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Submitted by Mindy Duncan and Seth Allcorn

Despite large scale organizational failures attributed to the actions of either a small group of people, or just one out of control leader, the organizational science literature has remained largely silent on the topic of personality disorders. Personality disorders, particularly psychopathy, can be exacerbated and even perpetuated by organizational cultures. Psychopathic leaders leave a trail of damage at all levels of the organization. In the case of national and transnational corporations, the toxic environment that develops under the leadership of a psychopath can have devastating consequences not only for individuals and organizations, but also for regional, national and global economies. We present a brief discussion of organizational psychopaths in response to the books Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work and Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us. In particular, we examine how psychopaths enter the workplace and ascend to leadership, and how a psychoanalytical perspective can help organizations prevent the damage that they can cause. We suggest that if it is the goal of organizational science to prevent unacceptable organizational outcomes and destructive employee behaviors, then researchers and practitioners cannot ignore the presence of personality disorders in the workplace. Psychoanalytic approaches to the workplace provide a deep understanding of individual and group psychology leading to more effective workplace interventions.

“The nexus of the dysfunctional organization, may primarily reside in the seriously flawed leader harboring a long-standing personality disorder” (Goldman, 2006). Without Conscience (Hare, 1993) and Snakes in Suits (Babiak & Hare, 2006) introduce the reader to a thoughtful, albeit threatening, discussion of the psychopath in society and the workplace. Recent research indicates that perhaps as much as 3% of the workforce is psychopathic or sociopathic (Kerns, 2008). It is likely then that other personality disorders are equally, if not more, prevalent in the workplace, and that a considerable number of individuals in the workplace may be predatory in nature. Researchers estimate that 30.8 million American adults (14.8%) meet the standard diagnostic criteria for at least one personality disorder (Holmes, 2005).

The most common personality disorders fall into one of two clusters. Cluster B includes antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders. Approximately 8% (over 16 million people) of the U.S. population meet standard diagnostic criteria for Cluster B disorders. The behavior of these individuals is generally described as dramatic, emotional, and erratic. Cluster C includes avoidant, dependent, and obsessive – compulsive personality disorders. Approximately 11% (over 25 million people) of the U.S. population meets the standard diagnostic criteria for these disorders. Individuals with these personality disorders are generally described as overly anxious and fearful. Some individuals in Cluster B are more self-centered and controlling; exhibiting dominating and victimizing (predatory) behaviors. Many patients suffer from more than one disorder. The workplace may well be composed of as many as 15% of employees who meet clinical standards for diagnoses in either Cluster B or C.

Addiction frequently co-occurs with mental illness, and serves as a means of self-medication for individuals in denial or trying to cope with the symptoms of their personality disorder. For employees with co-occurring disorders, erratic work behavior along with frequent absenteeism are common management issues. Individuals suffering from these disorders are often secretive and have low productivity.

The prevalence of personality disorders means that they will occur in the workplace, regardless of size and type. Organizational culture is at once a factor in the expression of symptoms and a product of those symptoms. Organizational dysfunction is driven by individuals, informal and formal groups and divisions, and by leaders and leadership groups that contain a mix of these disorders in interaction with each other.

Managers are often ill-equipped to cope with personality disorders and lack the training and experience needed to diagnose and treat personality disorders. Even if managers had the credentials to identify and intervene when personality disorders emerge, doing so would create an inappropriate dual relationship. As with many other workplace issues, trained professionals from the outside can offer objective feedback and diagnosis. We offer this discussion to raise awareness about the likelihood of encountering pathological behaviors in organizations and the need for outside consultation when they are encountered. In addition, we want to recognize that organizational problems cannot necessarily be blamed on one individual, and that resolution of problems involves addressing the culture that perpetuates the pathology.

Psychoanalytically Informed Consulting

The psychoanalytic approach to the study of organizations goes beyond observation of behaviors to take into account unconscious influences. Organizational behavior is interpreted in such a way as to include the unconscious determinants of that behavior. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory pays close attention to relational dynamics and how individuals define self and other in the context of relationships. Psychoanalytic concepts such as mother-child interaction and regression, along with related concepts in attachment theory, are especially important for explaining individual and group responses to changing workplace environments within this perspective.

This approach offers an in-depth understanding of the organization and the dynamics between organizational members. As such it does not offer the “quick fix” and low cost interventions of the latest management consulting fad. Organizational diagnosis takes more time and relies heavily on interviews, getting to know the organization and people, and understanding individual, group, and organizational dynamics.

