man in mask with device

Do psychopaths kill productivity? Kevin Dutton – researcher in the Department of Experiment Psychology at Oxford, England and author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths – identified that those with a psychopathic personality are overrepresented among CEOs, lawyers, media people, sales people, surgeons and journalists, police officers, clergy (!), chefs and civil servants. It’s become de rigueur to recognise that some malignant personality types and their trademark motivators and behaviours, traditionally pathologised, can offer something positive to the workplace.

In this blog post, I want to examine whether psychopaths kill productivity in the workplace.

What is a Psychopath?

Psychopaths experience a high degree of detachment. Imagine attending a terrible car accident. Could you cope? Maybe. But, a psychopathic fire and rescue officer could cope better.

You may not sleep at night after reading this, but psychopaths are not only those odious, unnerving characters you find in 1960s-style Mindhunter. They may be your neighbour, colleague or (gulp!) friend.

Psychopaths are most often played as having above average intelligence, conniving, playing a long game. Some psychologists say that only the dumb and charmless ones end up in prison. (This may be a little too simplistic, since psychopathy involves a heavy dollop of narcissism, and they crave recognition for their crimes. Watch any serial killer prison interview to see how they love to retain some knowledge to themselves, often only confessing to additional crimes across decades to keep the focus on them.)

Does that mean – terrifyingly – that the more intelligent ones tend to pursue further education and become involved in responsible careers where a high degree of detachment, along with an ability to charm and persuade, is crucial for career endurance?

What Do Psychopaths Look Like in the Workplace?

Psychopaths can also display some more mundane characteristics and behaviours:

  • They have an ability to perceive emotions, that is can read you, or the room, and adjust their behaviour, words or tone accordingly. This can help them manipulate situations to their specific advantage. They can play the long game, meaning it may be months or years before you see the strings of the puppeteer or the positioning of willingly malleable flying monkeys.
  • They lack empathy. But, they can act as if they have it. Rapport-building and displays of emotion may come across as robotic, because they not coming from a personal experience. They’re observing, mimicking or playing a part.
  • They do those hard tasks at work with apparent ease. I mean things like cutting open bodies, dead (pathologies, CSI photographers) or alive (surgeons). But, I also mean their ability to deal with stress better because they have less pesky, visible physiological reactions (sweating, shaking, raised heart rate) than the rest of us. In movies, this is shown by an ability to ‘pass’ polygraph tests. A calm head is one thing; but a chilling coolness while lying is another.
  • They appear to have a laissez-faire attitude to risk-taking. Major financial decisions or tough staffing choices following mergers and acquisitions do not cause sleepless nights. However, headlong plunges and empathy-free zones may fill investors and HR departments with fear in equal measure.

Do Psychopaths Kill Productivity?

  • Psychopathic detachment can enable individuals to make the hard decisions. Does that mean they are the right ones, though? And, what happens in a workplace where thinking, weighing up the risks and rewards, or longer term planning ahead are essential? Snap decisions that suits their style (without a conscience) or goals could do more harm that good, resulting in mismanaged resources and toxic environments.
  • A lack of empathy causes chaos in in a mentoring environment. Psychopathic colleagues may be great at triaging a multi-car pileup, but can they support traumatised medical colleagues or guide the less experienced through a project crisis? Must others pick up the slack?
  • The appearance of ‘clergy’ on Dutton’s list blew my mind. What happens if you walked into a place of workshop in need of some pastoral support and guidance and encountered a cold, disinterested person whose parroted words only created unease? Junior colleagues may find that they’re the ones who get all the support calls.

Hire a Psychopath at Your Peril!

Psychopaths may be able to offer some advantages in certain workplaces, in certain roles, during certain limited situations. But that might be where it stops.

  • Quickfire decisions are fine in their place, but think of some of the workaday activities of the modern workplace. Management and teams require collaboration on marketing strategies, branding and communications, campaigns, product development, or staff training. These long-term projects require someone who can take time to think, discuss with others, come up with drafts and work together until something is finalised. Lone wolves with one answer to any given problem will create a long, nasty shadow in the room – one that kills energy, enthusiasm and cohesion, all essential for productivity.
  • In everyday working life, psychopaths may be unable to build genuine, lasting professional relationships with their team, meaning loyalty, and therefore productivity, is lowered. If individuals feel manipulated in the cause of the psychopath, they’re unlikely to want to work closely with that person again.
  • Psychopaths may not only be an empathy vacuum, but actively cause a chilling effect on those who encounter them. This will discourage staff, create a negative workplace atmosphere, and ultimately results in less productive teams. People want leadership in the workplace that ‘gets it’ – not someone who’s mimicking it and therefore comes across as false and remote.

Psychopaths represent only a reported 1% of the general population. Perhaps CVs, portfolios and online profiles should contain a ‘personality type’ dropdown field.

Would you hire a perfectly charming and ever so Talented Mr Ripley?