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The Psychopath in the C-Suite

The Psychopath in the C-Suite

Corporate genius or psychopath? It’s a thin line that divides them. Most people who work in companies run afoul of such a person at least once during their career. Some rise to astonishing heights, and they can cause enormous damage. Dealing with them can be tricky, but here are some tips.

In Costa-Gavras’s film Le Capital, an unscrupulous banker sends his bank’s shares crashing in an insider-trading scam. Does he get fired? Not a bit of it! An adulating board re-confirms him as chairman, applauding him as he pledges to go on stealing from the poor to enrich the wealthy.

Sounds preposterous? Well, the movie is indeed a bit over the top. But real life often comes close to imitating fiction. From Enron to the LIBOR interest-rate fixing scandal that saw the demise last July of Barclays CEO Bob Diamond, corporate annals are packed with individuals whose sense of what’s right and what’s wrong differs starkly from that of most ordinary people.

Some walk off with hefty bonuses. A few end up in jail. Others poison the workplace long-term, putting the health of both companies and their staff at risk.

In an article entitled “The Psychopath in the C Suite”, Manfred Kets de Vries, INSEAD’s Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chaired Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change defines a type of personality that he calls SOB, for Seductive Operational Bully. Without going so far as to commit murder or arson, but unburdened by the pangs of conscience that moderate most people’s interactions with others, such people qualify, he argues, for the label of “psychopath lite”.

No sense of shame

“SOBs can be found wherever power, status, or money is at stake,” he writes. “Outwardly normal, apparently successful and charming, their inner lack of empathy, shame, guilt, or remorse, has serious interpersonal repercussions, and can destroy organisations.”

For their own self-preservation, companies should do more to guard against them, either by identifying them and weeding them out or by avoiding hiring them in the first place, Kets de Vries told INSEAD Knowledge in an interview. “To have an SOB in your company can be very costly.” 

Greed, ambition and selfish disregard for others are nothing new in business. Bob Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, has been writing for years about corporate types that he calls assholes. “Based on what I've seen in law firms, corporate America, and Silicon Valley start-ups,” he observed in a 2007 interview with Inc. magazine, “there's no danger that companies are going to stop hiring assholes.” Nearly six years later, he is still busy analysing the bad behaviour of American executives and advising on how to deal with their excesses.

While typical assholes are difficult to ignore, however, Kets de Vries’ SOBs can be hard to spot, due to their manipulative personalities.

“Ironically,” he observes, “many of the qualities that indicate mental problems in other contexts may appear appropriate in senior executive positions.” That is particularly the case, he says, in “organisations that appreciate impression management, corporate gamesmanship, risk taking, coolness under pressure, domination, competitiveness, and assertiveness.”
SOBs have no sense of conscience or of loyalty to their colleagues or their organisation, Kets de Vries explains in his paper. Kets de Vries is also a psychoanalyst and has been a member of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Institute since 1982. They often do long-term damage to both through their deceitful, abusive, and sometimes fraudulent behaviour. Because of the way they operate, however, they are often “hidden in plain sight”.

Emotional poverty

Exactly what makes a psychopath is still open to discussion. According Kets de Vries, both inherited factors and upbringing can lead to psychopathic tendencies, and those of the ‘lite’ variety often gravitate towards business.  “Estimates vary, but approximately 3.9 percent of corporate professionals can be described as having psychopathic tendencies,” he asserts.

Even traits that reflect a severe lack of human feeling or emotional poverty, such as a lack of remorse, guilt, and empathy, can be used to advantage by SOBs. They shine in situations that call for “tough” and unpopular decisions such as to lay off staff. The financial sector has become a playground for such people, says Kets de Vries, because “that’s where the money is.”

So what can be done to prevent such people can causing havoc? Ideally, says Kets de Vries, organisations should fine-tune their recruitment procedures in order to avoid hiring them in the first place. To help managers recognise them, Kets de Vries sets out a checklist of clues.

