Five pieces of advice concerning bad leadership and psychopathic leaders

Berlingske artikel

Share This Post

This article is about bad leadership and what you can do to handle a psychopathic leadership. Because, there is a difference being a bad leader and a leader with psychopathic traits. In 2021 the Danish newspaper Berlingske published an article from my hand: “Should we fear psychopathic bosses?”. The article is in Danish and if you like you can read it here (The article is only readable if you have a Berlingske Media Membership).

What can be done about bad leadership?

The word psychopath tastes of Hollywood and is used extensively in everyday speech about people who have an incomprehensible cold or unpleasant behavior. TV shows with psychopathic characters like Billions and House of Cards entertain millions of people – just as psychopathic behavior in American politics over the past four years has also received more media coverage than usual. Psychopathy can be experienced as exciting. But in fact, it masks a personality disorder that many psychologists and psychiatrists are powerless to deal with – and that harms people, value, businesses, organizations, and the political system. Not all bad leaders are psychopaths. But, it can be that the bad leader who pops into your mind has psychopathic traits.   

The question is, what can be done?

There is so much to do about bad leadership. Less when it comes to psychopathy. In this article you can read about what you can do about it if your boss, employee or peer has psychopathic traits. 

Facts - or the lack of facts

Regarding psychopathic leadership the existence of real data-based research is rather limited. Many of the researchers’ assumptions are based on research upon psychopathic criminals in prisons – not leaders. It is difficult for researchers to access real data. Because why would a leader announce that she or he has psychopathic traits and be studied? In prisons, criminals with psychopathic traits can obtain rewards, or get a break from a monotonous life by making themselves available to researchers. So we have very little data-based facts. Instead, we must use our experience.

The common answer given by psychologists and psychiatrists is that people should stay away from others with psychopathic traits. You can’t cure them. If you have a psychopathic boss, the recommendation is to quit. And if you have psychopathic traits yourself, there’s not much you can do about it.

Well, I’d like to challenge that.

First of all, there are a number of powerful individuals in business who have psychopathic traits. Individuals who we can’t get around. In that matter, I sometimes work with managers who for some reason can’t or won’t escape when they find out that their boss or close colleague has psychopathic traits – and that’s the seeds of their misfortune. They want to learn to deal with it. It’s not always without pain. Some would describe it as playing with fire. However, there are people who can build up skills and – with great caution – navigate in a relationship with a psychopath.

In my book, “Power Barometer – Manage personal energy not just time and money” you can find several of the techniques and awareness of mental states that is important in the processes when wanting to handle a person with dark traits. Both, when a manager had a boss or colleague with dark traits, and when the manager her-/himself had dark traits. It is important to be able to stay mentally clear in the relationship of cooperation. This means that you can protect yourself to be less affected by the situation or by the person but can react as you would like. Because a person with psychopathic traits may be even better at seeing your weaknesses than yourself and will poke to your “sore spots” so that you are hijacked. Here you will react inappropriately and not in balance with yourself. You risk playing yourself off the field.

Want free inspiration, articles and invitations send directly to your inbox?
Then subscribe to our newsletter.

How many leaders is out there with psychopathic traits?

There are some researchers who has tried to figure out exactly how many leaders that has psychopathic traits. In one of the largest studies (Babiak et. al. 2010), 203 talents and managers from large companies were tested. It turned out that 3.9% could be characterized as leaders with psychopathic traits. What is interesting is that the same individuals also had particularly good communication skills and charisma – characteristics that were appreciated by their employer.

The same researcher (Babiak, 1995) has in a previous study made a comparison of psychopathic traits and how the same behavior is understood and interpreted in organizations.

In the following table, you can see how psychopathic traits shown in the first column will often be interpreted in a company context, as shown in the second column.

Psychopathic traitsTalented management

Charm and charisma

Have big ideas

Manipulative

No shame

Fearless

Low affect

Narcissistic

Bored easily

 Leadership

Vision

Cogent

Rational decision-maker

Brave

Strong

Self-confidence

Good multitasking

Table 1, Translated and Simplified from: Psychopathic Traits vs. Talented leadership (Babiak, 1995).

More personality tests can also detect dark traits – and if you follow their markers, the number will be greater.

Do you have an employee with psychopathic traits?

If you as a manager discover that one of your employees has psychopathic traits, there are three considerations you need to make.

First, check how it affects your employee’s employees and colleagues. People with psychopathic traits are good at leading upwards. It is usually at the level below and colleagues that the damage occurs. This could be seen, for example, by less commitment and low well-being, low motivation, stress, and sick leave. If this has not already happened.

Second, if the employee-history is long enough, you can look at whether real value has been created. Or if the employee is just good at portraying himself/herself as if he/she is delivering value?

Make it clear for yourself how to weight the employee’s ability to deliver results short term in relation to the long-term damage it can do to both other employees and value. A 2014 study (Mathieu et. al.) found that having a boss with psychopathic behaviour both reduces job satisfaction and harms the family life of affected employees. It can also erode value in the company and affect long-term results.

