Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Corporate psychopathy

Babiak P, Neumann CS, Hare RD. Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behav Sci Law. 2010 Mar-Apr;28(2):174-93.

There is a very large literature on the important role of psychopathy in the criminal justice system. We know much less about corporate psychopathy and its implications, in large part because of the difficulty in obtaining the active cooperation of business organizations. This has left us with only a few small-sample studies, anecdotes, and speculation. In this study, we had a unique opportunity to examine psychopathy and its correlates in a sample of 203 corporate professionals selected by their companies to participate in management development programs. The correlates included demographic and status variables, as well as in-house 360 degrees assessments and performance ratings. The prevalence of psychopathic traits-as measured by the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) and a Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version (PCL: SV) "equivalent"-was higher than that found in community samples. The results of confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) and structural equation modeling (SEM) indicated that the underlying latent structure of psychopathy in our corporate sample was consistent with that model found in community and offender studies. Psychopathy was positively associated with in-house ratings of charisma/presentation style (creativity, good strategic thinking and communication skills) but negatively associated with ratings of responsibility/performance (being a team player, management skills, and overall accomplishments).

From the article:

However, nine of the participants(4.4%) had a score of 25 or higher, eight (3.9%) had a score of 30 or higher (the common research threshold for psychopathy), two had a score of 33, and one had a score of 34. By way of comparison, the mean score for male offenders is approximately 22 (SD  7.9), with about 15% of the scores being 30 or higher…

Psychopathy was not associated with any of the demographic variables (age, gender, education) in this study, or with whether or not an organization considered an individual a high potential candidate (which may be a reflection of the anti-discriminatory affirmative action efforts of the corporations studied). Interestingly, some with very high psychopathy scores were high potential candidates and held senior management positions: vice-presidents, supervisors, directors. This provides support for the argument that some psychopathic individuals manage to achieve high corporate status…

Perhaps the most dramatic results of this study had to do with how the corporation viewed individuals with many psychopathic traits. That is, high psychopathy total scores were associated with perceptions of good communication skills, strategic thinking, and creative/innovative ability and, at the same time, with poor management style, failure to act as a team player, and poor performance appraisals (as rated by their immediate bosses). These latter associations were rather strong. It is noteworthy that, in general, each psychopathy factor contributed to the zero-order correlations with the360 degree assessments and performance appraisals. However, the result s of the structural equation model (which accounted for the shared variance among the factors) indicated that only the latent Interpersonal psychopathy factor strongly predicted both increased ratings on the charisma/presentation composite and decreased ratings on the responsibility/performance composite. The latent Antisocial factor moderately predicted only increased ratings on the charisma/presentation compo site (considered valuable assets in high-level executives), perhaps indicating that in the presence of charm and charisma a failure to adhere to rules can impress others…

Although executives with many psychopathic traits may be visible to various members of the organization, and identifiable with existing mechanisms, they may have the communication, persuasion, and interpersonal skills to override any negative impact on their career.  For example, our finding that some companies viewed psychopathic executives as having leadership potential, despite having negative performance reviews and low ratings on leadership and management by subordinates, is evidence of the ability of these individuals to manipulate decision makers. Their excellent communication and convincing lying skills, which together would have made them attractive hiring candidates in the first place, apparently continued to serve them well in furthering their careers…

In conclusion, results provide evidence that a high level of psychopathic traits does not necessarily impede progress and advancement in corporate organizations. Most of the participants with high psychopathy scores held high-ranking executive positions, and their companies had invited them to participate in management development programs. This was in spite of negative performance reviews and other 360 degree data that were in the hands of corporate decision makers. Overall, the patterns of correlations and plots suggest that psychopath y is more strongly associated with style than with substance. Presumably, impression management and the ability to present well can obscure or trump subpar performance and behaviors that are damaging to the organization. In this sense, the devil is in the details. Better vetting procedures and the use of instruments designed to assess psychopathic and other problematical traits may help prevent those who excel at ‘‘talking the walk’’ from sliding into the pre-management ranks. Even so, it is likely that sour cream will continue to rise to the top.

Inspired by a colleague

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