Beware the psychopath boss

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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

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