Friday, August 27, 2004

Corporate Executive as a Psychopath

STOCKHOLM - Is your boss a charming, well-educated and polished leader intent on climbing the career ladder? If so, he could be a psychopath, psychologists gathered in Stockholm said.

Recent research has shown that not all psychopaths are violent killers - many of them hold normal jobs, with some rising to the highest levels of executive management.

But their charisma and ambition are often mistaken for leadership traits rather than psychopathic ones, industrial-organisation psychologist Paul Babiak of the United States told the EuroScience Open Forum in Stockholm.

"Psychopaths tend to be charming, have a grandiose sense of self, and they like money, power and sex. They have strong verbal skills and can manipulate by telling a good story. Because they can talk big, you think they have vision and can lead an organisation, but a psychopath will mislead," Babiak said.

He warned that the number of psychopaths in corporations will probably increase in coming years, as they thrive in the dynamic and rapidly-changing organisations of today's business market where they can advance quickly.

"Psychopaths don't like to work in bureaucratic organisations," he said, noting that they are "thrill-seekers who like to play the game".

Babiak said a psychopath typically shows no signs of remorse, or feels other emotions the way mentally stable people do.

"So while a psychopath would have no qualms about closing down a plant, a true leader would feel bad about putting all those people out of work," he said.

But the corporate world's dirty little secret may well be that psychopaths thrive because companies actively seek them out: The focus on short-term results in today's "quarterly capitalism" requires ruthless leaders not afraid to take hard quick decisions without looking back.

Babiak conceded that a psychopath may indeed be good for a company in the short-term, but will invariably become a problem later.

"Psychopaths can spin a good tale, but they can't do the day-to-day work. They leech off other workers," he said.

Professor Erich Bartel of the Frankfurt Business School of Finance and Management agreed.

"In the short-term the company will maximize its profit but in the long-term it will be unable to because it will lose out on human capital," he said.

Babiak said psychopaths were found in all professions.

In his work as a consultant for US companies, Babiak said he had come across eight psychopaths among some 100 employees, and all but one have moved up in their organisations.

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