Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Workplace psychopathy: what consequences does it have?

Continuing our report on Smith and Lilienfeld's review of workplace psychopathy (part one here), we turn to the consequences it has - for leadership, for the organisation, and for unethical, even criminal behaviour.

Leadership effects

Is psychopathy behind 'dark-side' and maladaptive approaches to leadership? Last post discussed a study by Babiak et al study looking at rates of psychopathy. The study also collected 360 data, and that data suggests that high scorers tended to be seen as weaker in supporting their team. However, they were also seen as more innovative than lower scorers. Some research suggests that start-up entrepreneurs tend to have stronger psychopathic traits, consistent with this, but a recent study counters this, suggesting that once core entrepreneurial traits are taken into account, psychopathy doesn't assist in innovation-related entrepreneurial outcomes.

Turning to research on leadership style, a study with management students suggests those who score higher in psychopathy are more likely to use passive leadership styles rather than transformational leadership. However, monomethod issues apply here. Another interesting study called for presidential historian experts to rate features of various presidents. Poorer presidential performance was associated with the Fearless Dominance subscale, and the Self-Centered impulsivity subscale with problems like tolerating unethical behaviour in subordinates and events like empeachment.

As you can see, a range of effects have been observed, but what the literature could really do with is corroboration of specific effects, preferably via replication.

Organisational consequences

Psychopaths are toxic for organisations, undermining them and making them less effective. Right? The review reaches a surprising conclusion here. Drawing on a meta-analysis looking at workplace performance and counterproductive work behaviours, it concludes that while there may be an effect, it appears very weak. One trend in the data was that psychopathy had an even weaker affect on work outcomes when found in positions of authority, running counter to the concept that 'nasty' traits are survivable but lead to senior derailment.

Recent single studies suggest that aggressive negotiation tactics such as threats and manipulation are associated with psychopathy directly or with dark triad trait scores (this includes psychopathy alongside related constructs such as narcissism and machiavellianism).
Again, these studies (and some of those in the meta-analysis suffer from the mono-method flaw which can artificially inflate findings.

This all suggests that at best, the impact of psychopathic traits on measurable CWB and performance is not as ruinous as popular reports may suggest.

Unethical and criminal behaviour

Ok, maybe not ruinous, but how about unethical? There is some evidence for this. Global psychopathy scores in students are associated with more willingness to take an unethical route in response to a hypothetical work dilemma. And MBAs with lower levels in Kohlberg's cognitive moral development and take a subjectivist approach that places personal values over universal moral ones were on average higher in psychopathy, albeit almost entirely due to a single subscale rather than higher ratings across the construct.

Moving from hypothetical decisions, another study found that employees with managers they rated higher on psychopathic traits believed their organisation showed less social responsibility and committment to employees. However, this again falls foul of mono-method issues.

What about perpetrators of white collar crime? This is where popular accounts really bandy about connections, with prominent criminals such as Bernie Madoff depicted as "poster boys for successful corporate psychopathy".
Studies looking at undergraduates  suggests that willingness to countenance white collar criminal acts is associated with psychopathy traits.

But when it comes to direct evidence, there is very little. One modestly sized sample of encarcerated individuals with either white collar, non-white collar or a mixture of convictions was assessed on a range of psychopathy sub-scales, but none of the hypothesised differences were observed. While other subscores did differ across different combinations of groups (e.g.,  (Machiavellian Egocentricity for the White+Mixed was higher than the non-White-collar) but these non-predicted findings are exploratory.


Smith and Lilienfield conclude that 'current evidence that psychopathy is tied to negative outcomes in the workplace is suggestive, but not conclusive'. I find the review important in reminding us that cruel, selfish or aggressive acts don't require the perpetrator to be psychopathic, and asking us to be a little more careful in attributing the ailments of the business world to one specific condition.

ResearchBlogging.orgSmith, S., & Lilienfeld, S. (2013). Psychopathy in the workplace: The knowns and unknowns Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18 (2), 204-218 DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2012.11.007

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