benefits of diversity (heterophily or intermingling), in practice, the process of forming relationships is strongly influenced by Homophily.

Homophily (i.e., “love of the same”) is the tendency of individuals to associate and  bond with similar others. A vast array of  network studies have observed homophily in some form or another and where individuals form relationships based upon some form of shared, or common, characteristics such as: age, gender, race, religion, class, interests, organisational skill/role/function/job, personality type, beliefs, values, education, etc., and it is this tendency that makes communication and relationship formation easier.

I’ve found this to be the case in almost every aspect of my private and professional life – we just feel more comfortable with people we have some thing(s) in common with – whatever it is. This has a profound impact…

Example: The Top Leadership Team of a global corporation (about 32 individuals) undertook a DISC Assessment as a part of a leadership development programme. Despite the multi-national nature of the people involved, c29 of the 32 individuals all scored as high ‘Ds’ (predisposed to having a dominant personality) and shared broadly similar profiles for the remaining three traits. In this case, you won’t be surprised to hear that the team was plagued by conflict, organisational politics, unproductive competition and antagonistic power relationships. Although it didn’t stop some of the excesses, simply knowing we had this trait characteristic in common had a positive effect, in awareness and tolerance. It also created a new respect for the small number of individuals that scored highly in the other traits – which is what the assessment is meant to do!

Furthermore, the study of personality in twins has shown that only around 40% to 50% of our personality is genetically heritable and the remainder is learned from experiencing life events and the role models around us. This brings the realisation that rather than being static, as was originally thought, aspects of personality are fluid, they interact with environmental/situational factors and can be modified through experience, learning and from observing socially important role models.

It is as a result of this process that large, fragmented organisations develop ‘dominant‘ personality types reflecting the personality profiles of influential leaders. In time this becomes the prevailing culture of those organisational units because when specific behaviours are observed to be associated with successful individuals, those behaviours are adopted more broadly (socialised) and they become normalised by the wider organisation.

So that’s a double whammy –

  1. we form relationships based on homophily (i.e. we hire/bond with people that are ‘just like us’ and a significant element of selection processes concern themselves with ‘fit’); and
  2. we socialise behaviours based on the behaviours we observe around us – providing we believe it is important and relevant to do so. The more important those influences are to us, the more likely we are to adopt and repeat the same behaviours.

This has a big implication for organisations because destructive behaviours displayed by people that have influence, e.g. a sociopathic/psychopathic CEO, will, over time, result in a sociopathic/psychopathic organisation. So, merely assessing organisational leaders is not enough – you have to assess everyone (and they have to be comfortable with the reasons for doing so).

Assessment Challenges

Measurement and Assessment Tools

Despite the rich history of classifying personality in context of behaviours and work place outcomes, the practice of personality assessment has yet to deliver the potential that makes the idea so compelling. Unfortunately there are many and complex reasons for this, some of the more prominent being the unreliability of self-reporting as a personality assessment tool, and the reluctance of organisations to participate in empirical research – which would advance the science more rapidly.

The problem with self-report assessment is that a single snap shot is just not reliable enough to base any meaningful understanding, even with the checks and balances integrated into the design of modern questionnaires. This factor is even more challenging with individuals that are psychopathic. You only need to read the characteristics of sub-clinical psychopaths above to understand that they are unlikely to respond in a way that isn’t advantageous to them. Attach the outcome of the assessment to a strong environmental situation, such as when the result influences important economic decisions, like a promotion, or a new job, and they are even less likely to be transparent.

Trait Interaction

Trait Interaction is simply about the inter-dependence between personality and the situational environment the person is immersed in, as this plays a key role in influencing individual behaviour.

Early interaction research focused on the relative influence of personality compared with the strength of a situation in determining behaviour. For example: –

⇒  In strong situations where behaviour is constrained by rules or rewards, everybody will behave in the same way regardless of their unique personalities.

⇒  In weak situations where there are few (or no) situational constraints, an individual’s behaviour is more likely to reflect their unique personality. Therefore, weak situations tend to have little influence over behaviour which typically reflects the individual’s personality traits; bearing in mind that trait expression is observed in overt behaviours that either contribute positively to performance, are irrelevant to performance, or are counter-productive.

Put simply, personality is difficult to measure a) because you rely on the person to answer honestly; and, b) even if they do answer honestly, personality isn’t stable, it is dynamic; and an individual’s trait profile can display at any point on its spectrum depending on a wide range of situational factors. The optimum position is to identify personality traits generally and accept that classifying somebody as psychopathic doesn’t mean they will display anti-social behaviours in the future. It’s only appropriate to draw conclusions about the potential future behaviours of individuals whose traits you’ve identified through assessment – if the assessment method is reliable and you have some understanding of how those traits will interact with interdependent environmental/situational factors.

When is Psychopathy a Bad Thing?

