A recently published meta-analysis investigates whether people with psychopathic traits are more successful in business. The researchers conclude that, when it comes to the sexes, the playing field is most definitely not even.

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How common are psychopathic traits in corporations?

According to some media outlets, individuals who are successful in corporations are highly likely to have psychopathic traits.

Specifically, they are thought to assert dominance over others, act impulsively, and lack empathy.

In reality, studies that have looked into the relationship between psychopathy and success have reached less firm conclusions. There is no consensus of scientific opinion, and the debate continues.

Recently, scientists from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, AL, and Iowa State University in Ames, IA, decided to re-analyze existing data to get a clearer understanding of psychopathy in the workplace. Do people in corporate leadership positions display more psychopathic traits?

The authors of the current study were particularly interested in understanding “the association between psychopathic personality characteristics and leadership emergence, leadership effectiveness, and transformational leadership.”

In short, they wanted to know whether psychopathic traits help an individual to emerge as a leader and whether these traits make a successful leader.

For the study, they re-analyzed data from 92 existing datasets and published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology under the title: “Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership.”

At first glance, the results were relatively inconclusive, but in the expected direction. The authors explain that, although correlations were weak, people with psychopathic tendencies were more likely to emerge as leaders, but that people with these traits were slightly less likely to be effective leaders.

Overall, although there is no positive or negative relation to a company’s bottom line when psychopathic tendencies are present in organizational leaders, their subordinates will still hate them.”

Study author, Dr. Peter Harms

He continues, “So we can probably assume they behave in a manner that is noxious and whatever threats they make to ‘motivate’ workers don’t really pay off.”

When the researchers dug into the data a little deeper, they unearthed some interesting differences between the sexes.

They found that psychopathic traits help men appear effective; conversely, people perceive psychopathic characteristics in women much more negatively. The authors write:

“This is likely because women displaying psychopathic behaviors are viewed as violating not only general gender norms […], but also those associated with female leaders.”

According to the lead author, Karen Landay, “The existence of this double standard is certainly disheartening. I can imagine that women seeking corporate leadership positions getting told that they should emulate successful male leaders who display psychopathic tendencies. But these aspiring female leaders may then be unpleasantly surprised to find that their own outcomes are not nearly as positive.”

As this sex difference is a new discovery, researches will need to do much more work to tease out the nuances.

The authors also discuss some limitations of the current study; for example, they based their analysis on a relatively small number of empirical studies. Another limitation they mention is the lack of a standard way to measure psychopathy, making it difficult to compare results between studies.

Also, in most of the studies that they analyzed, the leaders’ success was rated by subjective measures; it would be interesting to see whether an objective measure — such as financial success — would have altered the results.

In the meantime, according to Dr. Harms, “We should be more aware of and less tolerant of bad behavior in men. It is not OK to lie, cheat, steal, and hurt others whether it is in the pursuit of personal ambition, organizational demands, or just for fun.”