There is much written about psychopathic individuals, but what about organizations or companies? Can they also act like psychopaths, taking on psychopathic traits and projecting them out onto the world?
It is very possible and indeed common for companies to take on psychopathic characteristics and start acting, to a greater or less extent, like a psychopath. Many of the traits that can be applied to psychopathic individuals can also apply at the organizational level.
Here are some common ways psychopathic traits can manifest in companies real life:
- A high concentration of staff with strong psychopathic or narcissistic traits.
- A generally unsympathetic and un-supportive culture.
- An extremely power-fixated hierarchical structure.
- A general irresponsibility regarding ethical issues.
- A generally toxic culture of infighting, backstabbing, division and mistrust.
- Rampant invalidation and gas-lighting from management.
- Widespread instances of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct.
- An “ends justify the means” approach to excuse away bad behavior.
- More generally, an almost complete lack of any ethics, morals or dignity in the way the company operates and treats it’s workers.
This is just a quick summary answer of how companies can act like psychopaths, and we’ll cover these (and more) characteristics in detail in the rest of this post.
But the bottom line answer is that many companies can and do act like psychopaths in a way that causes damage to it’s workforce, the environment and wider society at large.
Let’s look at how this happens in more detail.
Psychopathy Checklist Traits Applied to an Organization (With Examples)
A useful way of looking at the issue of companies acting like psychopaths is to apply Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, which is designed to assess individuals for a psychopathic personality disorder, to a company instead.
As we mentioned just above, a psychopathic company is just the manifestation of common psychopathic traits in an entire company instead of just one person. The general patterns will be the same.
Let’s run through some of the 12 criteria for the original Hare Psychopathy Checklist, giving an example of how this trait will commonly manifest in a psychopathic organization.
1. Glib & Superficial – The company will often have a very slick and well groomed PR image that they project to the public. It will seem on the outside as though everyone’s happy and it’s a great place to work. The darker reality is kept hidden from the general public and other stakeholders, but may leak out every now and then with “horror stories” of former employees in the media that puncture the slick image the company likes to portray.
2. Egocentric & Grandiose – The general image the company projects will be one of self importance, especially if the CEO/owner is psychopathic. There will be lots of zealous talk of their “mission” and “importance”, even if they are a solely commercial company in a soulless industry with no vocational aspects to their culture whatsoever. A lack of real perspective and an exaggerated sense of their own importance in the world. Also often culture of arrogance and entitlement, with a sense that the normal rules/laws don’t apply, and they can just break them at will.
3. Lack of Remorse or Guilt – A big one. Workers will be sacked or forced out without any sense or remorse or guilt from the people who do it. Often rationalized away as “just business”, with psychopathic managers taking a smirking satisfaction out of forcing out good people so they can move on up the ladder unchallenged.
4. Deceitful & Manipulative – Dishonesty will be rife in the culture at all levels. Backstabbing, manipulation, overt lying and lying by omission will all be very common in the company. The organization may also be deceptive towards the media, investors and even regulators. Low and high level fraud will be common (misappropriation of funds, stealing, claiming for unworked hours, accounting fraud etc).
5. Lack of Empathy – No empathy or sympathy in the way workers are treated. A brutally unsympathetic work culture. Complaints and pleas for help and support are often batted away and dismissed, with the workers themselves often gas-lighted and blamed for any problems that come up, even if they aren’t to blame. No real support for workers; treated as disposable. Sacked or pushed out without a second thought. A culture of rationalized cruelty
6. Shallow Emotions – Tied into the superficiality point above. Of course a company can’t have emotions, but the people in it may (or may not). There may be the image of emotional depth in the PR and advertising of the company, but no real emotional depth or empathy in the actual culture of the company, or most of the people in it. There is a lot of talk in the right places, but no real substance. It’s really about “how much money can we squeeze out of our workers/industry”. The people at the top care about nothing else. A general culture of “smarminess” and insincerity
7. Impulsive – Relates more to the individuals in the company who are psychopathic and who will do things impulsively and on a whim, without thinking of consequences. Think of high level financial transactions involving a lot of money, or risky “derivatives” transactions in the banking sector. In the obsessive thirst for money and power, rash decisions can be made which can ultimately bring a psychopathic company down.
