My fascination with what makes a psychopath was yanked again recently. Psychopaths are usually characterised as those who possess no empathy, marking them out from the rest of us as cold and emotionless. Empathy is a central plank of our Emotional Intelligence and is understood as the ability of recognising emotions in others and attuning to subtle social signals given out by others. It is the fundamental people skill, according to Daniel Goleman.
What is empathy?
Empathising can be thought of as the drive to identify another person ‘s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. The empathiser intuitively figures out how people are feeling, and how to treat people with care and sensitivity. Sometimes it is called ’emotional attunement ‘.
Empathy is built on self-awareness. The more you are open to your own emotions, the more skilled you will be in reading feelings. But in practical terms, the key to intuiting other people ‘s emotions lies in the ability to read non-verbal cues voice tone, gesture, facial expressions, posture, silence (how not what we say). It is not about merely ‘being nice ‘.
This EI understanding of empathy definitely describes it as a skill rather than a personal trait. If so, then it can be learned and taught. But many experts seem to believe that psychopaths are born as such, and that there is little we can do but manage them and clear up after their mess.
The Wisdom of Psychopaths
Now, however, the latest research suggest that psychopathic criminals have an empathy switch that can turn on given the right instructions. The difference between them and the rest of us is that our empathy switch has a default setting of ON while theirs is OFF.
My slightly radical view is that the optimal ability is to have the power of self-switching, or turning on or off your empathy as the situation demands.
Should we all be a bit psychopathic at work? This was the provocative title of an article that got me thinking. It was written by BBC Business reporter Tim Bowler in response to the work of Professor Kevin Dutton. Dutton has written a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: Lessons in Life from Saints, Spies and Serial Killers. It ‘s a terrific book. I gave it five stars in an extensive Amazon review.
Those of us who care too much about what others think or are overwhelmed by the moods of others need to develop our own inner psychopath.
We could all benefit from sometimes being more ruthless, fearless, self-confident, focused, mentally tough, charming or charismatic – all of which are traits of a psychopath.
The problem isn ‘t with these traits per se, only when they are turned up to dysfunction levels.
Successful entrepreneurs in particular share many of the traits of psychopaths. That why some studies claim that bad boys make good entrepreneurs. Risk taking behaviour combined with intelligence is the secret to making millions, according to this view. They have greater self-esteem, more aggression, more flexibility, impulsiveness and independence. Sound familiar?
Psychologists traditionally viewed risk-taking as an abnormal behaviour, associated with disorders such as drug abuse and manic depression. But the Cambridge research said that entrepreneurs showed an adapted type of impulsive risk-taking that allows them to seize opportunities under stress.
This is a challenge to traditional EI models that mark high empathy levels with high success. Maybe this is true to an extent, but it doesn ‘t really account for the Henry Fords or Steve Jobs of this world. It seems that the highest levels of success belong to those who can show flexible empathy, even anti-empathy, as the context demands.
Are you a psychopath? How do you use your skills to advantage in business?
Image credit: cameronstear.