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How to tell if your boss is a psychopath – and what to do about it

Are you setting a good example for others to follow? Image sourced from

How to tell if your boss is a psychopath – and what to do about it

Being in business calls for a determined if not ruthless mindset, the ability to be confident and in control, and to be forceful, calculating, and a meticulous planner. Attributes that few possess. But there is one category of person that has them in abundance – the psychopath.

Researcher Robert Hare estimates 1% of the general population fits the profile, though the percentage of CEOs might be four times that figure.

Oxford University psychologist Kevin Dutton surveyed 5,400 people across a wide range of professions. He compiled a list of the top 10 jobs ranking highest for psychopathy. Top of the list? CEO, followed by lawyer, media personality, salesperson and surgeon.

While psychopathic individuals are more likely than other people to commit crimes, most of them manage to live successful lives, their psychopathic personality helping them along the way.

The problem is, it’s the psychopathic boss who makes the culture and sets the tone for the way some organisations go about their business.

Does the boss like to operate ethically, or do they skate around in the grey zone between ethical and legal? Or worse, do they like to step over the line into illegality if the risks are low and the benefits outweigh the legal liability?

Those that work for such a boss can sometimes get caught in the trap, so set on not upsetting the boss, they develop a case of “ethical blindness”. These workers are not usually conscious of being unethical, it is simply that management has created an environment in which ethics are not much considered, allowing otherwise decent people to become established in that behaviour.

Put an otherwise good person in a toxic environment, perhaps one created by a psychopathic boss, and that person will find it very difficult to resist the slide into ethical blindness and harmful behaviour.

What to watch for

Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, best known for his Stanford Prison Experiment, came up with a set of social processes that “expedite evil”. Reading them is a reminder for how we are all perched at the top of our own slippery slope:

Mindlessly taking the first small step. Its easy when there is something to be gained and little to lose. Its the “thin edge of the wedge” that creates forward momentum. In business, you might be expected to cut a few corners as an acceptable part of getting the job done. As time goes by, the practice moves beyond “is this the right thing to do” to “can I get away with it?”, a transition that is easily made in a culture of ethical blindness.

Dehumanisation of others. When tribal “us and them” thinking leads people to see outsiders as sub-human. The blood-soaked history of warfare shows the destructive potential of this thinking. When a boss tells everyone that this is war, that we must “smash the competition”, or “bury them” they are creating a hostile environment in which survival is linked to killing the enemy.

De-individuation of self (anonymity). People who mask their identity are more likely to behave in anti-social ways because anonymity gives permission to behave badly. If a worker is an anonymous cog in a machine-like organisation, they feel less than human themselves, and so less governed by human decency.

Diffusion of personal responsibility. Become swept up in the mob mentality (eg. lynch-mob), and you are capable of almost anything. Thousands of usually law-abiding Londoners became looters and arsonists during the 2011 riots because “everyone else was doing it”. A workplace with “the end justifies the means” culture makes it easy for people to do what everyone else is doing.

Blind obedience to authority. When an authority figure like the boss orders you to do something it is difficult to refuse, particularly if not complying carries serious consequences. In the past, such disobedience could be fatal.

Uncritical conformity to group norms. Norms exert a powerful influence over our behaviour, particularly if disobedience or being a nonconformist will get you fired from the organisation. In the evolutionary past, social exclusion was tantamount to death so our instincts are to conform.

Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference. As Edmund Burke noted, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. You don’t need to be a perpetrator, it’s enough to simply stand passively by.

Bottom-up leadership

You can still establish yourself as an ethical person in your own sphere of influence provided the boss is not diabolical. This is a form of bottom-up leadership that sets a good example for others to follow.

When enough spheres of influence overlap, the culture changes. In the end, your best option may be to look for another job and exit gracefully. But don’t underestimate the power of collective action to create an ethical workplace.