8. Poor Behavior Controls – Linked to impulsivity, and again relates to the people within the company. Frequent instances of inappropriate and unprofessional conduct. Including inappropriate sexual behavior at work, sometimes verbal (and even physical) fights and widespread overt and covert bullying. Toxic behaviors are out of control and are not properly dealt with. A rageful, vindictive and brutal tone from middle and upper management.
9. Need For Excitement/Hedonism – We included this one because it does link to the culture I have seen in psychopathic workplaces. Psychopaths are by their nature hedonistic – always seeking pleasure and avoiding pain to an extreme level. And psychopathic companies can appear on the surface to have a hedonistic, easy going, fun loving, “relaxed” culture. However, if you dig into the surface, you’ll actually find the culture is really toxic and oppressive once you are actually caught in it yourself, with all the politics, backstabbing, bullying and extreme power-fixated hierarchical structure.
Relationships with individual psychopaths are like this – they start off seeming fun and easygoing, but end up being oppressive and suffocating as they sink their teeth in and look to gain absolute control over you. Relationships with psychopathic companies can be the same – an environment that seems good at first but is toxic once you are embedded in it. People often report it being a “weight off their shoulders” once they get out of these companies.
10. Lack of Responsibility – Individual psychopaths are irresponsible and immature, and psychopathic companies can also be this way in a different context. Do not expect any vocational or charitable ventures, or any “doing good for the world” from a toxic company, or if there is, it is purely for PR purposes.
They may also engage in fraud, misappropriation of employee/pension money, deceptive advertising, and illegal pollution without a second thought, and with a brazen confidence that they’ll get away with it or be able to lie their way through it. If caught and exposed, there will be carefully crafted public statements about how “deeply sorry” they are by those affected, and that it will “never happen again”. The general company culture remains every bit as toxic as before, and the behavior may even continue, just more cleverly concealed this time.
NB. We left out the last two traits of the PCL – Early behavior problems and adult antisocial behavior – because they relate more specifically to individual psychopaths and are harder to draw up to a macro level company equivalent. See our article on the Psychopathy Checklist Traits for more detail.
The Wolf of Wall Street film is a perfect depiction of a company that appears fun loving and hedonistic, but is really psychopathic and toxic.
Some More Common Features of Psychopathic Organizations/Companies
We have put together a quick checklist of some characteristics to watch out for which may suggest that you are working (or about to work for) a psychopathic company.
Again none of these individually are enough to know for sure, but several in conjunction may suggest that a company has started to take on psychopathic traits:
- A high concentration of employees in the company with strong psychopathic or Cluster B personality traits. Much higher prevalence than the 1-4% in the general population. Dark Triad Traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism) is another good way of defining these toxic characteristics.
- A good number of the remaining employees, even if they aren’t fully psychopathic, are poor quality, apathetic, easily influenced people, who will not stand up for what’s right, nor call the toxic culture out for what it is.
- The above two factors will often combine to create the sociopath-empath-apath dynamic, where psychopaths/narcissists play apathetic bystanders off against high quality, empathic people who try to stand up to them. An extremely common dynamic in psychopathic companies.
- The line(s) of work or the company has no vocational or charitable aspects whatsoever – it is purely commercial. This is most definitely NOT a telltale aspect on it’s own as many commercial companies exist which are not psychopathic. However it is a red flag in combination with some of the other factors listed.
- The culture of the company is purely profit seeking to an extreme fixated degree with little or no consideration for more intangible factors such as treatment of workers, quality of life and morality and ethics.
- Watch out also for a culture of moral relativism coming from mid and upper levels – clever sounding management-speak like “There’s no right or wrong answer, as long as you can justify it”, which actually opens the door for workplace psychopaths and narcissists to just do whatever they like and get away with it. Be careful in companies with this relativistic outlook and a lack of true principles and “lines in the sand”.
