Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

Media274Have you ever suspected your boss to be a psychopath?

nstant, Zen-like calm.

No, I’m thinking of the head of a company I used to work for. He was known for his, shall we say, intimidating style of management.I remember hearing him speak about the human rights situation in a country in which the company was operating, and what he said could only be described as jaw-droppingly appalling.

I maintained at the time – and I still maintain – that if this CEO and others like him had been born to poor inner-city families, they would have become drug lords.They are smart, fearless, and they think the rules don’t apply to them.They wouldn’t work their way out of the hood by flipping burgers for minimum wage.

Well, if you’ve ever had a boss you wouldn’t trust when the moon was full, Kevin Dutton of the University of Oxford may have the reason why.Dr. Dutton contributed a fascinating article to Scientific American magazine last October entitled, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths.”He talks about how many of the traits of psychopathic killers – ruthlessness, superficial charm, an over-inflated sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, lack of remorse, etc. – are also shared by many highly successful individuals in the political and business worlds.Dr. Dutton quotes a brilliant neurosurgeon as saying, “I have no compassion for those whom I operate on.That is a luxury I simply cannot afford…. Emotion is entropy – and seriously bad for business.”I have an ex-brother-in-law who is a surgeon, and by all accounts, a very good one.I could easily imagine him saying something similar.

It takes an enormous degree of self-confidence and laser-like focus to cut someone open and save his or her life.The same is true for committing thousands of troops to a war.And to a lesser extent, it is also true for making business decisions that affect the livelihoods of thousands of employees.

Contrary to popular belief, not all psychopaths are violent.Dr. Dutton draws an analogy between psychopathic traits and the dials on a music studio mixing board; depending on the individual settings and the combination, you might get a brilliant leader or you might get Hannibal Lecter.

Joshua Greene of Harvard University did a study on how psychopaths deal with moral dilemmas.Dr. Greene observed responses and brain activity in people who scored high on psychopathic traits and those who didn’t when confronted with two slightly different situations.

In Situation 1, a railway trolley is speeding down a track toward five people who are trapped and cannot escape its path.You can flip a switch which will send the trolley down a second track, one on which there is only one person trapped.Do you throw the switch?

Most of us will do so with little difficulty.We feel bad for the doomed individual, but it’s better than having five deaths result from our inaction.

Situation 2 throws a new twist into the conundrum.As before, a trolley is bearing down on five trapped people.But this time, there is no switch; instead, you are standing behind a very large person on a bridge above the tracks.If you push this person onto the tracks below, the trolley will kill him but his mass will stop the trolley, saving the five others.Do you give him a shove?

The body count is exactly the same as in Situation 1, but for most of us, this is a much more difficult decision.Pushing someone to a certain death puts us into a much more active role than throwing a switch, even when the result is the same.Where Situation 1 causes activity primarily in the logical reasoning portion of our brains, Situation 2 evokes a response in our emotional center, too.

But not if you’re a psychopath.Psychopaths see the two situations as identical, and have no qualms about giving the heavy stranger a shove.The emotional center in their brains remains quiet.Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?Do we want our leaders to have the nerve to do what is necessary, regardless of how unpleasant, or do we hesitate to put such power into the hands of individuals who see the world – and other human beings – in such coldly calculating terms?

I’ve been struck by the absolute lack of regret expressed by most Wall Street bankers regarding their roles in contributing to so many people losing their homes and the hardships resulting from the financial collapse.As Michael Lewis points out in The Big Short, these banks may not have understood their own financial instruments, but they absolutely knew they were taking advantage of their own clients.Remorselessly.

Whether we want it or not, the evidence shows that many people who rise to positions of leadership do, indeed, possess many psychopathic tendencies.When others are there for you to manipulate and you feel no regret at doing so, you are more likely to climb to the top (over the bodies of those others).

Jon Moulton is a highly successful venture capitalist in London.In an interview with the Financial Times, he listed his three most valuable character traits as determination, curiosity, and insensitivity.Insensitivity?Really?Moulton explained, “…it lets you sleep when others can’t.”

I’m still not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

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