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Your CEO is not a psychopath

There’s been a lot of talk lately about psychopaths in the workplace. Sounds a bit scary, doesn’t it? Well let’s be clear; firstly we are not talking about the Ted Bundy’s of the world – no one is saying you have a serial killer sitting at the next desk. What many of these articles are talking about are the traits of people that are often related to psychopathy. What we think is important, first and foremost, is to define what ‘psychopath’ actually means.

One of the most widely used tools to assess psychopathy, Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), is performed by measuring where an individual sits on scales such as grandiosity, callousness, manipulation and irresponsibility. We all probably have varying tendencies in these areas, which is an interesting thing to consider here. But are we all ‘psychopaths’? We doubt it.

The recent discussion around workplace ‘psychopaths’ has been largely negative, and understandably so; there is a perception that these people tend to be bullies, not care about the suffering of others (or in fact enjoy it), display a lack of guilt around decision making, and exhibit dominating and controlling behaviour. And certainly these types of behavioural patterns shouldn’t be tolerated. However it’s not all bad news here, and there are a couple of important points to consider in order to effectively manage different personality types; even those that might seem… extreme.

Remember that psychopathy is measured by personality traits that

1), we are all on the scale of to some degree; and

2), are dynamic.

Dynamic means changeable. For example, let’s say an individual who is typically measured, sensible and thoughtful suddenly acts spontaneously by booking a ticket to Europe because they have always wanted to visit Paris. Are they acting highly impulsively, perhaps irresponsibly? Maybe.  Does that make them a psychopath? No. But let’s consider someone who does consistently exhibit some of those traits typically associated with ‘being a psychopath’; they are usually charming, influential, firm decisions makers, and able to make the tough calls with little remorse. Sound familiar? Perhaps like a manager you might know? According to Kevin Dutton, author of ‘The Wisdom of Psychopaths’, the top jobs that attract these types of people include CEO, Surgeon, Lawyer, and Salesperson.  Which makes sense really, because to be successful in these roles the person does need to be influential, and confident in making the tough decisions. Someone who’s low on the scale of these traits is going to have difficulty reading the needs of others, have a hard time effecting change, and is likely to sit on the fence or procrastinate when it comes to decision making. And that probably won’t make for a good CEO right?

So let’s be clear about what we’re really talking about here; this is about personality traits, not serial killers. Your CEO might be good at making hard-hitting business decisions, but they’re probably not going to kill you. However what this does highlight is that people have different personality types, work preferences, strengths and weaknesses. For businesses this is actually great news. You want a team of people working with you that bring different things to the table and from whom you can learn; after all it’s only when we’re learning that we’re truly growing. To get the most out of your staff, employees need to be treated as individuals. Not psychopaths.

So the trick for HR Managers and business owners is two fold. Firstly, you need to have the right person in the right job. Someone who is a good CEO is probably going to make a lousy primary school teacher, and vice versa, and this largely comes down to the types of personality traits that would be required to be successful in these roles. Knowing what qualities are important to succeed in a role is particularly critical at the recruitment stage; by targeting your interview questions so that they probe behaviours that demonstrate those important traits means that you will get the right person for the job – not just because they have the right experience, but because they have the right personality type.

Secondly you need to embrace and encourage those traits and behaviours that are positive and curb the ones you don’t. This comes down to common sense. Obviously you don’t want to tell a CEO to be less influential, or less confident when making hard decisions. But perhaps they need help to interact with their employees with more empathy and warmth, and assistance with seeing why this is important and working out how to do this.

Here at HR Gurus, we don’t really do ‘scary.’ And we know that headlines such as ‘you’re working with a psychopath’ can be pretty frightening. But really this is just about different personality types working together, and supporting people to work in roles that are consistent with their natural personality traits and strengths, so they can perform at their best. It’s so rewarding to see people working in a job that you can just see is what they were born to do.

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