Does the person come across as too glib and too charming? Is he or she very self-centred? Lacking in empathy? Sexually promiscuous? Able to lie? If the answer is yes to more than a few such questions – and the list goes on– then the chances, says Kets de Vries, are that you are dealing with an SOB. 

Some lines of defence

If you haven’t yet hired the person, there is still time to avoid trouble. Take a closer look at the résumé and scrutinise it for inconsistencies. Try putting the candidate through multiple interviews. SOBs have a tendency to tell interviewers what they think they want to hear, and different interviewers can elicit different, sometimes contradictory, responses.

If a candidate is fawning to a senior interviewer but condescending to someone more junior, he or she should be watched carefully. Such behaviour, says Kets de Vries, corresponds exactly to what you should expect from a psychopath “lite”.

But what if the SOB is already on your staff? The best line of defence then, says Kets de Vries, is “a coaching culture where trust and openness prevail and where people can speak their mind.”

First of all, you need to identify the SOB. Watch out for behavioural clues. If you see talented people leaving a project or a company, find out why. They may have been driven away by bullying or other kinds of misbehaviour of which you are not aware.

Then you need to take corrective action. To ensure accountability, try introducing key performance indicators clearly tied to outcomes. Psychopaths typically don’t like to be called to account.

Encourage team work, as that’s something that psychopaths don’t feel comfortable with. And take steps to develop a culture in which junior employees can feel able to express concerns about their colleagues and superiors without fears of recrimination.

Finally, if you are so unfortunate as to have an SOB as your boss or even as CEO of the company, recognise that you are unlikely to be able to get him or her to change. Trying to oust the SOB is likely to be difficult and attempts to do so might jeopardise your own career.

His advice? Don’t stick around. “Cut your losses, preserve your self-esteem, and move on.”


View Comments

Anonymous User

21/10/2013, 06.54 pm

Yes, as long as we think they are cool, they will keep on leading. Americans for instance vote on "leaders who dare to make decisions." Sensitive wondering and doubting, the longer way to reasonable and connected action is seen as weak and overdue. As long as the mad house we call modern organizations are organized as dictatorships (no democracy in the pyramids) that demand action now, psycho's will run the place and all sensitive people keep on thinking their quality, to be really in touch, a weakness.


Anonymous User

07/08/2013, 04.19 am

I only ever met bullies in leadership, with probably exception of one nice senior manager at the first company I worked. All my bosses have been bullies and psychopaths, I never understand their games and always do twists and turns not to lose my jobs. Its like being an Olympic gymnast.


Kumud Sarmah

01/07/2013, 09.41 pm

SOBs come on board when priority and urgency are on filling up the vacancy than on recruiting the right candidate. They could able to influence and to put a mark so deeply that even after their leaving the organization the scars keep impacting the decision in customers mind or in sustainability of companies growth. the best way is to try to get feedback from his or her past juniors, not the seniors.



30/05/2013, 04.08 pm

I have a theory on how a person becomes psychopath. There could be a few examples but it comes down to some sort of emotional pain that they cannot get away from (this would happen mainly in early childhood when they don't know how to deal with pain). The emotional pain is so great that they cannot handle it. One example would be continuous rejection from parents. The pain is raw and day in and day out they feel this pain till one day they just let their emotions/conscience die. The pain is gone. Or.....they're putting their parents through pain over something that is not their fault and they cannot handle the pain they feel over their parents grief so again the child lets his emotions/conscience die. The pain is gone. Lou



19/02/2013, 11.51 pm

What do (India's) top business schools primarily look for in their candidates? Ans: Examination scores and the ability to outshout other candidates in a so-called "group" interview. We create a system that weeds out the thoughtful, the reflective, and the introspective and places the self-absorbed, testosterone-fired bully on a high pedestal. Campus recruitment perpetrates the B-school caste elitism, and also ensures that our businesses do not get leaders but petty chieftains. Dev



08/02/2013, 12.23 am

While interesting, what is missed is that if a psychopath is an MD and bringing in 10's or 100's of millions in business every year, he is tolerated for his revenue producing results as that is the nature of business - maximizing shareholder value and what they teach in 1st year undergraduate business school. While no one likes a psychopath personally, a psychopath lite, "a#&hole" (as coined in the article), liar, adulterer, bully, what have you, business is and always will be about revenue and trickle down economics - a hunter brings in the meat & everyone else cleans, prepares, and serves it. Psychopath or no, leaders get things done and yes often by coersion, etc., and in the process, create revenue and drive things forward regardless of level, and sadly often at the expense of others, as it has always been, and as it will always continue to be. This is human nature, this is business - competition with and for the highest bidder for goods and services.



