February 29, 2009
A psychopath is someone with an anti-social personality who has no compunction or guilt in trampling over, or even being violent towards, others to achieve his goals.
And "his" is correct because men make up the overwhelming majority of psychopaths, although there is an increasing number of women.
Men also make up the majority of executives in Australia.
No one really knows how many executive psychopaths there are, but a Canadian academic, Robert Hare, has estimated that one in 100 people in the American workforce is a psychopath.
Psychopaths act out their anti-social impulses at all levels of the workforce and typically seek authority positions to give them power over other employees.
Thus the attraction of becoming executives and gaining control of staff. With executive power, the psychopath can hide behind a mask of legitimacy to hollow-out selected fellow employees.
But they don't just exist at the top of the tree. Psychopaths can also be ambitious staff who go to pathological ends to unseat in-power executives and take their positions.
University of Sydney psychotherapist John Clarke has made a life-long study of psychopaths in the workforce and is the author of two books on the subject - Working with Monsters and The Pocket Psycho.
He says workplace psychopaths commonly intimidate fellow workers, sometimes behave impulsively, always lack remorse and often are glib and superficially charming.
"About half the people in any workplace won't be affected.
"If anything, they will think they are good guys because psychopaths go out of their way to cultivate people who they can use," Dr Clarke says.
"It's from the other half of the workforce the psychopath selects victims to wage war on. The weapons of war include bullying, putting down, humiliating in front of others, stealing credit for work done by others and spreading false rumours about other people.
"They will tear people apart to get where they want to be," he says.
Dr Clarke says the influence of psychopaths already in private and public sector executive positions or trying to attain them is way out of proportion to their likely numbers.
"They are attracted to corporations and organisations because they can get power over others and are actually rewarded for their behaviour.
"Companies attract psychopaths without even knowing when they place job advertisements asking for someone to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
"These psychopaths ... have no compunction, no pity. They will level people to the ground without feeling. That is what they enjoy," he says.
Dr Clarke says there are two types of psychopaths who hold down executive positions.
The first is one who has been identified and finds it increasingly difficult to stay on in their job.
"Once their behaviour is discovered and understood, they move off to another job in another organisation (where) ... they very quickly resume their behaviour.
"The second type is virtually unstoppable. They are the people who have so much power in an organisation they can't be touched.
"These people are usually in positions where they can actually head off or successfully counter any attempts to get rid of them.They hang on like grim death and leave their positions when they want to."
Dr Clarke says it is immensely difficult weeding out executive psychopaths.
He says management and staff have to be educated about the psychopath's behaviour and develop a united stand so people are less likely to become victims. Psychopaths find it difficult to operate against this sort of united stand, he says.
"Then the employer has to form a corporate strategy to modify this behaviour or get rid of them.
"And the higher the level the psychopath has obtained in the organisation then the more difficult it is forming such a strategy.
"But rehabilitation almost never works. All it does is give them new social skills to manipulate their victims," he says.
And what about the executive psychopaths' victims?
Psychologist Don Jeffreys who treats victims of workplace psychopaths, says depression, anxiety, stress and isolation are common symptoms.
"The victims are commonly angry and puzzled about why they have been singled out by the psychopath," Professor Jeffreys says.
"Concern about their mistreatment at work can take over their entire lives and they often feel trapped with nowhere to go.
"If the situation cannot be relieved at work, the victim should leave their job as soon as he/she can. To stay under continual threat of psychopathic behaviour from senior staff or even work colleagues is untenable," he says.
What staff should do:
What organisations should do:
Published: 31 January 2009