These articles sensationally report the negative aspects of psychopathic leaders. While it’s important to be clear that psychopaths lack conscience, are especially predisposed to destructive behaviour; and, unconstrained, a psychopath in a high profile leadership role, such as CEO, can be damaging to the organisation, its brand and its people. However, that isn’t the end of the story and we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

All personality traits have a dark and a bright side and you have to consider an individual’s personality holistically to appreciate the most likely situation. The reason that psychopaths are over-represented in a large number of corporate roles is because many of their behaviours result in positive performance outcomes and success – as defined by the organisation. That’s why they get promoted and achieve high status in the first place so it’s logical to assume that we’d want them to continue to be successful. According to unconfirmed reports, this performance opportunity is recognised by at least one major UK bank that is positively screening for psychopathy. We shouldn’t assume that a psychopathic leader is a bad thing. Organisations do benefit from the positive performance impact of psychopathic leaders, even if they don’t like some of the negative consequences. It is those behaviours that we are most concerned with modifying and addressing with appropriate interventions.

As a side bar, we should also consider if there is something ethically and morally suspect about the idea that a certain trait, or level of a trait is unacceptable. After all, this kind of prejudice has been at the philosophical core of many infamous eugenics programmes throughout history. Even if you could measure traits reliably, if everyone has some level of psychopathy in their personality, how do we decide what level of psychopathy is acceptable or unacceptable, especially when, moment to moment, an individual can be characterised at any point on a trait’s spectrum? How dark is too dark? Even bright traits have a dark side and the dark side of bright traits can result in just as much dysfunction and mayhem. For example: –

Big Five Trait: Emotional Stability (Vs. Neuroticism)

⇒  High emotional stability results in individuals that are completely unfazed by the pressures and stresses of modern organisations. They are not prone to outbursts of emotion and typically just get on with the job without creating drama. On the other hand, high emotional stability can also manifest itself as a lack of empathy and result in inappropriate emotional responses. This is unhelpful in developing social relationships as it is perceived as an icy cold demeanour.

⇒  Low emotional stability (known as neuroticism) is disruptive to organisation functioning as it tends to manifest in terms of high anxiety, endless complaints, dissatisfactions and high drama. Nothing is right for a neurotic individual, they are prone to absence and can lack productivity. On the other hand, the natural anxiety of neurotics means that they can be very task focussed and attentive to detail and schedule. There are many situations where having a ‘worrier’ on the team is helpful – you just don’t want many of them!

Big Five Trait: Agreeableness (Vs. Disagreeableness)

⇒  Individuals that are highly agreeable are great at avoiding and resolving conflict and they are popular. Conversely, highly agreeable individuals don’t cope well with stressful organisation environments where there is high uncertainty, rapid changes, or where difficult decisions or actions are often required. Many studies have reported that highly agreeable leaders, though popular, tend to be unsuccessful from a performance perspective.

⇒  Low trait agreeableness (disagreeableness) is a problem for organisations, especially in a team context – reflecting the adage ‘one bad apple spoils the barrel’. This is the dark side of agreeableness. Extremely low agreeableness destroys team cohesion through conflict and unproductive tensions and yet, in high stress situations where difficult decisions are required to be made quickly, these individuals may perform well – although they’ll make few friends while they are doing it!


In order to make a difference we need to be mindful of other aspects of organisational function, such as reward systems, governance, supervision, etc. It is because of these factors that psychopaths are attracted to high profile roles – they yearn high status, power, prestige, influence, etc. Simply trying to identify psychopaths through assessment and filtering during selection will make little meaningful difference – because everybody is psychopathic to a greater and lesser degree. A distinction is needed because those individuals that are clinically psychopathic to the extent that they lack impulse control generally don’t make it into the board room. They go to prison, or a clinical institution, because their level of psychopathy is a disorder.

Perhaps it’s idealistic to think that individuals and organisations will be able to manage the vast complexity associated with dynamically interdependent personality traits but the continuing development of: new research methods, inferential statistical techniques, Big Data, Predictive Analytics, Cognitive Bias Modification; and enabling technologies like facial recognition, ‘apps‘, ‘wearable tech’ and the field of behavioural epigenetics will, in time, help to bridge the knowledge gap and address some of the practical challenges of assessing personality in meaningful terms.

In the mean time, some knowledge is better than no knowledge at all and sharing what we know to improve understanding of personality provides opportunities for increased self-management and self-awareness. I can’t imagine any circumstance where this isn’t a good thing, whether it’s in your personal life, or in a professional context.

Read more about THE DARK TRIAD


NOTE – If you are interested in seeing how you might score on the individual dark triad scales you can follow the links provided below but please note that they are offered purely to help raise awareness. The sub-clinical versions of these scales are not clinically appropriate, these are just for fun and awareness.

⇒  do the Narcissistic Personality test

⇒  do the mach-IV test

⇒  do the psychopathy test

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