Blog: So You Work for an Ax Murderer — Now What?


Have you ever had that feeling that your boss, manager, or supervisor might actually have bodies buried under their house?

Recent studies have shown that your feelings of uneasiness may be not just the product of an active imagination, but tied to some deeply rooted sociopathic traits in a number of business leaders.

As someone who has worked for a few sociopaths over the years, I can tell you that these types of leaders are real, dangerous, and thrive in a business setting.

In one study, psychologist and executive coach Paul Babiak found that one in 25 business leaders are psychopaths — a rate that’s four times greater than in the general population.

Babiak studied more than 200 American corporate professionals who were chosen by their companies to participate in a management-training program. He evaluated their psychopathic traits using a version of the standard psychopathy checklist developed by Robert Hare, an expert in psychopathy at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

If you have to deal with a leader in the workplace who is overbearing, insecure, and unpredictable, it’s important to know what psycho/sociopathic traits align with this person’s behavior.

Hare is the creator of the Psychopathy Checklist, a 20-item personality evaluation that is the standard tool for making clinical diagnoses of psychopaths. Hare has broken down the 20 personality characteristics into two subsets, or factors.

Corporate sociopaths score high on Factor 1 traits and lower on Factor 2 characteristics, which include:

Factor 1

Facet 1: Interpersonal

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative

Facet 2: Affective

  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Emotionally shallow
  • Callous/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

These same individuals score much lower on Factor 2 traits, which are usually reserved for the criminals (e.g. ax murderers):

Factor 2

Facet 3: Lifestyle

  • Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  • Parasitic lifestyle
  • Lack of realistic, long-term goals
  • Impulsivity
  • Irresponsibility

Facet 4: Antisocial

  • Poor behavioral controls
  • Early behavioral problems
  • Juvenile delinquency
  • Revocation of conditional release
  • Criminal versatility

Other characteristics from the checklist that impact both groups are short-term marital relationships and promiscuous sexual behavior.

Now, just because your boss has some of these traits doesn’t make him/her a full-fledged psychopath. But if you’re seeing a number of these traits align with their natural behaviors and attitudes, well, you might want to keep your guard up.

What is so fascinating (and frightening) about these studies is that these same psychopathic traits are the very ones that dictate success for certain leaders. This means that the very anti-social behaviors that are making your life miserable are the same ones that are driving this person’s success in business!

An article in Fast Company magazine points out that:

“There’s evidence that the business climate has become even more hospitable to psychopaths in recent years. In pioneering long-term studies of psychopaths in the workplace, Paul Babiak focused on a half-dozen unnamed companies: One was a fast-growing high-tech firm, and the others were large multinationals undergoing dramatic organizational changes — severe downsizing, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and joint ventures. That’s just the sort of corporate tumult that has increasingly characterized the U.S. business landscape in the last couple of decades. And just as wars can produce exciting opportunities for murderous psychopaths to shine (think of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic), Babiak found that these organizational shake-ups created a welcoming environment for the corporate killer. “The psychopath has no difficulty dealing with the consequences of rapid change; in fact, he or she thrives on it,” Babiak claims. “Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.”

The message here is two-fold. It’s important to realize that there is a very real chance that some of the business leaders in your organization have psychopathic traits. It is equally important that you know what to do about it.

Jon Ronson notes in his book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, that:

“Psychopaths succeed in conventional society in large measure because few of us grasp that they are fundamentally different from ourselves. We assume that they, too, care about other people’s feelings. This makes it easier for them to “play” us. Although they lack empathy, they develop an actor’s expertise in evoking ours. While they don’t care about us, “they have an element of emotional intelligence, of being able to see our emotions very clearly and manipulate them,” says Michael Maccoby, a psychotherapist who has consulted for major corporations.”

Having run into these individuals myself both personally and professionally, I have found that they either view you as an asset or a liability. To a psychopath, you are not a human being, you are an object. To them, the difference between you and the chair you’re sitting in is what is more useful to them at any given moment.

If you are an asset, they will need to control you. If you are a liability, they will need to destroy you. Either way, you lose.

The best you can hope for is to buy some time until you can get out from under their sphere of influence. You will never make an impact, change their mind, or affect their behavior. They are hard-wired to dominate and control every situation. Remember, these people are emotionally unfettered, and unless you’re willing to go to the same depths of deceit and subterfuge as them, it’s best to plan your own exit strategy.

After all, who sleeps soundly knowing an ax murderer lives next door?

Joseph F. Bastian is the managing partner of Folkteller Publishing, a company that creates storytelling experiences through print, graphics, animation, and film. He is a regular contributor to and DBusiness Daily News.