Apparently psychopaths make good CEOs

Think about the worst boss you've ever had. Did they yell at you for no reason? Did their incompetence make your life worse? Was their vision for the company ruthless and unwavering in a way that was detrimental to their employees but very good for them? Were they charming? Smart? Dangerously upbeat? Surrounded by an inner-circle of lackeys that seemed impervious to their actions while everyone else suffered in silence?

Maybe they're just difficult. Maybe they're just extremely driven. Or, maybe, you're working for a psychopath.

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A panel at SXSW takes on this very topic, presenting the thesis that many successful CEOs in, yes, Silicon Valley share a lot of psychopathic traits that are actually beneficial to running a company.

Here's psychologist Michael Woodward, a man who has worked with psychopathic murderers in prisons:

A true psychopath is someone that has a blend of emotional, interpersonal, lifestyle and behavioral deficits but an uncanny ability to mask them. They come across as very charming, very gregarious. But underneath there's a profound lack of remorse, callousness and a lack of empathy.

They have certain characteristics like fearless dominance, boldness and a lack of emotion. Many successful presidents have scored highly [on the psychopathy scale].

Okay, okay, sure, yep, this is bad. Who wants to work for a psychopath? No one. But, according to venture capitalist Bryan Stolle, psychopaths are so prevalent as CEOs because "it's an irrational act to start a company." You have to be uncompromising in your vision, which requires a hearty dose of both ego and persistence, and you have to be willing to sacrifice almost everything for success.

If you spin it one way, that's ambition! If you give it a second and look a little closer, though, the bottom starts to fall out.

Christian Bale at pay phone in a scene from the film 'American Psycho', 2000.
Hulton Archive | Getty Images
Christian Bale at pay phone in a scene from the film 'American Psycho', 2000.

Psychopaths are willing to manipulate those around them by deception — tricky, if they're in charge and they have the human resources department in their pocket to cover their ass.

Here's my favorite bit, from John Hancock, a social scientist at Stanford.

Having a psychopath within a company can lead to poor employee retention, said Hancock, referencing FBI research that found that departments managed by psychopaths decreases productivity and morale in the team.

Eight to 14 people could be lost because of one psychopath. That's the real cost of having something like that in your organization, especially if there's an HR cover-up.

You don't say.

Jack Nicholson peering through axed in door in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980.
Archive Photos | Getty Images
Jack Nicholson peering through axed in door in lobby card for the film 'The Shining', 1980.

Anyway, if you do happen to work for someone who you think might be a psychopath, the panelists had some advice for what to do. Psychopaths are apparently very good at speaking face-to-face because their charm and their charisma cast a very powerful spell. Non-verbal communication works best.

Psychopaths also find it difficult to modulate their language for different settings for example a private message versus a public post. Because they are more interested in themselves than others, they tend to refer to other people a lot less than non psychopaths.

This means that text-based communication is a much better way to communicate with someone you suspect is a psychopath, since it strips away their non-verbal distractors, such as charm and confidence.

To defeat the psychopath, write them an email, I guess.

This article originally appeared on The Billfold.

Megan Reynolds is a writer and editor focusing on pop culture, digital culture and entertainment with bylines in Racked, Vulture, TheBillfold, the FADER, Gawker, Adequate Man and more.