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Think Your Boss Is a Psychopath? That May Be True

Friday, 2 Sep 2011 | 6:33 PM ET

Think your boss is a psychopath? That may scientifically be true.

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In a recent study of more than 200 executives, nearly 4 percent scored at or above the traditional cutoff for psychopathy using the Psychopathy Checklist, which researchers regard as the "gold standard" for assessing this personality disorder, said Paul Babiak, one of the researchers who conducted the study and co-author of the book, “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work.”

By contrast, just 1 percent of the general population is categorized as having psychopathic tendencies. Admittedly, it’s just one study, but it suggests that business leaders could be four times as likely to be psychopathic than the average person.

A psychopath, by definition is someone who has no conscience and feels no remorse or empathy. They tend to be manipulative but charming, which is the key to their success in business.

Psychopaths tend to be terrible at managing and they’re not team players but their charm helps them climb the corporate ladder.

“There are many natural traits of psychopathy that are easily mistaken for good leadership traits," Babiak said. "For example, 'charm' looks like charisma, a talent of all great leaders; 'grandiose sense of self,' if couched in the right language and behavior begins to look like self-confidence and strength, again leadership traits," he said.

"Unfortunately, it's part of human nature to go with our first impressions and psychopaths make excellent first impressions," Babiak said.

And, it's altogether possible that you might not even realize that your boss is a psychopath.

"There are so many 'bad bosses' out there, we simply write our boss off as unskilled," Babiak said. The findings of Babiak and his fellow researchers will be revealed in a BBC documentary called, “Are You Good or Evil?,” due out next week.

"The psychopath is a master at creating a 'mask' which hides their true nature," Babiak said. "So, higher-level executives are only shown the 'mask' and they see an 'ideal employee and future leader," he said.

In fact, he often uses the phrase "parasitic predator" to describe corporate psychopaths. "They are parasitic in that they are looking for a host to support them," he said. "A big company is an easy place in which to hide."

Shudder.

What’s worse, it may not be just your boss.

It's possible that you could be married to a psychopath for 10, 20, 30 years and not know it, he said.

That may not help you sleep at night to know that, but at least the next time you have a fight with your boss or spouse, you have some scientific ammunition to back you up.

Psycho!

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  • Cindy Perman is a writer at CNBC.com, covering jobs, real estate, retirement and personal finance.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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