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Workplace Bullying: Corporate Psychopathy and the Serial Bully


Workplace Bullying, Corporate Psychopathy
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Psychopathy has an ominous sound to it. A very general definition of psychopathy is that it is a personality disorder with distinct antisocial behavior characterized by diminished empathy and remorse, and uninhibited or bold behavior. The one thing to keep in mind, whether we are talking about bullying or corporate psychopathy, is that often, the only reason an individual is targeted is because they are in the way of the individual’s rise up the ranks.

We’ve been talking about workplace bullying so how does psychopathy fit into the bullying picture? Let’s do a quick review of the characteristics of the serial bully before we jump into a discussion of corporate psychopathy. Bullying Online, in an article titled Serial Bullies’ Attitudes to Life and Work, gives a pretty comprehensive list of the common characteristics of serial bullies:

  • Charming & charismatic—skilled at anticipating what people want to hear and then saying it; glib; superficial.
  • Selectively generous—mean, officious and inappropriately inflexible sometimes and other times generous and very accommodating.
  • Arrogant—self-opinionated; possess a superior sense of entitlement; overbearing belief in their leadership qualities; autocratic and dictatorial; egocentric.
  • Contempt for others—exploit vulnerabilities of others for personal gain; see people as objects to be exploited; deeply prejudiced; unforgiving and exploit others’ mistakes or perceived mistakes.
  • Manipulative & controlling—intimidate and criticize to cause feelings of isolation and hopelessness; gossip and tell falsehoods to undermine and discredit targets; plagiarize others’ work; alter, delete or create documents or records to damage a person’s reputation or protect the bully from being held accountable; divisive and disruptive; provoke angry outbursts by target to use as evidence of the target’s impropriety.
  • Projects appearance of superior intelligence—misinterpret what is said; talk incessantly about self; boasts of achievements; attempts at humor rely on sarcasm.
  • Facile assertions—appear not to have to think about what they are saying but checking shows they lied; indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs.
  • Emotionally immature—impulsive, act randomly or recklessly; frequently unable to maintain confidentiality; evasive; rarely able to distinguish between leadership and bullying; short, selective memory except about someone else’s faults.
  • Hostile body language—inappropriate interpersonal behavior; inappropriately intimate with clients or new staff members.
  • Lack of conscience—see nothing wrong with their behavior; automatically blames others instead of taking responsibility.
  • Unreliable & dishonest—excel at deception.
  • Duplicitous—behavior differs depending on who is watching.
  • Hypocrisy—say one thing one day they deny it the next; selectively value tasks.
  • Projection—projects own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto target or others.
  • Evasive—deliberately miss the point; refuse to be specific; never give a straight answer.
  • Self-preservation—creates conflict; denial, retaliation and feigning victimhood if held to account; undermine and destroy a perceived adversary.

Psychopaths are often referred to as social chameleons because they make the perfect invisible predator by hiding who they really are and masking their true intentions for extended periods. Psychopathy characteristics are very similar to those of the serial bully and can be divided into two categories: emotional/interpersonal and social deviation. In his book titled Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us [Kindle edition], Robert D. Hare (1993) gives a very complete rundown of psychopathy characteristics and how they fit into the two categories.

The emotional/interpersonal category of psychopathy characteristics is described as the way a psychopath thinks and feels about himself and includes:

  • Glib & Superficial—witty and articulate, often amusing and entertaining conversationalists.
  • Egocentric & Grandiose—narcissistic; grossly inflated view of self-worth and importance; arrogant; shameless braggarts; self-assured; opinionated; domineering.
  • Lack of Remorse or Guilt—minimize or deny consequences to others.
  • Lack of Empathy—view people as objects to be used; indifferent to the rights and suffering of others; see family members as possessions.
  • Deceitful & Manipulative—unfazed about being found out; proud of ability to lie; no compunction about cheating bilking, defrauding, conning or manipulating people; astute at detecting weaknesses and using them for own benefit.
  • Shallow Emotions—lack normal affect and emotional depth; lack physiological responses normally associated with fear.

