Workplace psychopathy was an obscure, unknown issue prior to the mid-1990s, but hundreds of popular accounts have been published since then. A measured review by Sarah Francis Smith and Scott Lilienfield gets to the heart of what we really know about the phenomenon. There is a lot to cover so we're publishing about it in two posts.
Psychopathy? It's complicated
From the off, the authors raise how complicated the issue is. Many studies rely on psychopathy and outcome data from single sources, leaving open the possibility of both rater bias - the manager whose performance and 'psychopathic tendencies' are rated by the same hypercritical individual - and halo effects, where a rater sees their organisation as ethical because their boss is so personally pleasant. Where possible I've flagged this as a monomethod issue.
Moreover, psychopathy is measured and defined in many ways, using approaches that are variously clinical or occupational. One durable distinction is between primary psychopathy - the emotional and personality traits of an individual - and secondary psychopathy, concerned with behaviours. The primary are arguably key, as a restrained psychopath can choose to refrain from unproductive behaviours.
How common in business and in leaders?
A commonly cited figure of 3% prevalence in managers versus 1% in the general population is based on a single study, so is there other evidence out there to corroborate higher psychopathy in business? Yes, but it's still tentative.
One study compared a small executive sample to larger psychiatric and forensic populations, and did indeed find the executives scored higher on specific scales that were argued to relate to psychopathy. However, the scales were designed to measure other traits like narcissism, not psychopathy per se, using a measure that was not well-validated. Another study reported that commerce majors showed higher psychopathic traits, but not behaviours, than other undergraduates.
Perhaps the clearest support comes from Babiak et al's (2010) finding that psychopathic traits are higher within a corporate sample relative to community controls, and that high scorers tended to have higher executive positions.
So psychopathy may be more common in business and even leadership, although we don't yet have comprehensive indications of how much. But does it matter?
We'll find out tomorrow.
Update: see part two here.