One in 25 bosses may be psychopaths — a rate that’s four times greater than in the general population — according to research by psychologist and executive coach Paul Babiak.
Babiak studied 203 American corporate professionals who had been 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.
Psychopaths, who are characterized by being completely amoral and concerned only with their own power and selfish pleasures, may be overrepresented in the business environment because it plays to their strengths. Where greed is considered good and profitmaking is the most important value, psychopaths can thrive.
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They also tend to be charming and manipulative — and in corporate America, that easily passes for leadership. But, as the U.K.’s Guardian reported:
The survey suggests psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath, Babiak said.
In fact, it can be hard spot the psychopath in any crowd (according to Hare, psychopaths make up 1% of the general population). They’re not all ruthless serial killers; rather, psychopaths who grow up in happy, loving homes might end up channeling their energies in a less violent way — say, by becoming a CEO. “Psychopaths really aren’t the kind of person you think they are,” Babiak said.
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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.