The social deviance category of psychopathy characteristics is marked by chronically casual and flagrant violations of expected social norms and includes:

  • Impulsive—lack ability to put off satisfying desires; ignores needs of others; highly reactive to perceived insults or slights.
  • Poor Behavior Controls—short-tempered; hot-headed; respond to frustration, failure, discipline, and criticism with sudden violence, threats, and verbal abuse; take offense easily; become angry and aggressive over trivialities; sees aggressive displays as natural responses to provocation.
  • Need for Excitement—possess excessive and ongoing need for excitement; easily bored.
  • Lack of Responsibility—full of good intentions and promises; job performance is erratic with frequent absences; misuses company resources; violates company policy; frequently successful at talking their way out of trouble.
  • Early Behavior Problems—exhibit behaviors such as lying, cheating, theft, fire setting, substance abuse, bullying, and precocious sexuality at an early age; cruelty to animals and other children.
  • Adult Antisocial Behavior—consider rules and societal expectations as inconvenient and unreasonable; make own rules; philandering; cheating on spouse; financial or emotional neglect of family members; irresponsible use of company resources.

Characteristics of both the serial bully and the psychopath are very similar for good reason. Bullying is one of the manifestations of psychopathy. When we take psychopathy into the corporate world we find serial bullying and corporate psychopathy. Psychopathy is estimated to occur in about 1% of the general population; however, within the corporate world of upper-level management, studies show that 3.9% of senior management portray psychopathy characteristics within an organization, according to an article by Sophia Wellons (2012) titled The Devil in the Boardroom: Corporate Psychopaths and Their Impact on Business. This means, approximately 40 out of every 1,000 people employed in senior management positions portray psychopathy characteristics.

Let’s break this down a little more. According to Babiak & Hare (2006) in their book titled Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work [Kindle edition], research shows that “29 percent of corporate psychopaths are also bullies.” This means, 11 of those 40 corporate executives displaying psychopathic tendencies will be corporate bullies. These kinds of numbers begin to be a bit alarming, especially since the numbers seem to be increasing rather than decreasing over the past few years.

Success in today’s society is most often associated with perceived power; along with power, also associated with success are money, objects and titles. Achieving success in the form of power and money is the corporate psychopath’s goal. Once this goal is achieved, many will move on to the next position within a company or even move on to a completely different company in their unquenchable thirst for power and money.

Certain types of company environments appear to foster the presence of both corporate psychopaths and serial bullies. Fortunately, not every company environment is conducive to bullying or to drawing corporate psychopaths to the payroll. Linda Mata (2012) in her book titled Understanding Workplace Bullying and Gary Namie (2003) in an article titled Workplace Bullying: Escalated Incivility discuss some of the characteristics of a bully prone workplace:

  • An obsession with “making the numbers” is adopted without criticism.
  • An individual’s “strength of personality” or higher levels of interpersonal aggressiveness are the focus of the recruitment, promotion and reward systems while emotional intelligence is ignored.
  • Corporate goals focus only on short-term plans such as meeting quarterly investor projections instead of long-term plans that focus on where the company is going in one year, five years, or more.
  • Internal conduct codes limit illegal incidents to very narrowly defined actions.
  • Higher priority is given, by executives, to personal friendships rather than what is good for the company.
  • Whether deliberately caused or inadvertently created, fear is the dominant and desired emotion in the workplace.
  • Performance appraisal processes are misused without repercussions.

In addition to the characteristics listed above, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (2015), in an article titled Decoding the Personality of Workplace Bullies, states that chaotic work environments and highly political organizational cultures show a much higher prevalence of workplace bullying and, therefore, corporate psychopaths. Most high-ranking executives show high levels of corporate psychopathy.

Sophia Wellons (2012), in her article titled The Devil in the Boardroom: Corporate Psychopaths and Their Impact on Business, suggests that specific personal characteristics of the corporate psychopath may give them an advantage in climbing the corporate ladder: manipulativeness, aggressive self-promotion, and single-minded determination. When it comes to dealing with a company’s competition, organizations want their hiring candidates and executives to use their aggressiveness, remorselessness, and willingness to bend the rules.

