Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Psychopathic traits won't give an edge to entrepreneurs

Most people in business would agree that the dog-eat-dog mentality most celebrated in the 1980s has passed its high water mark, giving ground to cultures that value collaboration and mutual benefit. Yet shows such as The Apprentice still depict ruthlessness and uncompromising nature as the hallmark of the business success, and fictional characters from Gordon Gecko to Patrick Bateman further the idea that value-creators are a little psychopathic. Investigation of the 'dark-side' traits of leadership has started to focus on this notion: a recent report describes ongoing research suggesting these traits are present in start-up entrepreneurs, and may even be helpful to their success.  This matters if it were so, and a London-based team of Reece Akhtar, Gorkan Ahmetoglu, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic have just published research into this issue, canvassing 435 individuals through an online survey.

The research looked at entrepreneurialism both as a personal trait, using the Measure of Entrepreneurial Tendencies and Abilities (META), and in terms of involvement in entrepreneurial activities. In this study, this was defined widely to include achievements and activities that relate to the researchers core definition of entrepreneurialism: innovation, value creation, and taking opportunities. So success included not only selling ideas and inventing products, but organising events and helping create social institutions.

Participants also responded to Levenson's self-report scale on psychopathic tendencies. The team predicted that different facets of psychopathy might mean different things for entrepreneurialism. Primary psychopathy involves narcissism, manipulation of others and low empathy, and was measured by agreement with items such as one beginning 'success is based on the survival of the fittest'. This was predicted to facilitate entrepreneurialism through competition and exploiting opportunities. Secondary psychopathy, meanwhile, involves lifestyle behaviours such as impulsivity or parasitic dependence, and anti-social behaviour such as criminal activity and recidivism. Given how these traits look likely to create more problems than they solve and alienate others in the process, they were predicted to actually impede entrepreneurial activities.

Akhtar and his colleagues built a statistical model of the data (including demographics and other basic controls) to determine what factors mattered when others were taken into account. META had a strong relationship of .72 with the overall entrepreneurial activity of the individual. Secondary psychopathy turned out to have no significant relationships to entrepreneurial traits (META) or activities. Meanwhile, primary psychopathy - that Darwinian 'me-first' mentality - was moderately linked to META ratings. But once META was taken into account, primary psychopathy had little bearing on whether an individual had entrepreneurial achievements or activities. The only exception that was found was in one sub-domain - building and benefiting society - and this relationship was negative, which is in this case makes intuitive sense.

This study suggests that for a broad definition of entrepreneurialism, the perception that psychopathic traits are needed is a false one. It may be that they can occur alongside other more pertinent traits, but their quintessentially psychopathic elements don't make for a better entrepreneur: they can even undermine their effectiveness. It may yet be true that entrepreneurs value getting ahead over getting along, but far from fetishising these dark-side traits, we should treat them with appropriate caution. Apprentice-makers, take note.
ResearchBlogging.orgAkhtar, R., Ahmetoglu, G., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2013). Greed is good? Assessing the relationship between entrepreneurship and subclinical psychopathy Personality and Individual Differences, 54 (3), 420-425 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.10.013

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