Leadership

Why psychopaths are so good at getting ahead

If you have ever thought that your charismatic, ambitious, ruthless, and unfeeling boss could be a psychopath, your armchair diagnosis may not be far off.

Psychopathy is an inherited mental disorder, an illness that is the result of a deformity in the brain. Those who are born with psychopathy can be dangerous. They are also often very successful in ascending to positions of power. (Whether they're more successful than others once they're in power has not been determined.)

"We promote them, we elect them, and sometimes, a lot of people feel comfortable when people like that are in charge of our lives," Dr. Igor Galynker tells CNBC. He is the associate chairman for research in the Department of Psychiatry and the founder and director of the Richard and Cynthia Zirinsky Center for Bipolar Disorder at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, as well as a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.

"We promote them, we elect them, and sometimes, a lot of people feel comfortable when people like that are in charge of our lives." -Dr. Igor Galynker, professor of psychiatry

As a result, the prevalence of psychopathy in CEOs and business leaders is four times that of regular people, according to Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. While only about 1 percent of the population are psychopaths, 4 percent of business leaders and CEOs are psychopaths, Ronson says in a much-watched TED Talk.

A note: While the word "psychopath" is a popular one, it's a colloquial term, not a medical one. The technical diagnosis that appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is "antisocial personality disorder."

And, as with other mental conditions, a person is not 100 percent psychopathic or 100 percent "normal." Psychopathy lies on a continuum, says Galynker, meaning that psychopathic traits and behaviors manifest differently in different people.

Usually, psychopaths are cunning and charming, have an over-sized sense of self-worth, and are pathological liars. They show an unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions, as well as callousness and lack of empathy. They can be especially impulsive and irresponsible in relationships, accumulating multiple marriages and tending towards to sexual promiscuity.

"If you want a lesson on psychopathy," says Galynker, "watch 'Game of Thrones.'"

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister featured in Game of Thrones season six finale.
Source: Courtesy of HBO

If these character traits also bring to mind the 2016 U.S. presidential election, you aren't alone.

Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, is a research psychologist at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, with a specialty in psychopathy. He analyzed past and present leaders for their relative level of psychopathy. In an article for Scientific American, Dutton argues that psychopathy can be defined by three categories of characteristics, including fearless dominance, self-centered impulsivity, and coldheartedness.

Dutton generally considers a man a psychopath if he scores at least a 155 on his scale and a woman a psychopath if she scores at least a 139.5.

President-elect Donald Trump scores a 171 on Dutton's scale in part because of high scores in the perceived traits of fearless dominance and self-centered impulsivity (though Dutton has not examined Trump in person). But he's by no means the only U.S. president who could be considered a psychopath. "Politics came out as a profession in which an official consignment of legalized, precision-engineered psychopathy would come in rather handy," writes Dutton.

How psychopaths advance

It is, in particular, psychopaths' callousness, lack of empathy, and charm that helps them advance in the working world.

"Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) research indicates that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing basic human emotions and feelings of guilt, remorse, or empathy," say the corporate psychopath expert Paul Babiak and forensic behavioral consultant Mary Ellen O'Toole, in an article the two co-authored for the FBI on the corporate psychopath. "They display emotions only to manipulate individuals around them."

In an office environment, overly emotional individuals are often at a disadvantage because their judgement is clouded by a desire to protect those they care about. Inversely, "lacking empathy, more often than not, will help you in an environment where you have to make decisions that create negative consequences by necessity for other people," says Galynker.

Emotional, empathetic people may struggle to make what are often chalked up to "tough business decisions" because of the ramifications those decisions can have on other people. "Empathy can interfere with you doing your job quite a bit. And in the competitive workplace, empathy is discouraged because it may interfere with what you need to do for work," says Galynker. "It is very well known you should not be bringing your personal issues or your emotions to work."

Also, psychopaths are often remarkably successful because of their ability to manipulate individuals with their cunning and charisma. "Being charming is not a bad quality. It helps you in life," says Galynker.

In a professional environment, that often means that psychopaths maintain multiple personas throughout the office, presenting each colleague with a different version of themselves.

"Psychopaths' thrill-seeking behavior and impulsivity are mistaken for high energy and enthusiasm, action orientation, and the ability to multitask." -Paul Babiak and Mary Ellen O'Toole, corporate psychopath expert and forensic behavioral consultant, respectively

"Corporate psychopaths use the ability to hide their true selves in plain sight and display desirable personality traits to the business world. To do this, they maintain multiple masks at length. The façade they establish with coworkers and management is that of the ideal employee and future leader," write Babiak and O'Toole. "This can prove effective, particularly in organizations experiencing turmoil and seeking a 'knight in shining armor' to fix the company."

A psychopath's tendency to have a strong belief in his or her abilities also helps push psychopaths up the corporate ladder. "Self confidence, even to the extent of grandiose sense of self-worth, is also a good quality that may help you in life," says Galynker.

Other psychopathic traits that make for successful CEOs include a comfort with lying and a lack of fear of failure. The resulting bravado can translate as aggressive ambition to a corporate board.

"Sometimes psychopaths' thrill-seeking behavior and impulsivity are mistaken for high energy and enthusiasm, action orientation, and the ability to multitask. 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," write Babiak and O'Toole.

Why psychopaths can be so dangerous

Psychopaths are not only able to make decisions without regard for other people, they are also driven by a desire to hurt their peers.

"Some corporate psychopaths thrive on thrill seeking, bore easily, seek stimulation, and play mind games with a strong desire to win," say Babiak and O'Toole. "Unlike professional athletes moved by a desire to improve performance and surpass their personal best, psychopaths are driven by what they perceive as their victims' vulnerabilities."

Adding to the threat of psychopaths is their ability to deceive those around them. The most disturbing part of the psychopathic condition is that it can be very hard to distinguish.

"One of the most difficult things in life is to recognize a skillful and smart psychopath." -Dr. Igor Galynker, psychiatrist, professor of psychiatry

"One of the most difficult things in life is to recognize a skillful and smart psychopath," says Galynker.

One clue that you may be in the presence of a psychopath is if you find yourself disregarding facts you have heard from other people about how the individual in question has hurt people, or hurtful behavior you have observed yourself in the past, because instead you trust how that individual makes you feel at the present moment.

"Usually this is somebody who is so charming, you may or may not even be aware of how charming this person is," says Galynker.

Key takeaways for the rest of us

While psychopaths are successful, theirs is certainly not the kind of success others should try to emulate, says Galynker. He is emphatic that he is not advocating psychopathy or any sort of mimicry of the disorder. As they make it to the top, psychopaths may step over, trample on, or back-stab anyone in the way.

Still, it may be useful to observe the reasons that psychopaths are successful, put those features through a moral filter, and then consider how you could adopt certain beneficial behaviors at work.

"You want to be able to understand what character traits make people successful, whether psychopathic or not, and then you want to use them hopefully in a moral or ethical fashion, so you don't step on people in the process," Galynker says.

There is nothing to be gained by being particularly anxious at the office, for example. It won't make a stressful situation better. Similarly, being overly emotional about the consequences of a decision or staying mired in negativity after a failure will slow down a professional process.

And while nobody likes working with an egomaniac, often getting to the next level professionally means having a healthy confidence in your work and your ability to succeed in new environments.

"The human features that some of the psychopaths have — like reduced fear, reduced anxiety, ability to control your emotions better — they are not bad, per se, by themselves, because if a moral person used them they are going to use them to good ends," says Galynker.