Should we all be a bit psychopathic at work?

Angry manager If this is your manager's normal behaviour, you may want to consider your career options

Most of us will probably think of psychopaths as dangerous knife-wielding maniacs who are better off behind bars.

But we've got it wrong, and contrary to our expectations, we could actually learn from psychopaths, argues Oxford University experimental psychologist Kevin Dutton.

"It's true, when psychologists like myself use the word psychopath, images of killers like Ted Bundy go flashing across most people's minds," he says.

Start Quote

"If your boss has a tendency to step on those beneath him but goes out of his way to impress those above him - it's time to move”

End Quote Kevin Dutton Psychologist

However, he argues that we could all benefit from sometimes being more ruthless, fearless, self-confident, focused, mentally tough, charming or charismatic - all of which are traits of a psychopath.

None of these is a problem in itself, he says, the danger comes when "all these traits are turned up too high, and that's when you start getting individuals who are dysfunctional".

"I am not glamorising violent criminal psychopaths," Prof Dutton points out, "because these guys completely devastate other people's lives."

In his new book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, he says that adopting certain psychopathic characteristics can help us improve our own performance in the workplace.

Psychopaths tend not to procrastinate or take things personally, "and they don't beat themselves up when things go wrong", he says.

"If you're putting in for a rise, you might feel a little anxious about doing that - what would happen if I don't get it, what would my boss think about me?

"Well, just have the courage of your convictions and go for it. Don't focus on the negatives, focus on the positives.

"By doing that it makes you more confident, and more likely to get what you want in the first place."

Psychopaths' professions

Even a lack of empathy with others - common among psychopaths - can be useful in certain jobs.


angry manager in meeting with subordinates
  • They have no qualms about manipulating your emotions
  • They see employees just as pieces on a chessboard
  • They will take the credit for your new ideas
  • They will happily lie to promote themselves
  • They are good at getting others to take the blame
  • They can be very charming - so long as it benefits them
  • They have charisma - but it comes with a chill factor

Source: Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths

"Imagine you've the skill set to be a great surgeon - but can't dissociate yourself emotionally from the person you're operating on," says Prof Dutton.

"One surgeon told me that as soon as you start thinking of that person as someone's wife or husband, you're beginning to walk an emotional tightrope.

"That's where dissociating yourself from people can predispose you to success."

People with these kinds of characteristics are often suited to any number of high profile roles, he argues - such as chief executives, lawyers or even journalists.

Politicians too, can often exhibit certain psychopathic traits.

"Successful politicians need to be remorseless at implementing policies in the face of opposition," says Prof Dutton.

"If you think of it, the most successful politician is someone who says what most people are thinking.

"They are brilliant at slipping into people's air space, they are psychopathic cat burglars."

'Bullies not psychopaths'

However, some other psychologists counter that psychopaths only account for about 1% of the general population, and to define them as Kevin Dutton does is too broad.

"It is wrong to describe these people as psychopaths - that's a clinical definition," says Prof Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University Management School.

Cartoon of a boss and three subordinates Bullying managers may gain personally - but only at the expense of those around them

"They are not going to kill anybody - but indirectly they can damage people because they are so focused on their own success and totally oblivious to the needs of others.

"It is basically an abrasive, bullying management style."

Yet setting aside the question of how psychopaths should be defined, Jonny Gifford, of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), agrees with Prof Dutton that we can learn from these behaviour traits.

"Many of us don't like organisational politics, but we need to be realistic, to recognise that sometimes there is a need to be politically wily.

"Sometimes there is a need to be tough. We just need to do that in a way which maintains integrity and is ethical."

Of course, the trick is knowing what is ethical in the first place.

"It's all very well saying you should work to your own values - but your values may stink," says Gifford.

Cut-throat people

Find out more

Cartoon of workers fighting

While those who are out only for themselves and not for their colleagues may bring short-term gains, in the long run they can prove problematic for organisations.

"They do very well, but the team suffers," says Jonny Gifford at the CIPD.

It is important to realise that there will always be cut-throat people within organisations, he says. From a company's point of view, the trick is to control this type of behaviour, to rein in some people so they don't damage the firm by their actions.

For his part, Kevin Dutton says that sometimes ruthlessness and a lack of empathy is exactly what a manager needs to run a big company.

"Imagine if you've got the strategic and financial nous to be a top businessman but you lack the ruthlessness to fire people who aren't pulling their weight, or the coolness under pressure to ride out a storm, you're never going to be a top captain of industry, are you?"