- There is a strong power-fixated (“master-slave”) psychological dynamic that runs throughout all levels of the company. Upper management treat mid level managers harshly, who in turn treat lower level managers harshly, who in turn treat ground level staff harshly. Everyone is a slave, and so treats the people below them like a slave.
- The line of work exploits, mistreats or has contempt for it’s customers, often preying on despair and destitution. Betting, gambling and pawnbroking are particularly bad industries on this front.
- The line of work requires morality or ethics to be somewhat numbed out or suspended. This relates to the above point and is especially important as psychopaths will naturally gravitate towards this type of work as it already fits their psychological disposition.
- There is high staff turnover in the company or the industry in general.
- Related to this, very lax or nonexistent hiring practices, with no real character vetting or reference checking. Often ties into the other point of high staff turnover – constantly need new staff, so aren’t bothered about the character of the people being taken on. Becomes a self repeating cycle as the workforce quality and turnover continues to worsen.
- There is a common pattern of relief among people who leave the company – you commonly hear feedback like “It’s the best thing I ever did”, “It’s a weight off my shoulders”, or “It’s like getting out of prison”.
- There is a culture of backstabbing, division and people throwing their colleagues under the bus in the company. It is difficult to trust anyone.
- There is no respect at all for privacy and confidentiality. Information which should be kept confidential regarding employees and/or customers is routinely disclosed in conversations. Unprofessional behavior is ingrained into the culture and is seen to be “normal”. Often a tone-deafness and inappropriateness to how situations are handled.
- Gas-lighting – the invalidation of perception – is rampant in the company. Genuine concerns and common sense observations about unacceptable or unprofessional behavior are routinely shrugged off and dismissed. Management are more concerned with “being right” and coming up with a clever answer for everything rather than addressing genuine concerns and creating a good culture.
- There is rampant hypocrisy and double standards within the company culture, with certain “in” people allowed to pretty much get away with what they want without censure, whilst others are ruthlessly cracked down on for much lesser infringements. The rules are not applied consistently and often the more psychopathic members of staff are the ones allowed to get away with more.
- An overall culture of “looking the other way” – tolerating unprofessional conduct from certain workers because they are seen as “good for the business”. An extreme “ends justify the means” approach.
- On top of all this, a constant series of excuses, rationalizations and “clever” answers from management to justify all these toxic cultural patterns. Individual psychopaths are always trying to make excuses for their behavior, and psychopathic companies are exactly the same.
- You generally observe a lack of worker satisfaction and reports of poor treatment of staff are common, from within and/or outside the company. Employer review sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor are excellent resources to get feedback about employers from.
- Note – none of these characteristics on their own is a clear giveaway of a psychopathic company; you are looking for a clustering of these traits. That said, these factors usually aren’t isolated and usually do hang together much of the time.
Dr Robert Hare on Psychopathic Organizations
Why Do Companies Start To Take on Psychopathic Traits?
The most obvious explanation for why certain companies grow toxic in their culture is that it all starts at the top. A founder or leader of a company will normally reflect their mindset and values (if they have any) down to the middle and lower levels of the company, so if they are psychopathic and have little or no morals or conscience then expect this mindset to permeate down to all levels of the company.
You will often find here a “win at all costs” mentality and relentless drive for profit with no care for other things such as staff welfare and work-life balance.
Of course there is nothing necessarily wrong with making money and that is what businesses are set up to do, but the way a company makes money and the way it treats people along the way are also important if any kind of morality and ethics are to enter the equation.
Alternatively, the owner may not be psychopathic but has ceded much of the day to day control and running of the company to mid and upper level managers who do embody psychopathic traits.
In these cases an owner may lose sight of his original company values if he is not sufficiently involved anymore in the running of the business and just delegates it to others, and the culture and environment there degrade accordingly.
