Think of a psychopath and the image that springs to mind is probably something out of a horror movie--an axe-wielding killer or evil fraudster bilking little old ladies out of their life savings. Sadly, these monsters do exist, but if you've had the good luck to steer clear of them, that doesn't mean you haven't met any psychopaths.
Several books, a handful of studies, and often unfortunate personal experiences suggest that non-violent but still pathological psychopaths walk among us. And if you have a lot of dealings with business leaders, you're even more likely to come across one.
One "disturbing" 2010 study reported by Forbes showed that a group of managers assessed by the researchers had a rate of psychopathy three times higher than that of the general population. And that wasn't just one freakish group. Experts claim that while just 1 out of 100 of us qualify as a psychopath, that rate rises to 3 or 4 percent among business leaders.
That's a tiny percentage of leaders, to be sure, but it's enough to do some horrible damage to organizations and colleagues. So how do you know if your smug boss or charming potential hire might actually qualify as a genuine psychopath? The gold standard test is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, developed by renowned psychologist Robert Hare. (Thanks goes to Business Insider for drawing my attention to it.)
The list contains 20 traits that indicate psychopathy. Some of them probably won't help you spot the psychopath at your office (how could you assess something like childhood misbehavior or history of juvenile delinquency?), but others are useful tells to keep in mind if you think you might have a psychopath in your midst. Hare boiled down the key traits to watch out for in a classic Psychology Today article:
Is your manager chatty and entertaining? That might not be a good thing if his or her verbal acrobatics and charm are combined with other signs of psychopathy. "Psychopaths can be amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a clever comeback, and are able to tell unlikely but convincing stories that cast themselves in a good light. They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likable and charming," explains Hare.
"Psychopaths...see themselves as the center of the universe, justified in living according to their own rules," Hare warns.
Psychopaths are also prone to making grand plans for themselves--and not worrying much about the specifics of how to actually execute them. "One inmate, not particularly literate, managed to copyright the title of a book he was planning to write about himself, already counting the fortune his best-selling book would bring," offers Hare as one memorable example. Office psychopaths will probably be more accomplished but just as grandiose (if vague) in their personal visions for themselves.
4. Lack of remorse
"Psychopaths show a stunning lack of concern for the effects their actions have on others, no matter how devastating these might be," reports Hare. Sometimes they are even willing to come right out and say that they never experience regret. This lack of guilt "is associated with a remarkable ability to rationalize their behavior," he adds. "They usually have handy excuses for their behavior, and in some cases deny that it happened at all."
5. Lack of empathy
Perhaps the most fundamental trait of a psychopath is this: They simply can't imagine the point of view or emotions of others.
What happens when a psychopath is confronted with his or her dishonesty? "When caught in a lie or challenged with the truth, they seldom appear perplexed or embarrassed--they simply change their stories or attempt to rework the facts so they appear to be consistent with the lie," explains Hare.
7. Shallow emotions
It's not that psychopaths--of the criminal or corporate kind--never express emotion. It's that their emotions generally don't seem very genuine. "Careful observers are left with the impression they are play-acting and little is going on below the surface," writes Hare. If that reminds you of someone at work, you might be dealing with a genuine psychopath.
Experienced three re-orgs or strategy shakeups in six months? "Psychopaths are unlikely to spend much time weighing the pros and cons of a course of action or considering the possible consequences," writes Hare. Because of this, things are often turned upside down "for what appears as little more than a whim."
While your friendly office psychopath might not be able to feel much in the way of empathy, he certainly will feel every petty insult to his honor. According to Hare, "psychopaths are highly reactive to perceived insults or slights. Most of us have powerful inhibitory controls over our behavior; even if we would like to respond aggressively we are usually able to 'keep the lid on.' In psychopaths, these inhibitory controls are weak, and the slightest provocation is sufficient to overcome them."
10. Thrill seeking
"Many psychopaths describe 'doing crime' for excitement or thrills," writes Hare, who explains that psychopaths tend to be adrenaline junkies. Corporate psychopaths might not hold up banks to get their kicks, but they almost certainly like the thrill of risk-taking. They also tend to despise monotony and become easily bored with routine or repetitive tasks.
11. Lack of responsibility
Just because a psychopath says she'll do something doesn't mean she actually will. "Obligations and commitments mean nothing to psychopaths. Their good intentions...are promises written on the wind," concludes Hare.
Sound like anyone you know?