In an article titled The Devil Lurks in the Suit, Cynthia Mathieu (n.d.) warns that, just because an individual possesses these characteristics, it does not mean that they will be loyal to the corporation; far from it. Corporate psychopaths are only loyal to one thing and that is what benefits them. As long as they get what they want, these individuals could care less for what happens to the employees and company along the way.

How do these individuals manage to rise through the ranks? Merit has nothing to do with the way these individuals get where they want to be. In an article titled Corporate Psychopathy: Web Conversation With Dr. Paul Babiak, David Kosson (2015) lays out the five-step path corporate psychopaths follow:

  1. Organizational Entry – These individuals are very adept at the entry and interview stage, displaying charm and confidence. They have no qualms about lying on their resume or in face-to-face interviews and will say whatever it takes to get hired.
  2. Assessment – This is the honeymoon period where the individual forges the “Psychopathic Bond” with co-workers through one-on-one interactions. The psychopath uses lies, manipulation, and his or her ability to analyze potential victim’s hot spots and weaknesses. This is the stage where Pawns (potential victims), Patrons (those with power), and organizational Police (HR and accounting departments) are identified.
  3. Manipulation – This is when the psychopath will begin creating conflict among the pawns (their co-workers), accomplishing this through the use of disinformation. Because people in conflict generally don’t talk to each other, this is the perfect environment for the psychopath. In the midst of this conflict, they will continue to groom their patron (often their direct boss) in order to provide protection and defense.
  4. Abandonment & Confrontation – The pawns are cast aside and abandoned because they are no longer useful to the corporate psychopath. Anyone questioning or challenging the bully’s changing of the relationship is neutralized and destroyed.
  5. Ascension – Here, the psychopath moves in for the kill and betrays their patron by getting promoted into their job, often leaving their patron bewildered and wondering what happened.

Corporate psychopaths plot out their rise through the ranks very carefully. Boddy (2005) lays out this strategy very clearly and succinctly in an article titled The implications of corporate psychopaths for business and society: An initial examination and a call to arms. Step one is to charm the socks off the corporate psychopath’s superiors, including upper management. Once management is convinced the individual can do no wrong, it’s time to charm, tolerate, and manipulate the individual’s peers.

This is the beginning of the bullying phase of the strategy. No longer is there a perceived need to impress people; after all, the bully is already in good standing with the management. Boddy (2005) goes on to say that this is the stage when the bully is most likely to reveal his or her true ruthlessness in front of those the bully considers of no use to him or her. Rank and file employees are generally the first to notice a person is a corporate psychopath.

All the dirty tricks up the sleeve of the corporate psychopath are brought out and used and the corporate psychopath begins to crank up the intensity of behaviors with the third step. Step three is using and abusing the bully’s juniors in the company. The gloves come off and the serial bully go to work destroying anyone in his or her way of rising through the ranks to become part of senior management.

Serial bullying is one of the manifestations of corporate psychopathy. Understanding the characteristics and behaviors of both is important in identifying whether or not a serial bully or corporate psychopath are present in your company. Increasing numbers of corporate psychopaths are showing up in the management ranks of our companies. Knowing the types of company environments that encourage serial bullying or the presence of corporate psychopaths, along with understanding the path they take to achieve their goals, gives companies a chance of weeding out or stopping these individuals from destroying both employees and the company.

In this series on workplace bullying, we have covered several topics important to being able to combat the behavior or stop it from happening when it first raises its ugly head.  In the article titled Workplace bullying: Characteristics bullies look for and why they bully, we identified the characteristics bullies look for and discussed why they bully.

In another article, titled Workplace Bullying: The Face of a Bully, we discusses the bully’s tactics and some of the characteristics of a bully. In an article, titled Workplace Bullying: The Serial Bully, we looked at the serial bully, discussed some of their tactics, how employers can identify if there is a bully in their employ, and how they react when called to account for their behavior. In this article we talk about corporate psychopathy and the serial bully. The next article will cover a particularly vicious form of workplace bullying called mobbing.

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