However it occurs though, psychopathic companies cannot exist without psychopathic individuals in their midst. Whether they were there all along or they slowly made their way into the company, once they are there then a psychopathic mindset will permeate down all the layers of the company, in hiring practices, procedures, the way people are treated and so on.
Company cultures often begin at the top and if the CEO or owner has a psychopathic personality, this will trickle down to all the lower layers and permeate the entire organization.
Spotting Psychopathic Company Cultures (Some Red Flags)
It’s best to get ahead of the damage being in a psychopathic workplace can do to us, by instead being proactively on guard and watching out for (and NOT denying or ignoring) clear red flags that a company culture is toxic.
Here are some clear warning signs to watch out for, in addition to what we covered above:
- In general, remember that psychopathic individuals cannot survive and prosper long term in a company unless it’s culture is also psychopathic. These individuals can pull the wool over people’s eyes initially, but any company with any kind of healthy culture will spot and remove these people eventually, because they cause too much damage.
- Therefore, if you’re seeing sociopathic/narcissistic individuals firmly ensconced into a company, having been there for years, with their toxic behavior tolerated and even encouraged, it’s a huge red flag and a sign that things aren’t going to change.
- You may find yourself thinking “I shouldn’t have even ever MET this person. The inappropriate way they behave, they should have been long gone before I even started, yet they’ve been here for years”. HUGE red flag you should take note of.
- Watch for how people are treated in general in the company. Management shouting down the phone at staff, constant tit-for-tat between lower and mid-managers, unsympathetic treatment and arrogance and “cleverness” from management are red flags. Even if you’re not on the receiving end of this treatment right away (even toxic companies can have a “honeymoon” period for newbies), but are observing others being treated poorly, take note.
- Remember also that psychopathic individuals will NEVER leave a psychopathic company of their own free choice. It’s a rare corner of the world where their abnormal behavior is overlooked and even gets them ahead. So never expect them to move on.
If you’re noticing these or other red flags that a company has a psychopathic culture, which seems to accommodate toxic people very well instead of getting rid of them, think very carefully about whether this is a company you want to be in long term.
Once you see the warning signs, it’s best to be intentional and make plans to get out and find a better employer as soon as possible. These companies almost always do not change and instead often get worse over time, so don’t sit around waiting for things to improve when they won’t. Take control of your work life back and move on to a better company.
How to Stop a Company Taking On Psychopathic Traits
If a company has already crossed the line from being an otherwise good company with a few “bad eggs”, to being a full blown psychopathic organization, then there isn’t much hope in achieving any reform, and these companies sometimes collapse from within with their own corruption anyway.
However, for companies that have not reached this point of having an irreversibly toxic culture, there are some things to do to prevent this happening and to prevent the general culture from becoming “psychopathized”
Here are some suggestions:
1. Understand Cluster B personality disorders – Training on the so called Dramatic or Cluster B personality disorders (most specifically the psychopathic and narcissistic personalities) should form part of the training of middle and upper management.
If the company is already psychopathic then there is no point in doing this, since most the middle and upper managers will probably have these traits themselves, but for healthy work cultures, educating your high quality managers and executives on these personality types – what motivates them and how to spot them – can be a crucial first step in stopping them infesting your company.
Our article on the Psychopathy Checklist Traits is a good place to start for understanding the psychopathic personality.
2. The “Quality of People” Principle – Simply aim to get good quality people in your workforce. Sounds like common sense, but many companies have turned their hiring and promotion processes into a pure competency test in an extreme sense, with a 100% focus on whether someone can do a job, and zero focus on general character traits like decency, empathy, honesty, integrity, treatment of others etc.
Take this approach and you leave the door open for psychopaths to “smooth talk” their way into a company and bed themselves in, turning the culture toxic as they gain more power over others.
Following simple processes, like always doing thorough character and reference checks before taking on new people, will often weed out these personality types, since they always leave a trail of wreckage and destruction behind them in both their work and personal lives if you dig deep enough and aren’t taken in by their initial glib charm and charisma.
