- Andre Hunter / Unsplash
- Having an abusive boss isn’t the ideal situation for most of us.
- For psychopaths, though, it could help them thrive.
- People with psychopathic traits are cool-headed and ruthless, and don’t respond to stress in the same way as other people.
- Management researcher Charlice Hurst warns that this could perpetuate a cycle of abuse and psychopaths reaching the top of companies.
A common saying is that people leave managers, not jobs. If you work for a narcissist or a psychopath, you might reach your limit faster than you thought.
But sometimes it can be a good thing to work for someone who doesn’t have any empathy, because they can have strong leadership skills. They are cool-headed and charismatic, and can make ruthless business decisions. You just have to hope they won’t cause you stress for their own amusement.
Many CEOs have psychopathic traits, but to get to that point they have to work under people too. According to a new study, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, psychopaths thrive under a certain kind of leadership, and it’s the kind that most of us despise.
Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor of management in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, and lead author of the study, explained there are two distinct dimensions of psychopathy: primary and secondary.
“Both consist of high levels of antisocial behavior,” she said in a statement. “However, people who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless. They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful, or angry. Secondary psychopaths are more hot-headed and impulsive.”
Some psychopaths are cool, calm, and collected
Primary psychopaths, the study found, work well with abusive supervisors, because they are calm and collected when facing conflict.
Hurst and her team recruited 419 working adults and asked them to take part in two experiments. In the first, they were asked to react to profiles of managers described as constructive or abusive. Results showed there were no differences in anger between people who were high or low on the psychopathy scale. However, participants high in primary psychopathy said they were happier afterwards, and could imagine themselves working for an abusive manager.
In the second experiment, they were asked to rate their own supervisors in terms of things like rudeness, gossiping, not giving proper credit for work, invading privacy, and breaking promises. Primary psychopaths reported feeling less anger, and were more positive and engaged.
The overall results showed that psychopaths can benefit and flourish under abusive bosses. In other words, where some people will be embarrassed and hurt if their boss is unnecessarily harsh with them, with primary psychopaths it’s water off a duck’s back.
Hurst added this could be harmful in the long run, because it could enable people who are likely to “perpetuate abusive cultures.”
“Psychopaths thriving under abusive supervisors would be better positioned to get ahead of their peers,” she said.
“If they have a problem of endemic abuse… and upper-level managers are either unaware of it or are not taking action, they might notice increasing levels of engagement due to turnover among employees low in primary psychopathy and retention of those high in primary psychopathy. At the extreme, they could end up with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths.”