Bad Bosses, Happy Psychopaths

Abusive managers could make psychopaths more productive.
Bad Bosses Happy Psychopaths

ASK MOST INDIVIDUALS if they would be happier working for abusive bosses, and it’s a good bet they’ll say “no.” Unless, that is, they are psychopaths, say management professors Charlice Hurst of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana; Lauren Simon of the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business in Fayetteville; Yongsuhk Jung of the Korea Air Force Academy in Cheongwon-gun, South Korea; and Dante Pirouz of Western University’s Ivey Business School in London, Ontario, Canada.

The researchers conducted two studies with 419 working adults. In the first, they gauged participants’ reactions to profiles of managers depicted as either constructive or abusive. While both high and low primary psychopathy participants exhibited equal anger at bad bosses, participants measuring high in primary psychopathy said they felt happier after imagining themselves working for an abusive manager.

In the second study, high-primary-psychopathy participants reported feeling less angry at, and more engaged by, bosses who exhibited abusive behaviors such as taking credit for the work of others. “People who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless,” says Hurst. “They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful, or angry.”

These findings serve as a warning to organizations that do not curtail the abusive behaviors of their managers, says Hurst. She points to Wells Fargo, where managers reportedly bullied employees into meeting unrealistic sales goals—so much so that employees opened millions of fraudulent accounts just to meet their quotas.

“Psychopaths thriving under abusive supervisors would be better positioned to get ahead of their peers,” says Hurst. Over time, organizations could lose low-primary-psychopathy employees and retain high-primary-psychopathy employees, which would eventually leave them “with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths.”

“Are ‘Bad’ Employees Happier Under Bad Bosses? Differing Effects of Abusive Supervision on Low and High Primary Psychopathy Employees” is forthcoming in the Journal of Business Ethics.