3. Differentiate True High Performers vs Psychopaths – It is crucial for companies to implement screening criteria to separate out the true high quality employees from the psychopaths, who merely mimic these workers and parasitically feed off their efforts.
This way, you can tell whether someone really is contributing towards the success of the company, or whether they are just hiding in among the high performers and taking credit for their work, while secretly undermining those they see as a threat.
See our article on screening for workplace psychopaths for more on this.
4. Be Careful With Promotions – The psychopathic personality is obsessed with gaining power and control over others. Therefore it is very important to take the vetting process for promotions seriously and thoroughly assess the character (not just the competency) of those being promoted.
Are they progressing out of a genuine desire to grow, help the company and provide for their families? Or is the promotion all about seeking more power, influence and the opportunity to dominate and control others?
Does the person succeed whilst also supporting others, or do they see life as a zero sum game, where for them to win, others must lose and be trampled on? Be very careful in assessing the mindset and character traits of those you promote.
In this vein, all staff at the area/regional/MD management level must have strong character traits, with good assertiveness skills to deal with any difficulties, BUT also balanced off with strong empathy and a lack of toxic personality traits like narcissism and sociopathy which leave them open to treating others badly. They must have a balanced healthy, proportional ego, with appropriate assertiveness BUT also not too big an ego, since those with oversized egos are generally very easily manipulated and “played off” against others by troublemakers (see the sociopath-empath-apath triad). Get the right people in these positions and a positive culture will flow down; get the wrong people in and a toxic culture will flow down.
5. Cluster B’s as Provocative – Another crucial thing for weeding out psychopaths is to understand that they are fundamentally provocative and reaction seeking personality types. They are looking to provoke reactions from others and smear them based on these reactions. Understand this and you understand one of their main manipulative tricks.
Stamping out this kind of behavior and removing overly dramatic and trouble-making people from your workforce is crucial in keeping the culture healthily.
See our article on the main ways psychopaths manipulate and cause trouble in the workplace for more on this and other common tactics they use to stir trouble.
6. Amend Your Conduct/Disciplinary Policies – Another good thing to do is to write your workplace conduct policies in such a way that they incorporate in very precise language so many of the common manipulative tactics psychopaths use to cause trouble in work. That way you can pin down their often covert and sneaky trouble-making tactics and escalate disciplinary procedure to manage them out of the company.
See our article on a draft workplace conduct policy for a conversation starter on some things we suggest including in your conduct policy to protect against psychopaths.
7. Do Not Tolerate Psychopaths – This is the last and most crucial general point. Do not tolerate psychopaths in your workplace, no matter how expedient or useful they may seem in the short term. They are only ever bad for a company long term, as they relentlessly scheme, play politics and manipulate as they seek to cement their own position and drive out anyone they see as a threat.
Continue to tolerate these toxic personality types in your organization, and you’ll find the overall quality of your workforce declining as they undermine, set up and drive out good workers so they can progress un-threatened, whilst they bring little or nothing to the table in terms of real talent themselves.
Some Academic Studies on Corporate Psychopathy
For business executives and academics wanting to look into this issue of psychopathy in organizations, there have been some studies done on this subject.
See these studies involving Dr Robert Hare and Paul Babiak on the effects of corporate psychopathy:
- Corporate Psychopathy Study 1 (2010)
- Corporate Psychopathy Study 2 (2012)
- Corporate Psychopathy Study 3 (2013)
Other Resources On Psychopathy In Companies
Here are some links to other books, films and documentaries which also cover the issue of companies taking on psychopathic traits:
- Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon is the definitive resource on psychopaths in the workplace, providing a definitive breakdown of the traits, signs and tactics of the workplace psychopath. Highly recommended reading.
- The Corporation (2003) – An excellent documentary that specifically addresses the issue of companies acting like psychopaths in detail. Not available yet on Amazon Video or Netflix, but can be rented on Vimeo.
- See also the Fishead Documentary on psychopathy, which also covers in detail the issue of corporate psychopathy and has in depth interviews with Dr Robert Hare and Paul Babiak.