Third, if you choose to keep the employee, be clear to your employee about what behavior you want to see in him or her and how it affects the reward. It needs to be spelled out. If bad behavior does not have a consequence and an impact of the employee’s reward e.g., on salary, bonus, and/or title, you will not see any change. I’ve experienced that bad got a little better, but never that it could become great. A lot of psychologists and psychiatrists will say you can’t do much.

Psychopaths also have feelings

There is an assumption that people with psychopathic traits are cold. What I have learned in my practice is that behind the façade, there is a human being suffering. They have a constant tingling in their body, which some of them try to silence it with e.g., drugs. Some of them talk about their dark side like a monster. Those who are aware that they have psychopathic traits often start by being resigned to the fact that it can be changed. Because they’ve been told that before.

My reflection is, how can we just write people off like that, let them go and do harm elsewhere? In practice, I’ve seen people with very dark sides get better, be better, make other types of choices, and do less harm than before. That doesn’t mean the dark sides are disappearing completely. But that it can get better.

I have only a few times experienced that an employee has been fired for having exhibited psychopathic behavior, even if HR or the immediate manager is aware of what is happening. But to be clear, it will never be the responsibility of a manager, colleague or an organization to deal with psychopathy in the workplace. Because it’s never going to be normal. As written, it can get better, but never quite good. That is why this has to be deeply considered.

Five pieces of good advice

If you are in a situation where you must cope with a difficult cooperation with a manager or colleague who has psychopathic traits, the most important advice is that you need to take care of yourself. If you are a manager and have the opportunity to dismiss the person, I would recommend you do that.  

  1. Don’t show your vulnerability, errors, mess, or anything else that can be used against you. So, for example, make sure you always have your desk cleaned up completely and without e.g., personal pictures. Even if you succeed with this, you may find that you will be accused of things you have not done. 
  2. You need to keep a sensible personal energy level so that you have a mental surplus to understand and control what happens in your interactions. For example, it is important that you get your sleep, exercise (if you exercise), eat well, etc.
  3. Be incredibly factual, concrete, and professional in your communication. Don’t give anything away of yourself. For example, you should bite your tongue if you – for a moment – are enjoying yourself and you want to contribute to the relationship by talking about your weekend. Don’t expect it to be real that you’re having a good time. 
  4. Get to know your weaknesses. Your psychopathic colleague, employee, or boss can definitely see your weak spots and will try to manipulate you. So, if your weakness is that you need recognition a lot, then she/he will use it to manipulate you. If you don’t have the courage to face your weaknesses, you’ll be much easier to manipulate. Therefore, self-awareness will be a great strength.  
  5. Be aware of how long you can manage to be in a relation like that. Because even those who manage the situations are exhausted by it. They have a lot of support from family, colleagues, and friends. They are not during a life crisis and have their foundations in order. They are strong in many ways. Yet, they slowly will be drained by the relationship. Therefore, set a specific end date and keep the deal with yourself.

It's also up to us

In most workplaces it is voiced that we want trust, openness, and that we dare to fail, etc. As you can read from the above, it does not go hand in hand with having colleagues with psychopathic traits. If only one person has psychopathic traits in a team, it will affect the culture of the entire team. Often, also further down the organization. Therefore, I would encourage everyone to raise the bar for what behavior is accepted and that you test new employees well to ensure that they do not have dark traits – even if they can deliver business results. 

So, as long as short-term economic achievements and superficial qualities such as charm and charisma are weighted higher in our world than long-term value creation and inner beauty, we will have people with psychopathic traits in powerful positions. They will continue to be able to harm people around them. It’s everyone’s responsibility. A responsibility not to reward such behavior. Both those at the top and the voters. Why don’t we do anything about it? The question is, is it because of wishful thinking, values or the inability to figure out what is happening?

It is my vision that people don’t just have to perform – work is so much more. So, by unlocking the power of personal energy in all organizations it will create long-term value in a sustainable way. 

If you would like to be updated with new articles and videos, sign up for our mailing list. Your mail is not shared with anyone and there are advantages to being on the list e.g., getting a mini course in your personal leadership. 

Subscribe to our newsletter

More To Explore

Be at your best
Leadership & collaboration

Preserve A Positive Mindset Through a Storm: 3 Examples on How Great Leaders Stay Ready in Tough Times.

Part of a leader’s function is to solve problems: the problems of employees, of the firm, of the higher-ups, etc. It’s particularly tough when you’re a middle manager squeezed between layers of the hierarchy. In the role of leader, you have to face many trials and respond with a professional smile. This article explores how to have a positive mindset and stay ready for whatever comes next.

Read More »
Mediter som det passer dig
Leadership & collaboration

Charting a Sustainable Course: Get There with Sustainable Leadership

Short-term thinking with a narrow perspective can boost performance but it won’t be sustainable business. Nor how to reach success and wellbeing long term. Some point, further down the road, the employees will leave and the resources will be gone. To practice sustainable leadership you must encounter what economist calls externalities. If you continue to do that, you will end up with a truly sustainable business. Read more about what to consider when doing sustainable leadership.

Read More »