- Psychopathic traits include fearlessness, ruthlessness, charisma, low remorse, impulsiveness, and the ability to thrive in chaos.
- It’s previously been believed that these traits are good in leadership positions.
- To a certain extent this may be true, but if the balance is wrong it can perpetuate abusive work cultures.
- A new study has found men and women with these traits are treated differently.
- While men are praised and rewarded for their behaviour, the same traits in women are discouraged.
Neuroplasticity is what makes us different to each another. It’s what separates the creatives from the accountants, and the introverts from the extroverts.
Some people have personality traits that make them suited to certain jobs over others. Those with antisocial behaviour disorder – colloquially known as sociopaths or psychopaths – for example, may be suited to surgery, law, and even journalism.
Previous research has linked psychopathic traits such as ruthlessness, charisma, and fearlessness to succeeding in high level positions such as CEOs. But according to a new study, this connection may have been overblown.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that psychopathic tendencies helped a person rise through management ranks, but they may be less effective as leaders.
According to Tara Swart, a neuroscientist turned executive coach, this is no surprise, as psychopathic traits are not positives for leadership.
“To thrive in the modern world and going in to the future, we need to look for leaders that have high capability for emotional intelligence, intuition, creativity, mental resilience and computational thinking,” she told Business Insider.
“The CEOs with psychopathic traits may demonstrate the veneer of success, but dig deeper, and there is often a history of multiple firings due to inter-personal difficulties.”
Perpetuating abusive cultures
A study from earlier this year found that abusive bosses are generally bad news for your work life, unless you are a psychopath yourself. Essentially this is because while some people will be embarrassed and hurt if their boss is unnecessarily harsh with them, with psychopaths it’s water off a duck’s back.
Lead author Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor of management in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, said that this is harmful in the long run because it could enable people who are likely to “perpetuate abusive cultures.”
If upper-level management is unaware or not taking action about their increasingly abusive office, they may see psychopaths staying on while other people leave to get away from them.
“At the extreme, they could end up with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths,” she said.
Psychopaths tend to be bold, assert their dominance over others, and are impulsive. But what really separates them from the rest of the population is their lack of empathy.
“Overall, although there is no positive or negative relation to a company’s bottom line when psychopathic tendencies are present in organizational leaders, their subordinates will still hate them,” said Peter Harms, an associate professor of management at The University of Alabama. “So we can probably assume they behave in a manner that is noxious and whatever threats they make to ‘motivate’ workers don’t really pay off.”
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Psychopathic traits help men but hinder women
Swart said there tends to be very few differences between men and women in senior leadership positions. But unconscious biases can lead to differing experiences of the leader and blurred perceptions of what male and female bosses look like.
“We have stereotypes of what we expect from women in society and in leadership,” she said. “These are both conscious and unconscious. It is more noticeable and therefore more of a threat to our brain if a woman is ruthless, remorseless, or impulsive.”
In fact, when the researchers of the study broke down the data by gender, it showed that psychopathic traits in men help them become leaders, while in women the traits may be discouraged.
“Aggressive behavior is seen as more prototypical of men, and so people allow more displays of that kind of behavior without social sanctions,” said Harms. “If women behave counter to gender norms, it seems like they get punished for it more readily.”
A ‘disheartening’ double standard
Lead author of the study Karen Landay, a doctoral student in management at UA, said the double standard is “disheartening.”
“I can imagine that women seeking corporate leadership positions getting told that they should emulate successful male leaders who display psychopathic tendencies,” she said. “But these aspiring female leaders may then be unpleasantly surprised to find that their own outcomes are not nearly as positive.”
Harms suggested aggressive traits, bullying tactics, and generally unpleasant behaviour should be more frowned upon when looking for good leadership, instead of championed.
“We should be more aware of and less tolerant of bad behavior in men,” he said. “It is not OK to lie, cheat, steal and hurt others whether it is in the pursuit of personal ambition, organisational demands, or just for fun.”
Psychopathic traits can be seen as dials on a hob, said Swart. Fearlessness, ruthlessness, charisma, low remorse, impulsiveness, and the ability to thrive in chaos can lead to success when managed effectively, but if mismanaged, they can lead to “serious problems.”
“The same characteristics in different contexts can mean the difference between being a surgeon or a serial killer, a judge or a criminal etc,” she said.
“You can see how the ability to thrive in chaos could contribute to solid leadership, but if chaos is created then others suffer and this can be misused. Impulsiveness can be reframed as decisiveness.
“There are situations where charisma or low remorse can be used effectively… or not.”