Is Your CEO a Psychopath?

The evidence is in, and the answer is… (probably) not.

Courtesy of 	Epoxydude / Getty Images
Courtesy of Epoxydude / Getty Images

Volkswagen. Tesla. Uber. Theranos. What do these companies have in common? Bad decisions resulting in shame, scandal and a long, slow road back into the world’s good graces.

It is easy to find examples in the corporate world of companies brought low by bad leaders. And all too often, each new transgression triggers salacious headlines decrying corporate leaders and accusing them of being a bunch of psychopaths. But what exactly does that mean?

Clinical psychopaths are characterized by superficial charm, aggression and lack of anxiety, fear, empathy or guilt. However, when we talk about psychopaths in the business world, what we really mean is people with non-pathological psychopathic tendencies. They’re not sick; they’re just bigger than average jerks.

These people might do things that most of us would consider bad or over the top, like yelling at or threatening the people who work for them — the quintessential “bad boss.” But what they’re not is violent criminals. In short, think Wolf of Wall Street, not Silence of the Lambs.

People with psychopathic tendencies have some specific personality traits in common. They can be bold and unafraid; they are often mean; and they tend to be reckless and impulsive. On their own, these traits aren’t necessarily a bad thing, though they might be self-destructive.

In fact, many of us may possess or display at least one of these characteristics. Some of them, like boldness, can even be positive. It’s the combination of all three that can become toxic, and handing such a person a leadership role has the potential to end badly.

But headlines aside, is the situation in corporate America as dire as it seems? Or have we just collectively convinced ourselves that there’s a corporate boogeyman in the form of psychopathic CEOs?

I set out to address the question of how prevalent psychopaths are among those in leadership positions. To do so, I conducted a research study using meta-analysis, which is an aggregation of all prior research studies, with my colleagues Peter Harms (University of Alabama) and Marcus Credé (Iowa State University).

Contrary to the alarmist headlines, we found that although people with psychopathic tendencies were more likely to become business leaders, it was only to a small degree. And, curiously enough, the evidence suggested that leaders with psychopathic tendencies were less effective at driving productivity, but also only to a modest degree.

A deeper dive into the data revealed that these findings obscured a pattern that had not been discovered in prior work. Leaders with moderate levels of psychopathic tendencies tended to be the most effective overall. Call it a “Goldilocks” effect — not too much psychopathy, but not too little either.

But the story does not end there. The deeper dive also revealed something else. Something more sinister, lurking in the shadows.

Men with psychopathic tendencies were actually more likely to become leaders and more likely to be rated as effective leaders. Women who displayed psychopathic tendencies, on the other hand, were not evaluated in the same way. They were less likely to become leaders and less likely to be rated as effective leaders.

In short, the gender double standard is alive and well. Bad behavior from men is not just tolerated, but perhaps even tacitly encouraged. Think about any male CEO, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, who are simultaneously scolded for their “bad boy” behavior and worshipped for their leadership of their companies.

But bad behavior from women is punished, even as women seeking advancement are so often encouraged to emulate the behavior of successful men. We still exist in a world where gender norms are incompatible with tolerating women who display aggressive or mean behavior. Even when it comes to being bad, women just can’t catch a break.

So is your boss, or worse yet, your CEO, a psychopath? Our research suggests that it’s unlikely. While it’s tempting to blame every corporate misstep on psychopaths in the C-suite, the picture is a bit more complicated than that.

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