Beware the psychopath boss

BODY LANGUAGE

Psychopaths are not just found in serial killer movies and crime novels — they stalk corporate corridors too, where their trail of destruction may not include murder but can mean the death of productivity, motivation and profits.

The manipulation, deception, inflated self-opinion and back-stabbing of the corporate psychopath and narcissist can cause depression, anxiety disorders, burnout and physical illnesses: conditions which cost the South African economy more than R40-billion annually.

Corporate Mental Health Week turns the spotlight on work-related stress that accounts for more than 40% of all workplace-related illnesses in South Africa, with at least one in four employees diagnosed with depression.

Renata Schoeman, psychiatrist and associate professor in leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, says it is often the leaders — who should be at the forefront of reducing workplace conditions that lead to stress and burnout — who contribute to the problem, rather than the solution.

“We are not talking about the ‘difficult’ boss here,” Schoeman says. “The bullying tactics of corporate psychopaths increase conflict, stress, staff turnover and absenteeism; reduce productivity and collective social responsibility; and erode corporate culture and ethical standards — diminishing shareholder value and returns on investment.”


Workplace bullying is a major cause of work-related stress, Schoeman says, pointing to a 2017 survey in the United States which found that adults were being bullied at levels similar to teenagers — 31% of adults had been bullied at work and almost half believed that bullying behaviour was becoming more acceptable in the workplace.

“In the same survey, 70% or more of bullying victims had experienced stress, anxiety or depression, 55% reported loss of confidence, 39% suffered from lack of sleep, 17% called in sick frequently and 19% had suffered mental breakdown.

“Emotional stress can also cause or aggravate physical illnesses such as gastrointestinal … and cardiovascular problems, and hypertension, while victims of workplace bullying had double the risk of considering suicide in the five years following.”

Chief executives have the highest prevalence of psychopathic traits of all jobs — a rate second only to prison inmates. It is estimated that one in 100 of the general population has psychopathic traits. This rises to one in 25 among business leaders.

In what she calls “the curse of confidence”, Schoeman says that many of the traits characteristic of psychopaths — such as charm, fearless dominance, boldness and a “grandiose sense of self” — are also what help people get ahead in business.

The people to be most concerned about, she says, are those with narcissistic personality and antisocial personality disorders.

Narcissists can be brilliant strategists, have the courage to take risks, push through change and use their charisma and visions to inspire others, fitting into conventional ideas of leadership.

Yet, “these masters of self-image, who take credit but deflect blame, tend to gather a group of codependent people around them to support and reinforce their behaviour. They profess loyalty to the organisation but are really only committed to their own agenda.

“Narcissists tend to be over-sensitive to criticism, over-competitive, and often engage in counter-productive work behaviour when their self-esteem is threatened.”

Schoeman says narcissists favour “indirect bullying tactics” such as withholding information, ignoring people and spreading rumours to discredit others. They are also more likely to sexually harass because of their inflated sense of importance and tendency to exploit others.

The “darker personality”, she says, is the psychopath, who replaces the narcissist’s exploitative tactics with a predatory drive for strategic conquests, domination and cruelty.

“Successful” psychopaths share the same core characteristics as those who become criminals — deceit, manipulativeness, indifference to the consequences of their actions, superficial charm, lack of empathy and lack of remorse — but tend to come from more privileged backgrounds and have higher IQs.

“Successful psychopaths tend to be more conscientious than those with a criminal record. They are less impulsive, negligent and irresponsible, but this doesn’t mean they are always law-abiding citizens — they may just be better at avoiding being caught.”

Schoeman says the bullying tactics of the successful psychopath were based on assessing the usefulness and weaknesses of those around them, manipulating others to bond with them, using their victims’ feedback to build and maintain control, and then abandoning them when they were no longer useful.

She says both narcissists and psychopaths had traits that could be positive, “but they can also create highly toxic environments with just as significant an emotional and financial toll on employees and organisations as other more obvious workplace stress factors”.

Linda Christensen is a communications consultant

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Linda Christensen
Linda Christensen handles PR for the University of Stellenbosch Business School

Related stories

The president, the preacher and the great escape

Malawi’s new president was furious after Shepherd Bushiri’s dramatic disappearance from South Africa

Patel: South Africa on target to attract R1.2-trillion in investments

The trade minister says the country is on track to reach more than R1-trillion worth of investments over five years, despite Covid-19 disruptions

Barbara Creecy: ‘You can make a difference if you want to’

The minister of environment, forestry and fisheries, likes to watch the British medical drama series Casualty, she tells Sheree Bega

South Africa must revisit and refresh its idea of itself

Covid has propelled citizens into feelings of a new shared identity in which the historical force of ‘whiteness’ is fading into irrelevance

Institutions of higher learning should commemorate their casualties

The bust of Matikweni Nkuna at Tshwane University of Technology is an example of how we should honour those who fought for equal access to education

Seals abort pups in mass die-off

There are a number of factors — a pollutant, virus or bacteria or malnutrition — that may have caused the 12 000 deaths on Namibia’s coast.
Advertising

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

See people as individual humans, not as a race

We need to ingrain values of equality in education, businesses, society broadly and religious groups to see people

JJ Rawlings left an indelible mark on Ghana’s history

The air force pilot and former president used extreme measures, including a coup, enforced ‘discipline’ through executions, ‘disappearances’ and floggings, but reintroduced democracy

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…