Wolves at Work: Do “Corporate Psychopaths” Exist?

Wolf copy

In the film Training Day, Denzel Washington’s character—a senior police officer—informs his new recruit that, in this world, you can either be a wolf or a sheep, “and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf”.

One of the leading experts in the study of psychopathy, Robert Hare, described psychopaths as “intra-species predators”. The most wolf-like sheep. The predators who use charm, manipulation, or violence against other human beings to meet their own needs. They’re often skilled at justifying their behaviour to others: For example, the criminal justice system doesn’t work when police follow procedure at the expense of catching the criminals. A sheep can’t catch a wolf. You have to “get a little dirt on you for people to trust you”.

Another defining characteristic is that they are often charismatic. Their carefree lifestyle can sometimes seem appealing. They can be highly skilled at telling people what they want to hear and even making them feel good about themselves. They could even be the kind of person you meet at a party and want to see more often. Of course, if you scratch even slightly below the surface, you’ll see beneath the sheep’s clothing and get a peek at the wolf beneath.

Pyschopathy may well be the personality disorder that is most well known (infamous?) among the general population, and yet least understood. Firstly, let’s cover some common misunderstandings:

Common Misunderstandings about Psychopathy

  1. Childhood bed-wetting is not a risk factor for becoming a psychopath
  2. The term “sociopath” is generally considered to be outdated and is not used by contemporary forensic psychologists or other professionals in the field
  3. Starting fires during childhood is not necessarily a risk factor for becoming a psychopath
  4. Not all mass-murderers are psychopaths
  5. The corporate world is not full of psychopaths

The Corporate Psychopath

Regarding that last point, it’s been proposed that this myth has probably been more pervasive in recent times as a result of an innate tendency in most of us to want to make sense of the unethical behaviour carried-out by some corporate workers preceding the global financial crisis. The popularity of this myth may also have something to do with the fact that the small number of psychopaths who can hold down corporate jobs are more likely to cause more than their fare share of destruction. Therefore, while they may be small in number, they may also be prolific in their impact.

So, why don’t we see more of them in high-powered corporate jobs? As you’ll see below, the “prototypical” psychopath experiences difficulty sticking to routine, resisting exciting stimulation, and often neglects commitments and responsibilities. These personality traits mean that psychopaths, in most cases, would not fare well within a corporate environment. Most jobs require you to have enough self-discipline to arrive consistently on-time, follow-through on promises, and meet expectations.

How Common Are Psychopaths in the Corporate World?

A recent study indicates that between 3% and 4% of corporate workers met criteria for a diagnosis of psychopathy. This is higher than the general accepted figure of 1% in the community, but still significantly lower than the figure of 13.8% – 26% (depending on where the research was conducted) we see among male offenders.

Help Me, My Boss is a Psychopath

So, what if you’re one of the unlucky ones? What if your co-worker or, worse, your boss is one of those 3% – 4%.

Firstly, this is something that is very difficult to determine. For a number of reasons—not least of which is the fact that people with these traits don’t often like to advertise them—even the best people in the field make mistakes, even under ideal circumstances, when diagnosing people with psychopathy.

The Psychopath in Us

Secondly, to some degree, many of the personality traits that constitute psychopathy show up in normal healthy people under certain circumstances. The famous Stanford prison experiment was conducted (along with a number of experiments around that time) in order to find answers to the question of why Nazi soldiers engaged in the kind of horrific behaviour common during World War II. Did only people without a sense of morality sign up for these roles? The experiment found similar results to other experiments in this area (see Milgram’s experiment): Normal people are capable of essentially ignoring their usual “moral compass” under certain circumstances (especially when instructed to do so by a person who appears to be of some authority).

Even under normal circumstances, people can demonstrate behaviour that, on the face of it, might seem to be an example of the below described personality traits of psychopathy. Have you ever felt “compassion fatigue” in relation to something (e.g., constant calls for charity) or someone for whom you knew you were “meant to” feel empathy? Have you ever bragged to somebody? Have you ever lied for personal gain? The difference is that these factors show up much less consistently and to a lesser degree in the general population. In other words, finding some examples of the below described behaviour is not evidence that somebody is a psychopath.

The Four Facets of Psychopathy


Psychopathy Diagram

So, here’s what to look out for. Psychopaths generally exhibit a cluster of personality traits that fit under two main factors: Affective (meaning emotional traits) and Behavioural. There are two components, or facets, of the Affective factor: Interpersonal, which consists of traits related to their style of interaction with other people, and Affective, which consists of traits related to the different way that they experience emotions (or a lack there of) in comparison to non-psychopaths. The Behavioural factor also consists of two facets: the Lifestyle facet, which taps into impulsive behaviour and a tendency to neglect commitments, and the Antisocial facet, which taps into crime and behaviour generally considered unacceptable in the community.


The Two Factors and Four Facets of Psychopathy (Hare, 2005)

Affective (Factor 1)

Behavioural (Factor 2)


Affective Lifestyle


Smooth interpersonal style Less impacted by emotional experiences Neglects commitments and responsibilities Antisocial behaviour, often distressing to others
Ability to manipulate others Their actions contradict any claims to care about those close to them Difficulty resisting exciting opportunities and stimulation Not necessarily associated with criminal behaviour


Difficulty sticking to routines


What Can I Do?

In most cases, treatment doesn’t “fix” people diagnosed with psychopathy. Depending on the kind of treatment, it can actually make them better at being psychopaths. In group treatment, psychopaths see the way normal people demonstrate normal emotions and become better at imitating them. However, their behaviour can be improved with newer treatments that focus on the benefit to them associated with living a “pro-social” lifestyle. Short of this kind of treatment, the only real advice is to avoid such people at all costs.