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The reality of corporate psychopaths

Corporate psychopaths can be a serious – and often overlooked – problem.

People used to laugh when Professor Clive Boddy got up to speak about his research. When he first presented his work on “corporate psychopaths” in 2005, almost no-one had heard those two words together. After all, psychopaths were traditionally associated with criminology, not the corporate sector.

Now, the corporate psychopath is a phenomenon that’s recognised the world over. Professor Boddy’s TEDx talk on the link between corporate psychopaths and workplace bullying has been viewed by almost half a million people.

Psychopaths are estimated to make up about one percent of the general population, and early on in his research, Professor Boddy found that this small group of people is responsible for between a quarter and a third of all workplace bullying.

Further research has since revealed that certain individuals are bullying up to three or four people per day in their workplace.

Some commentators recognise corporate psychopaths as constituting the biggest threat to business ethics that we currently face.

“Corporate psychopaths simultaneously embody a variety of traits which collectively constitute an unsympathetic and ruthless character who tends to bully other people to get their way, and to avoid being challenged or scrutinised.”

Professor Boddy explains that corporate psychopaths have no scruples or remorse, and are expert liars and manipulators. They will often create chaos, conflict, distress, and confusion around them, which they then try to take advantage of by working on their own behalf, while organisational regulators such as auditors and HR personnel are distracted and confused by the fog of chaos.

Because of this behaviour, if you take a superficial look at an organisation, the corporate psychopath might appear to be the only sane, organised person in the environment, which can lead to their further promotion.

Professor Boddy, who moved to the University of Tasmania in 2018 to continue his research on corporate bullying, said recent research indicates that corporate psychopaths are more prevalent in certain types of workplaces, such as in the banking sector.

“These people are after money, power, and control, so certain parts of the corporate sector are more enticing to them than others,” he said.

While the normal distribution of psychopathic people in a workplace would be approximately one percent at the lowest levels of an organisation, and three to four per cent at the top, in some sectors, Professor Boddy estimates that the percentage can be doubled, with as much as eight per cent at the top.

“I was told about one bank in the UK that actually used a ‘psychopathy measure’ to get people employed in the bank,” he said.

“They weren’t using it to get people out – they were using it to get people in. Presumably they were seen to hold positive traits: ultra-competitive and ruthless. It was presumed that they would work on behalf of the bank to advance its position in the market, but they tend to promote their own advancement instead.”

Professor Boddy said corporate psychopaths can initially be hard to spot, even for psychologists.

When you first meet them, they seem to be someone who is going to be helpful to you. They’re seen to be knowledgeable and charming. It’s like being in a game of chess when you’re one of the pieces and you don’t even know it.

It’s estimated that around 40 per cent of Australians will experience workplace bullying at some point in their career. Our understanding of the antecedents of much of this behaviour has been radically improved as a result of Professor Boddy’s presentations and research.

Several companies have also commenced internal investigations as a result of his insights.

But Professor Boddy said the biggest impact has been on individuals, and many people have contacted him after seeing his TEDx talk.

“Some of them just say, ‘At last, someone understands me,’ and, ‘It’s been such a cathartic experience.’ Quite a few are visibly traumatised about what had happened to them, even years later,” he said.

“We’ve got to, as a society, look at how we’ll manage corporate psychopaths, and what positions and control we will allow them to have over people’s emotional and financial resources.”

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