While there are variations in psychoanalytic approaches to studying organizations, they have in common a focus on individual and group perceptions of organizational life, and an interpretive approach to organizational research. “Together these perspectives offer the most insight even though the complexity of human nature in the workplace revealed by this approach challenges one’s ability to know, reflect, and understand” (Allcorn, 2004).

What is a Psychopath?

Without Conscience and Snakes in Suits carefully make the distinction between sociopaths and psychopaths, the former feeling some remorse for bad behavior, and the latter feeling none. A psychopath is a person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior (Argosy University, 2010). Psychopaths are flamboyant, impulsive, and paranoid. Perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of psychopaths is the “ease with which they engage in instrumental and dispassionate violence” (Hare, 2003).

Gender differences are addressed in Snakes in Suits where the authors find that when males and females present with identical psychopathic symptoms, a clinician will often diagnose the male as a psychopath (or antisocial personality disorder) and the female as something else, usually histrionic or narcissistic personality disorder” (pp. 101-2). Famous psychopaths include Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, Theodore Bundy and David Berkowitz. However, although most psychopaths are criminal in nature, not all criminals are psychopaths.

Where do Psychopaths Come From?

Psychopaths can be found at the edges of every society and are a sort of “intraspecies predator” (Hare, 2003). There is evidence that a specific temperament predisposes individuals to psychopathic tendencies, and that the ‘psychopathic temperament’ is influenced by genetics and impairment of the amygdala (Blair, 2008). The psychopathic temperament has linguistic, affective, and emotional deficits (Hare, 2003). Psychopathic tendencies probably emerge during childhood but are difficult to differentiate from other psychological and emotional disorders (Hare, 2003). As described by Hare in Without Conscience, the condition emerges as a result of combining social, psychological, and biological factors although these factors are not well understood.

Moving Into the Workplace

Psychopaths travel “incognito,” and may often be the preferred candidate in the interviewing process.  They are often charming and appear to be attractive job candidates. Psychopaths are at their best at the one-on-one level. Their pathology becomes much more evident at the group level.

Entry into the workplace is may be predicated upon the existing organizational culture. “Unspoken messages and symbolic gestures may communicate powerful messages that can be misinterpreted by individuals with unhealthy needs and motivations” (Pech & Slade, 2007). Psychopaths will choose environments that not only allow their misbehavior, but propel them to positions of leadership. Such a culture is composed of individuals in need of a leader, and already predisposed to participating in the leader-follower dynamics created by psychopathic leaders.

As psychopaths move into the organization they begin to exhibit red flag behaviors such as a high level of competitiveness that interferes with team work, secretiveness and manipulation of information, deceitfulness, erratic behavior, and bullying and intimidation.

Moving Up the Ranks

Psychopaths cause direct and indirect damage in organizations, first to individuals and then to the culture. So why are psychopaths continuing their ascent into managerial and leadership positions? The answer is not a simple one and is context and culture bound. One answer could be that psychopaths often exhibit traits that are desirable such as intelligence, friendliness, and charismatic charm. While they present a façade of capability, they are undermining everyone around them in order to get ahead. Some suggest that psychopaths have traits that might be seen as good management material such as the ability to inflict a lot of pain without distress, and a high tolerance for risk.

The answer could be “cultural reinforcement and structural complexity” (Giblin, 1981; Kets de Vries & Miller, 1984; Pech & Slade, 2007). Organizational culture and perhaps more to the point organizational hierarchy creates a pathway for individuals who seek power and glory. Some organizations promote ruthless competition and achievement, while some promote consistent failure to perform. Highly competitive workplace cultures combined with hierarchy creates a stimulating context for psychopaths to reach their full potential. “Psychopaths tend to rise quickly in organizations because of their manipulative charisma and their sheer, single minded dedication to attain senior levels of management” (Boddy et al., 2010).

Successful “corporate psychopaths” elude notice until they reach a position of authority within an organization (Boddy et. al., 2010). The Boddy paper indicates that individuals with more work experience who are at higher levels of the organization are more likely to have encountered psychopaths, indicating that they do indeed move into the upper levels. This finding is confirmed in Snakes in Suits, and the authors note that psychopaths may well focus on acquiring roles with power, authority and control where they may at least for a period of time demonstrate a self serving ruthlessness that is feared and admired.

