Should we all be a bit psychopathic at work?

By Tim Bowler
Business reporter, BBC News

Angry manager
Image caption,
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.

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.

"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.

Image caption,
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

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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