The researchers, consultant Paul Babiak, Craig S. Neumann of the University of North Texas, and Robert D. Hare of the University of British Columbia, were able to get personality information on 203 professionals who had been selected by their companies either as 'high potentials' for leadership development.
These are people who were deemed to have the skills that could eventually set them up to be senior managers within their companies. A few were already directors or vice-presidents, but were thought to have the ability to rise further.
According to an article by Kimberly Weisul for CBS MoneyWatch, Babiak was already acting as a consultant to these companies, and had gained a level of trust with management when the research was conducted. Over a period of two years he interviewed many of the 203 professionals but also had access to their performance reviews and feedback provided by the people who reported to them.
Given the recent daily revelations surrounding former CBC Q host Jian Ghomeshi's alleged violent sexual personal life, it does raise questions as to how people can rise to positions of prominence who may have psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies.
In Ghomeshi's case, more women are stepping forward, accusing him of choking, hitting and pulling their hair without their consent, in what amounted to surprise attacks on them in dating situations. One Canadian actress - Lucy DeCoutere, best known for her role on Trailer Park Boys - was the first woman to publicly identify herself as a victim of Ghomeshi's alleged violence while on a date.
That was followed yesterday by author Reva Seth accusing Ghomeshi of sexually assaulting her while dating.
Ghomeshi has denied that these were attacks, but were mutually consensual sexual relationships.
The main findings of the study were:
• About one in 25 managers qualified as psychopaths. Eight of the 203 subjects, or 3.9 per cent, had scores on a test of psychotic traits that put them at the threshold for psychopathy. That compares with just 0.2 per cent of the general population. An additional three study subjects had scores that were significantly higher, meaning their psychopathy was likely to be significantly worse.
• The potential for ‘possible’ psychopathy was much higher. In the corporate group, nearly six percent of the subjects qualified as potentially or possibly psychopathic (in addition to the four percent who clearly appeared psychotic), compared to just 1.2 per cent of the population as a whole.
• Psychopaths can and do get ahead. Of the nine people with the highest scores for psychopathy, seven were already managers. Two were vice presidents, two were directors, two were managers or supervisors, and one had another management position.
• The ‘average’ scores for psychopathy were not any different in the corporate sample than they are thought to be in the general population. But there's clearly a lot of difference at the extremes.
Why would there be more psychopathy in the corporate world than elsewhere? Here's how the researchers explain it.
Lack of realistic life goals
While a clearly negative trait which often leads the psychopath toward a downward spiraling personal life, when couched in the appropriate business language, can be misinterpreted as strategic thinking or ‘visioning,’ a rare and highly valued executive talent. Even those traits that reflect a severe lack of human feelings or emotional poverty (lack of remorse, guilt, empathy) can be put into service by corporate psychopaths, where being ‘tough’ or ‘strong’ (making hard, unpopular decisions) or ‘cool under fire’ (not displaying emotions in the face of unpleasant circumstances) can work in their favour. In sum, the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in real estate even in the face of negative performance ratings.
Identifying the dangerous ones
The group that tested high in psychopathy shared several traits that distinguished them from their colleagues, and these trends could all be seen in their performance reviews and in their evaluations by their employees. In general:
• Psychopaths had very high ratings on communication, strategic thinking, and creative abilities; and
• At the same time, they had been dinged for poor management style, failing to act as team players, and even had poor reviews. Despite performance reviews, they still managed to get selected as ‘high potential’ performers. The researchers suggest this is testament to their superior communications skills and their ability to manipulate decision makers.
One in 25 managers qualify as a psychopath – and the percentages of those who either are in positions of power or own companies or brokerages are considerably higher than the general population. Why so high? A group of researchers in Texas and British Columbia explain.