Creating a Psychopathic Culture

Leadership inevitably shapes organizational culture in the way that parenting can shape child behavior. Managerial bullying and exploitation of organizations occurs unfettered in many levels of the organization, especially at the top (Kets de Vries, 2003; Pech & Slade, 2007). The price of pathological leadership is quite high for most organizations. Even the best employees withdraw in the presence of “bad managerial behaviors,” resulting in plummeting morale and little or no commitment to the organization (Pech & Slade, 2007). Victimization of workers at the hands of poor managers can be attributed to the reward systems that are integral to modern corporate structures (Pech & Slade, 2007).

As psychopaths move into leadership, they become “selective recruiters.” They engineer the organizational culture through “selective retention” where those who build the desired culture are retained, while those who disagree leave. Snakes in Suits and Without Conscience present psychopaths as solo performers who will destroy anyone who gets in their way. However it is also reasonable that they may develop loyal followers and a cadre of henchmen. So it could be that psychopaths recruit other psychopaths, and simultaneously follower types that complement their pathology, depending on the context.

Whether one takes the stance that organizational psychopaths are unleashed by existing culture, or that psychopaths insert themselves and then alter organizational cultures to support pathology, it is reasonable that “what leadership has created now either blindly perpetuates itself or creates new definitions of leadership…” (Schein, 1985).

What Does a Psychodynamic Approach Offer?

So what can we do about psychopaths in the workplace? Snakes in Suits suggests learning about psychopathy while avoiding labeling others as psychopaths, increased self-awareness about personal vulnerabilities, appreciating that you may be of utilitarian value to the psychopath, and seeking help from others if you are victimized. Most agree that not only is treatment of the psychopath near impossible, it may even make them worse.

Given the difficulty spotting psychopaths and the lack of treatment options within the organization, is there an ethical responsibility related to psychological testing conducted by HR professionals, or of boards to identify the “bad” leader before they are appointed? Screening tools such as the PC-MRV, an adaptation of Hare’s checklist, are available. Other mechanisms for screening out psychopaths include intensive interviewing, background checks, and site visits. Whether these approaches to screening out are effective or not is questionable, but the process may prompt psychopaths to “select-out.” Investing time and money in the recruitment process is difficult for many organizations, and the truth is that psychological testing has failed to surface individual pathologies. Can psychoanalytic principles be applied as part of this identification process?

People in organizations carry with them a variety of issues and concerns from outside of the organization that color their actions and interactions. They may be addicted, mentally ill, suffering from domestic abuse, having marital and financial problems, or suffering from any number of other stressors that shape their behavior. When individuals enter a group they may naturally find a position within that group that recreates their family environment – current or past – and reinforces their learned behaviors and defenses. It may even exacerbate them. Since pathologies are really patterned by relationships and environments, psychoanalytic observations are likely more accurate than a questionnaire administered during the hiring process, and can offer in-depth explanations about the dynamics of psychopathy in the workplace.

In some cases, unhealthy individuals entering an organization, especially in a leadership position, can significantly alter the development of the organization. Given these considerations, one must move beyond a purely cognitive approach to address these issues and the clinical paradigm has much to offer. A psychodynamic approach considers the disposition of the leader and the leader-follower dynamic. There is a focus on understanding the unconscious emotional and psychological dynamics that are barriers to organizational effectiveness and creating interventions that reduce the negative impact of individual pathologies.

Concluding Remarks

Snakes in Suits and Without Conscience effectively raise awareness about the nature of psychopathy and prompt discussion about how psychopaths impact organizations. While psychopathy is generally dealt with on an individual level, individual pathologies can significantly color organizational cultures, and organizational cultures can magnify the pathological tendencies of individuals.

Because psychological testing often misses the psychopath, and screening out procedures are too cumbersome for most organizations, a better solution to the problem of the psychopath in organizations is to encourage psychopaths to “select out” and monitor the organizational structures and culture in order to promote diversity, reflectivity, and openness at all levels. Effective intervention relies on the ability of organizational participants to recognize their own weaknesses and how those interact with existing organizational structures. “Careful data collection and analysis must be combined with psychoanalytically informed perspectives sensitive to individual and group defensiveness” (Levinson, 1972). Psychoanalytically informed diagnostic procedures are well suited for identifying “the dynamic processes that drive organizational events” (Allcorn, 2005) including those that are potentially pathological and designing interventions that stave off or minimize the impact of organizational psychopaths.


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