Corporate leaders do not tend to have substantially higher levels of psychopathic tendencies, according to a meta-analysis from the American Psychological Association. However, there is a critical gender difference: Men with psychopathic tendencies were more likely to become leaders and were rated as more effective leaders.
The seemingly never-ending stream of corporate scandals over the past decades, suggests that something is rotten in corporate leaders. Many place the blame on psychopaths, who are characteristically superficially charming but lack empathy, anxiety, or any sense of blame or guilt.
While the term “psychopathy” may bring to mind violent criminals, individuals with psychopathic tendencies are not uncommon and tend to frequently engage in bad, but not necessarily criminal, activities – think Gordon Gekko, not Hannibal Lecter. In the business context, psychopathic tendencies appear as a constellation of personality traits such as boldness, meanness, and disinhibition. Any given person may possess these traits to some degree.
To some extent, psychopathic tendencies might be good for leaders in moderation. After all, we often need leaders who can make the tough decisions. The wrong combination of these traits, however, could have dire consequences. At some point, these individuals may tip from being assertive to being a bully.
To investigate the effects of psychopathic tendencies among those in leadership positions, Karen Landay, PD Harms and Credé, Marcus systematically surveyed the scientific evidence collected to date using meta-analysis. The authors also re-analysed the results of several prior studies.
The researchers located 92 independent samples containing data on people’s psychopathic tendencies and (1) whether they became leaders and (2) how their performance as leaders was rated by themselves or others. Results showed that individuals with psychopathic tendencies were slightly more likely to become leaders, but were less likely to be seen as effective leaders. This was especially true when ratings were made by their followers.
Subsequent analyses uncovered a critical gender difference within these results. Men with psychopathic tendencies were more likely to become leaders and were rated as more effective leaders. However, women who displayed psychopathic tendencies were less likely to be selected as leaders and were rated as less effective leaders.
The overall findings also showed small curvilinear effects. Compared to those with low or high levels of psychopathic tendencies, people with moderate levels were more likely to be rated as effective leaders.
Taken together, the results do not support the idea that corporate leaders tend to have substantially higher levels of psychopathic tendencies. Although higher levels of psychopathic tendencies may provide a small advantage in attaining leadership positions, the researchers found no evidence suggesting that most, or even many, corporate leaders are psychopaths.
Of greater potential concern is the gender difference, which occurred along stereotypical lines. Acting in a psychopathic manner seemed to provide an advantage for men, but a disadvantage for women.
This has two important implications. First, these findings contribute to the growing evidence that bad behaviour by males in the workplace is too often tolerated or dismissed, and that this can have long-term detrimental effects for organisations. Second, advice given to women in the workplace to act more “male-like” in order to get ahead is likely to backfire.
Both scholars and the popular press have expressed concern regarding the potential prevalence of individuals with psychopathic tendencies in corporate leadership positions and the negative effects they may have on both individual workers and their organizations as a whole. However, research to date has been inconclusive as to whether such individuals are more likely to emerge as leaders or whether they are (in)effective leaders. To clarify the state of the literature, we conducted a meta-analysis on the association between psychopathic personality characteristics and leadership emergence, leadership effectiveness, and transformational leadership. Our results, based on data from 92 independent samples, showed a weak positive correlation for psychopathic tendencies and leadership emergence, a weak negative association for psychopathic tendencies and leadership effectiveness, and a moderate negative correlation for psychopathic tendencies and transformational leadership. Subgroup analyses on methodological factors did not indicate any differences from the main results. However, moderator analyses showed a gender difference in these associations such that psychopathic tendencies in men were weakly positively correlated with leadership emergence and effectiveness and negatively correlated with transformational leadership, while psychopathic tendencies in women were negatively associated with effectiveness and transformational leadership, and largely unassociated with emergence. In addition, small but consistent curvilinear associations were found for all leadership criteria. Overall, these results suggest that concern over psychopathic tendencies in organizational leaders may be overblown, but that gender can function to obscure real effects.
Karen Landay, PD Harms, Credé, Marcus