Risk-Loving Psychopaths in The Corporate World

Over the past few decades, more and more studies have revealed what many have suspected for a long time: that the people calling the shots from the corner offices are psychopaths with a penchant for risk.

People who get a kick out of taking risks often also enjoy gambling, so are psychopaths typically better or worse at gambling than ‘normal’ people?

corporate boss in suit with knife behind back The Traits and Prevalence of Psychopaths in The Office

There are many traits that psychopaths share and they’re not all to do with risk. Having just one or even a few of these characteristic does not necessarily mean someone is a psychopath though.

Officially classified as a personality disorder, the condition lies on a continuum and is generally assessed via the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist that contains traits like:

  • Superficial charm
  • No fear of risk
  • Pathological lying
  • Impulsivity
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Cunning manipulativeness
  • Exaggerated estimation of self and own abilities
psychopath at work with snake
Image Credit: myjackietalktherapist.com

In the context of a corporate office, psychopaths may publicly humiliate colleagues, set others up for failure, take credit for colleagues’ work, or disregard ethics and the law to accomplish a business goal.

Psychopaths naturally tend to gravitate toward certain careers more than others. According to “The Wisdom of Psychopaths; What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success” by Dr. Kevin Dutton, the careers with the most psychopaths are CEOs, lawyers, TV/radio personalities, sales, and surgeons.

Conversely, the least amount of psychopaths are care aides, nurses, therapists, craftspeople, and beauticians.

While lawyers and salespeople being on the list might not surprise anyone, the rate of psychopathic CEOs might. A 2016 study that examined 261 senior-level corporate professionals found that 21% had a high number of psychopathic traits. Author and TED speaker Jon Ronson goes on to estimate that “while only about 1 percent of the population are psychopaths, 4 percent of business leaders and CEOs are psychopaths.”

The Connection Between Psychopaths and Problem Gamblers

The traits shared by both problem gamblers and psychopaths have been well researched. In one study done with incarcerated men, there was a strong correlation between those that were diagnosed as problem gamblers and those that had a psychopathic personality disorder.

In another, scans revealed that a particular region in the brain is dysfunctional in psychopaths the same way as it is in problem gamblers.

connection between gambling and psychopathy

A psychological test called the Iowa gambling task backs up these findings. The task involves participants being shown four decks (some “bad”, some “good”) of cards on a computer screen, each of which will reward or penalize them using in-game money.

After 40-50 draws, most mentally healthy participants figure out that certain decks help them while others hurt them, while those with psychopathic brain traits never develop awareness or avoidance of the harmful decks.

However, this correlation doesn’t mean that the decisions psychopaths make when gambling are always detrimental, at least in the short term.

Another study of a small sample of prisoners found that higher levels of psychopathy and antisocial traits meant better decision making during the same four-deck card game, compared to the normal population.

How Psychopaths Succeed in Business

Psychologists Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, who literally wrote the book on psychopaths in the workplace, say that these ‘snakes in suits’ achieve and maintain their power through five distinct phases: Entry, Assessment, Manipulation, Confrontation, and Ascension.

Entry is simply the psychopath using their highly-polished social skills to get hired, or gain entry into the company. Assessment is then when the psychopath ‘feels out’ a potential victim by learning about their “likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots, and vulnerabilities,” and anything else that can later be exploited for gain.

woman psycho in business clothes Next comes manipulation, where the psychopath constructs a network of ‘peons’ they use to pass positive information about themselves and negative information about their colleagues. Next comes confrontation, when the psychopath casts aside these pawns by framing them or otherwise harming their reputation through lies. This sets the stage for ascension, where the psychopath betrays and then takes the place of those they once cozied up to.

These ‘skills’ that revolve around being unempathetic, self-centered, and dominant lend themselves unfortunately well to a typical corporate office. A lack of empathy means more focus on doing only what’s best for the company, without regard to how it affects those involved. Same goes for the grandiose self-confidence that makes psychopaths stand out over other candidates for a promotion.  Being able (and more than willing) to put on different masks for every person they interact with also feeds a corporate psychopath’s influence and power.

How They Harm Their Companies

Some of these traits might have value for a gambler or poker player: namely the ability to be coldly rational, manipulating other people into thinking you are doing something you aren’t, and having the confidence to take big risks. But no matter how much someone seems like a perfect employee at first, these traits (whether obvious or not) often spell ruin for an organization.

“Sometimes psychopaths’ thrill-seeking behavior and impulsivity are mistaken for high energy and enthusiasm, action orientation, and the ability to multitask,” say psychopath experts Paul Babiak and Mary Ellen O’Toole. “To the organization, these individuals’ irresponsibility may give the appearance of a risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit — highly prized in today’s fast-paced business environment.”

Having a psychopath at the helm has many damaging effects on employees, including increased depression, lower job satisfaction higher workloads, and lower productivity. For companies as a whole, higher turnover, absenteeism, and loss of shareholder investments are also frequently associated with having a psychopath in charge.

Examples of Successful Corporate Psychopaths

Psychopaths in the corporate world are more than just hearsay or your friend joking that they think their boss is one. They are real, and several of them are ‘credited’ with some of the most recent major scandals in the business world.

A photo of Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of Enron
Image Credit: nydailynews.com

A famous example is former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. Well before his company’s imminent collapse, Skilling resigned his position due to what he said were family commitments, sold a large chunk of his shares, and afterwards lied about knowing the precarious state of his company.

During his actual time as CEO, Skilling was reported to have bullied and manipulated both employees and investors while also frequently hatching plans to increase profits with no mindfulness of the law.

Another high-profile example was that of British media mogul Robert Maxwell. Owner of many publishing ventures including The Daily Mail, Member of Parliament, and war hero, Maxwell built his empire by being simultaneously charming, delusional, and litigious against any and all opponents. Proverbially and sometimes literally, he had no problem pissing on anyone he saw to be beneath him. After his mysterious death in 1991, tapes were discovered that the paranoid Maxwell was also regularly recording the conversations of his employees.

A photo of Robert Maxwell, owner of many publishing ventures
Image Credit: bbci.co.uk

Even those these two instances and many others have gone down with their organizations, experts say that many corporate psychopaths still slither among us in influential positions. Researcher Clive Boddy even believes that “The very same Corporate Psychopaths, who probably caused the [World Financial Crisis of 2008] by their self-seeking greed and avarice, are now advising governments on how to get out of the crisis.”