Not every psychopath is a budding Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman, the Harvard Business School-educated Wall Street banker with a sadistic murderous streak who is the anti-hero of Brett Easton Ellis' brutal novel "American Psycho".
They may not be violent, but their character traits are certainly identifiable as psychopathic and this helps them climb the corporate ladder. According to Professor Robert Hare, an expert in psychopathy at the University of British Columbia, Canada, "corporate psychopaths" are ruthless, manipulative, superficially charming and impulsive, the very traits that are landing them high-powered managerial roles.
"Psychopaths are social predators and like all predators they are looking for feeding or killing grounds," he said. "Wherever you get power, prestige and money you will find them." The key characteristics shared by all psychopaths (Professor Hare estimates that as much as one percent of the population of Britain and North America are clinically psychopathic) are their lack of compassion and inability to empathize with others.
While they may thrive in the paranoid atmosphere of high pressure environments, they can also harm the companies they work for. They make life a misery for their co-workers, throwing fits of rage, blaming others when things go wrong, and taking credit for other people's work.
To combat this, Professor Hare has teamed up with corporate psychologist Dr. Paul Babiak to design a test that allows companies to detect corporate psychopaths before they can do serious damage in the workplace.
The "Business Scan 360" test is used to assess managers who may carry psychopathic traits yet come across as ideal corporate leaders. Professor Hare is also examining economic crime in the U.S., such as the Enron and WorldCom scandals, to see how corporate psychopaths operate.
"The psychopath is the kind of individual that can give you the right first impression, has a charming facade, can look and sound like the ideal leader, but behind this mask has a dark side."
"It's this dark side of the personality that lies, is deceitful, manipulative, it that bullies other people, it promotes fraud in the organization and steals or diverts the company's assets or money."
Hare believes that individual employees who suspect they are working with a psychopath should also take steps to avoid becoming their next "victim."
"The most important thing is to be aware," he says. "Once you take that position you are in a better position to deal with them."
Paul Farmer, from the mental health charity Rethink, agrees that "corporate psychopaths" pose a major threat to harmonious workplace relations. "The danger is that they build up a power base and turn everyone in the organization paranoid, everyone becomes afraid of everyone else and the work culture begins to reflect the personality of the leader," said Farmer.
"The workplace is often the most stressful place a person finds themselves in, employees and managers need to keep an eye out for signs of deteriorating mental health in fellow colleagues."