Is your boss a psychopath?

Emma Woollacott
big businessman crushing a...
big businessman crushing a...

As many as one in five bosses in some industries are psychopaths, new research claims.

Forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks says that while around one in 100 of the general population has psychopathic traits, this rises to between 3% and 21% in the upper echelons of the corporate world.

The highest levels of psychopathy were found in corporate professionals in the supply chain management industry, the Australian Psychology Society Congress was told this week.

Psychopaths typically show insincerity and a lack of empathy or remorse; they are egocentric, charming and superficial. And it's long been suspected that traits such as these can help people rise to the top, especially in fields such as business, politics and high-risk sport.

Because of their charming behaviour, psychopaths can often make a very good first impression, and their willingness to take risks - when it pays off - can lead to rapid promotion.

But their lack of conscience means they may be prone to illegal behaviour if they think they can get away with it; and their impulsiveness can lead to poor decisions

Companies, says Brooks, should be wise to the danger and take steps to filter possible psychopaths out.

"Too often companies look at skills first and then secondly consider personality features," he says. "Really, it needs to be firstly about the candidate's character and then, if they pass the character test, consider whether they have the right skills."

Contrary to popular belief, though, psychopaths aren't generally violent.

"It is true that psychopathy increases the risk for violent behaviour to some degree, but that increased risk tends to be only modest," says psychologist Scott Lilienfeld of Atlanta's Emory University, who also addressed the conference.

"Many, if not most, serial killers are not markedly psychopathic. And we certainly know that the overwhelming majority of psychopaths are not serial killers."

Brooks and his team have developed a corporate personality inventory tool, designed to help businesses weed out psychopaths during the recruitment process.

"We hope to implement our screening tool in businesses so that there's an adequate assessment to hopefully identify this problem - to stop people sneaking through into positions in the business that can become very costly," he says.