Psychopathy might facilitate workplace success, according to new psychology research

Psychopaths who are not impulsive may manifest adaptive consequences of psychopathy which can correlate to success in the workplace, according to new study published in the Serbian journal Psihološka istraživanja.

The study, conducted by Igor Pavlic and Janko Mededovic of the Institute of Criminological and Sociological Research in Belgrade, offers insight into the characteristics of the so-called “successful psychopath” and how this can relate to a psychopath’s success in the workplace.

The successful psychopath can be characterized as “individuals with basic psychopathic personality traits who also achieve social success in more than one aspect of life” who exhibit “adequate behavioural control” compared to their counterparts — unsuccessful psychopaths who commit criminal acts and undergo incarceration.

The research extends previous findings that demonstrated a link between managerial and executive positions in the workplace and positive perceptions of leadership skills in those with high psychopathy scores. To further explore this link, Pavlic and Mededovic’s research focuses on several markers that to tend to indicate workplace success: managerial or executive positions; monthly salary; received annual bonus; and self-reported success.

Lack of impulse control has been linked to unsuccessful psychopathy, so in this study, psychopathy was specifically measured according to the Psychopathic Personality Traits Scale (PPTS), which excludes the trait impulsiveness as a factor for detecting psychopathy. This tool has hardly been utilized, thus this study also explores the effectiveness of this tool concerning workplace success.

“Since the PPTS model does not incorporate psychopathy features with the highest maladaptive potential (i.e. impulsivity), our hypothesis was that psychopathy features would have positive associations with all four indicators of workplace success. Thus, one of the main contributions of the present study to the existing knowledge is using the measure of psychopathy which is built on a detailed and comprehensive operationalization of psychopathic personality, i.e. the exact traits which can be assumed to facilitate workplace success (like manipulation and lack of empathy).”

212 participants in Belgrade participated in the study; the pool contained a wide range of work experience (from a few months to decades) and most participants held a secondary educational status. The PPTS tool was utilized in order to extract core psychopathic traits. These traits were then summed up into two main components: ruthless manipulation and lack of empathy. The four aforementioned indicators of workplace success were then inquired about from each participant.

Results showed that “ruthless manipulation correlated positively with managerial position, received bonus and monthly salary; lack of empathy was positively associated with received bonus and workplace performance… ruthless manipulation positively predicted whether the participants were in a managerial position and if they had received a bonus for the previous year performance,” the researchers said.

“Lack of empathy had an independent positive contribution to the prediction of workplace performance and the received bonus. The only zero-order association which was not confirmed in the regression analysis was the one between ruthless manipulation and salary – participants’ education was the only significant predictor of this workplace success measure… we can explain the lack of association between psychopathy and salary in the regression model by proposing a mediation hypothesis: the association between psychopathy and salary is mediated by the education level. More precisely, individuals who are prone to manipulation achieve higher education, and via the elevated educational level they can earn more money.”

The results demonstrated a relationship between the psychopathic personality and workplace success, thereby highlighting potential adaptive consequences of psychopathy.

Questions arise, however, regarding the mechanisms of this relationship and why the successful psychopath may succeed in the workplace. “Babiak’s model (Babiak, 1995) explains that in the context of corporate dynamics and frequent fluctuation of employees, the persons with psychopathic traits adapt easily using the coalitions they create with the like-minded individuals and antagonizing opponents.”

“Moreover, the persons with psychopathic traits manipulate their coworkers, charm their superiors and represent themselves as ideal leaders (Furnham, 2007), while at the same time intimidating the ones in lower-ranking positions in order to create a toxic work environment. Thus, the main pathway of psychopaths towards workplace success is manipulation.”

“Psychopathic traits help the individuals to present themselves in a way which is suitable for managerial positions. These characteristics can be easily associated with leadership skills, that is, a person is attributed self-confidence and a charismatic leadership style instead of, for example, grandiosity. Moreover, emotional superficiality, a lack of insight, empathy and remorse are easily perceived as toughness and strength to stay calm in a stressful and dynamic work environment within the corporate setting (Babiak et al., 2010).”

The study provides valuable insight into the adaptive potential of certain psychopathic traits, especially in an everyday environment such as the workplace, and raises questions regarding the implications of psychopathy in the workplace as well as how certain workplaces may unintentionally attract and cater to psychopathic personalities.