Culture and the corporate psychopath

perspectives May 18, 2017

We all know he’s a psychopath, but he is so good at managing up that we’re afraid to say anything. We spoke to HR; they were empathetic but nothing changed.

Where corporate psychopaths thrive, culture becomes an issue. Where culture is an issue (bullying, political structures favour elitism and personal advancement) corporate psychopaths have the perfect environment to thrive.

corporate psychopath

Forensic Psychologist, Mr Brooks, says that while psychopaths account for only a minority of the workforce, they can wreak havoc on organisations. His research shows that psychopathic traits are common at the top executive levels of the corporate world, with a prevalence of 3 to 21 percent. This compares to emerging studies that show 1 percent of the general community and 20 percent of people in the prison system are psychopathic.

In discussion on psychopaths, the focus is often on the individual rather than the culture. While individuals, particularly in positions of influence, can have a huge impact on culture, there are also cultures where psychopathy thrives and others where it is stamped out.

In a leadership program, we’ll never forget a senior male leader breaking down in tears as he acknowledged he was behaving contrary to his personal values. Time in a culture of politics, bullying and cover-ups had eroded his courage and capacity to be true to himself and those around him. Over time he was becoming a part of the culture he despised and becoming a leader he was not proud of.

This personal epiphany led to a range of behavioural changes. However, these behaviours had to be managed with the personal risk he was taking in stepping out of the status quo. Over time he became an agent of change and eventually the most senior “psychopath” in the organisation was ousted and a new, more humane leader started to make positive change.

This kind of positive end-game is not always the reality and many individuals find themselves balancing personal values against the threat of losing financial reward or facing redundancy.

Boss threatening with finger his employee, isolated

Possible impacts of the corporate psychopath on their immediate culture:

  • It’s not safe to challenge the status quo; feedback you provide can and will be used against you
  • A lack of empathy means people feel like resources rather than human beings
  • Subtle bullying is rife, possibly in the form of derision, withdrawal of acknowledgement, constantly pointing out minor issues as if they are major concerns. This inevitably impacts on self-esteem and results.
  • Self-interest kicks in, promoting politics and personal wins rather than what is best for the organisation
  • Low ethic standards modelled and encouraged from the top is likely to lead to questionable business decisions and cover-ups
  • Competition is more likely to be unhealthy across functions with a win-lose mentality

And all this has tremendous consequences to the bottom line.

What can be done?

Dealing with a corporate psychopath is extraordinarily challenging as they may have a limited capacity for empathy and may only be interested in ideas that benefit them directly. We suggest three things:

  1. If you feel that facts or truths are being manipulated, then document agreements and as much as possible ensure there are other parties witness to any conversations. Document your concerns in relation to irregularities of processes, instructions or facts.
  2. Seek support from those around you – what strategies do people have for dealing with this person? What organisational mechanisms are there in place to voice your concerns or seek advice?
  3. Seriously consider changing jobs or changing organisations if you don’t feel the organisational structures and support are effective in helping address these challenges, or even worse, reinforce these kinds of behaviours.

A senior leader, new to an organisation, called us into work with his team who needed “help with their mindset and performance”. He was encouraged to do so after several issues had been flagged to HR. The leader was effective in managing up and presented as sincere and professional on first impression. Over the 6 months of working with his team, it emerged that his bullying behaviours were causing severe psychological trauma to his team. He was not open to being coached or to accepting any responsibility. Through working with HR and coaching his team, he was eventually moved out of the organisation and not surprisingly many of the “mindset and performance” issues of the team improved. It became apparent that he had left his previous role for the same reasons. This also points to the need for rigorous recruitment processes.

What to be careful of?

Do be careful about branding people psychopaths too quickly. It can be easy to project the challenges that you face in influencing or getting things done onto a demanding manager. They may not be a psychopath, they may just be a grumpy, stressed out, overwhelmed executive, have low EQ, or be in over their head.

A recent coaching client made a few simple changes in communication style and found a more positive way of working with a fellow senior executive who she previously had thought was a psychopath.

Do be careful to ensure that you look after yourself in order to most effectively manage the situation. Some suggestions for looking after yourself can be found in our article on saving your soul in a toxic culture.


The vast majority of people working in organisations are well meaning and capable of being great work colleagues. We see time and again that given the right circumstances extraordinary change can occur in groups. Sadly, this is unlikely if you are dealing with a legitimate corporate psychopath or a culture which supports psychopathic types of behaviour. A rational and well-documented approach, a strong support network and a clear strategy for dealing with the challenge through a process is critical.

What kind of culture do you wish to create in your organisation?

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