But for those who think they may have a boss with out-of-control psychopathic tendencies, he has this advice.

"If your boss has a tendency to step on those beneath him but goes out of his way to impress those above him - it's time to move."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    "If you want someone who can assess things dispassionately, then a psychopath is an obvious candidate."

    The psychopath has no internal interest in dissemination of truth.
    The psychopath will tell you what he thinks will make you do something in his interests. This is more-or-less what happens in organisations just before they are completely overun by disordered people. You are fooling yourself

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The bloke pictured above is not a psychopath, he's just seen whats open for comment on HYS, that's all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    This is an expansive topic but revolves aroung getting things done and reward.

    Google do a lot of good and have reached a phase of growth where they tangle with govt and economics. This is silly. Pay taxes, its a cost of doing business.

    This is so cool ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    It's long been known that psychopathy is a prevalent trait in managing directors, but that isn't really that surprising. If you want someone who can assess things dispassionately, then a psychopath is an obvious candidate.

    The problem comes if you are trying to create a compassionate society with psychopaths running the show; they'll never see the human cost as anything other than inconsequential

  • Comment number 92.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Psychopaths, people who are not aware of the damage they do to others around them by their words and deeds, People who take credit for the work of others, if that work is showing rewards. People who will blame anyone else for their failures by lying and manipulating figures to distort the truth. People who will use any means for their own gain at any cost. Sounds a bit like my last boss.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Psycho manager bully people below them in rank. Managers above them because they bow and scrape them in a way the would make anyone with any common sense laugh out loud. I am still shocked by how stupid and nasty manager really are, even decades after first finding out.

  • Comment number 89.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Psycopaths are manipulators and bullies and if you get one in your life space you can lose everything (Job,car,money in the bank,house even your mental health). No you cant spot one because they are operating at stealth frequency. Bullying at work should be made illegal by law and whistleblowing mandatary. Having empathy is a strenght.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I was in a meeting once when a colleague blatantly lied in front of everyone and claimed credit for my idea. I was so shocked, so utterly appalled that someone would do that, that I was speechless. Later he was promoted. I resigned, and now I'm my own boss. I refuse to work with people like that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    The other thing that strikes about pschopaths and their worth to society is how much creativity is totally alien usually to psychopaths, but how actually in science or the arts or business it's creativity that means innovation and ultimately a successful business. If all you want is money, status and material things you will probably neglect the long term success need of innovation & creativity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Ask any staff member of one of your high street banks who works for one ? Er, no ! These people cause untold misery to others on their way up the greasy pole. They don't give a **** about anyone except themselves, including customers, yet senior management love them because they 'get results'. (depends what result you want and how much you are prepared to pay for it)

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Talking about psychopaths... every other news outlet is carrying the story that MPs are likely to be awarding themselves a £10k to £20k pay rise, what does the Beeb have - a song contest.

    Still, just proves that 'austerity' is just an excuse to crush the poor. Not caring about the consequences of one's actions is a symptom of the psychopath.

  • Comment number 83.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    NOT the way@70
    "kept away"?

    Having institutionalised corruption, falling Esau-like to 'Competitive Freedom!' (the cry of those with 'advantage' - right or not - confidently in mind), we have surrendered our rule to be not 'Of, For, By, The Equal People', but by the ruthless-selfish - obligate AND facultative - all of us driven by some mix of fear & greed. Society & species ridden by blind Mammon

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    "Imagine if you've got the strategic and financial nous to be a top businessman but you lack the ruthlessness to fire people who aren't pulling their weight"

    This might be true, but a psychopath given control will likely fire the people who ARE pulling their weight and advance useless people who he has control over. Psychopathic people are effectively useless and destructive to any organisation

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I was only thinking about psychopathy the other day and then thinking about the current government and how much they have in common with general low lives and borderline criminal types. They both value money and material things above all else. they have little time for those who try to think about higher things. Being born with money as opposed to none just makes a social status difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Quote "Psychopaths tend not to procrastinate or take things personally, "and they don't beat themselves up when things go wrong", he says."

    No they tend to beat other staff up (mentally) when in a position of power. The Civil Service is full of them hence the terrible bullying record.

  • Comment number 78.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Ladies and gentlemen, for your entertainment we have:
    In the blue corner Prof Dutton and in the Red Corner, Prof Cooper.

    Prof Dutton says"We could all benefit from sometimes being more psychopathic"
    Prof Cooper says "It is wrong to describe these people as psychopaths - that's a clinical definition."

    Either one/both of them is wrong, both are correct or there is a split personality disorder.


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