07/02/2013, 10.13 pm

While interesting, the power of simple compensation is being ignored. If a psychopath is an MD and bringing in 10's or 100's of millions in business every year, he is tolerated for his revenue producing results as that is the nature of business - maximizing shareholder value and what they teach in 1st year business school, undergraduate. While no one likes a psychopath, a psychopath lite, "a#&hole" (as coined in the article), liar, adulterer, bully, what have you, business is and always will be about revenue and trickle down economics. A hunter always brings in the meat & everyone else cleans, prepares, and serves it. Psychopath or no, leaders get things done, create revenue and drive things forward regardless of level, and sadly often at the expense of others, as it has always been, and as it will always continue to be. This is human nature, this is business - competition to the highest bidder for goods and services.


Anonymous User

07/02/2013, 07.43 pm

This article seems to be very interesting to me! My opinion ist that you should eliminate this kind of criminal and psychopathic people early enough. In the literature you can find the so-called "Profiling Value Test", developed by a nazi victim after World War II. This test has been tailored especially to identify psychopathy and criminality, preferably at an early stage to avoid far-reaching damage!

- Micky


Anonymous User

07/02/2013, 06.52 pm

The additional idea might be worth pointing out - and studying - that these pathological SOB seem to have a better chance to reach the top jobs because they are often fearless, ruthless and limitless and seem to have an ability to attract adhesion of the corporate crowds, on the shareholders front as well as at Board level. As for the people working in the company, they are pleased to be guided by someone they can call a leader, despite the fact he/she may run over them when the time comes.

- Anton



07/02/2013, 04.52 pm

Dear Professor, I agree and appreciate your insights and suggestions. Psychopath leaders have only one point agenda. Individual success at any cost and every cost. They work for themselves. And in the process, they do all the possible actions that can make their goal fulfilled. One significant point to understand as how these leaders grow in the organizations. Though almost everyone knows their tricks and techniques,still they ascend. There seems two dominant reasons- they are surrounded by flatterers, adulators, sycophants and backstabbers, and these people along with the power of top leaders create pervasive fear in the system. This fear makes all the difference in the system. Employees know the consequences for raising valid and reasonable questions. Leaders fuel the fear by punishing, damaging and ruining employees career. They show example to employees that if they open their mouth, they will have to face the similar or even worse consequences. I am skeptical as how hiring practices will be useful as hiring people are also part of the system and work under such leaders. Since hiring people are also aware about the nature, character and expectation of the leaders,they can not dare to go beyond that. However, one strategy could prove useful, if evidences of such psychopath leadership behaviour is communicated to as many places as possible. Enough evidences might be helpful to expose their demon face to the people. For this vigilance department, boards or higher machinery could be utilized. Information should flow and percolated beyond the system. This could additionally makes some difference along with suggested line of actions.


Anonymous User

07/02/2013, 03.11 pm

Careful hiring processes, multiple interviews and behaviour checks are all good. But what if the people entrusted to do them are psychopaths themselves?!

Who will bell the cat? If there are only felines all around, that is.
As is most likely the case in a culture of greed and fear. Cosmetic gestures are okay, but should not detract attention to deep-rooted changes in systems and culture without which the world is headed down the slippery slope of destruction.

- Neelesh



07/02/2013, 12.10 pm

This article contributes to the language of leadership by way of the newly defined term SOB. I too am fascinated with narcissistic and psychopathic leaders who clearly lack empathy. What I find even more puzzling is how we choose them, when who and on behalf of whom they are working.

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