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The psychopathic consequence of a bad boss

If you’re succeeding under a bullying boss who berates and belittles you, it may reveal something unflattering about your own personality.

According to a new study in the Journal of Business Ethics, psychopaths have a natural advantage in workplaces overrun by abusive supervision, and are more likely to thrive under these terrible kind of bosses.

Study: Psychopaths flourish under abusive bosses

When many of us think of psychopaths, we may picture Christian Bale’s chilling portrayal as serial killer, Patrick Bateman, in the movie “American Psycho.” In real life, psychopathy is a stable personality trait that is partly based on hereditary factors, the study’s lead author Charlice Hurst, assistant professor of management in Notre Dame, told Ladders. It is primarily characterized by a lack of empathy, a skill with superficial, insincere charm, and fearlessness.

Being a psychopath is not good for the betterment of society, but it can be advantageous for your job when your boss is abusive. To determine abusive supervision, participants in one survey were asked to answer to what extent their boss acted abusive, answering items with “Ridicules me,” “Reminds me of my past mistakes and failures,” and “Is rude to me.” The study found that employees with high levels of psychopathy showed higher levels of engagement at work than employees with low levels of psychopathy under abusive bosses. These psychopathic employees were more likely to feel energized and inspired working for an abusive boss. Under normal supervision, psychopathic employees reported feeling less engaged.

Citing research that found psychopaths “are generally resistant to stress, including interpersonal abuse, and seem to have less of a need for positive relationships than others,” the study’s findings suggest that psychopaths might have the resources to keep going under abusive conditions that would hold back other people. Psychopaths do not feel the same need for belonging that others do, so when abusive bosses threaten that, they can keep working unaffected.

To root out psychopaths, change needs to start from the top

Hunt says “you can’t reverse psychopathy” once you have it, but as an employer, you can at least stop the behavior that is enabling and rewarding its success in the workplace. To root out psychopaths in the office, change needs to begin with stopping organizations from creating toxic environments where bullying bosses can act out on their teams.

“The question is whether the organization’s leaders really want to see what is happening and whether they are inclined to make changes if their culture is toxic. Research suggests that much of what makes supervisors abusive is due to the organization,” Hurst told Ladders. “When bosses are under severe stress because of factors like unrealistic demands and unfair procedures, it may result in bad behavior toward their subordinates.

“So it makes sense to ask not what employees should do about their abusive supervisor, but what the organization is willing to do to reduce the likelihood of supervisors being abusive.”

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