“Psychopath” is a term used by the layperson to refer to a wide range of people, from intractable criminals to businesspeople who prioritise profits over morality, but the underlying concern is that psychopaths cause harm to others [1
]. It is this concern that psychopaths are harming workers, their organisations and even the economy and the planet that is behind the recent upsurge in interest in the so-called “corporate psychopath”, who displays many of the traits of psychopathy but not the level of antisocial or law-breaking behaviour that would result in a criminal record [2
]. This criminal behaviour was one of the hallmarks of early definitions of psychopathy, but more recently psychopathy has been defined as a pathological condition consisting of enduring deviant behaviour in combination with emotional detachment [3
While there remains debate in the literature over how to conceptualise psychopathy, the triarchic model is particularly relevant for use in community samples as it avoids assessment of criminal behaviour and evaluates a combination of three traits: boldness, meanness and disinhibition [4
]. The recognition that psychopathy involves deviant but not necessarily criminal behaviour has led to the suggestion that some people are able to use their psychopathic traits adaptively in the workplace [5
]. In the triarchic model, boldness might represent the adaptive elements of psychopathy while meanness and disinhibition are more maladaptive [5
]. However, distinguishing these adaptive and maladaptive effects of psychopathy at work is currently hindered by the lack of an occupationally relevant measure of psychopathy. In this paper, therefore, we develop a measure of psychopathy at work based on the triarchic model of psychopathy, with equivalent self- and other-report versions, and demonstrate its utility in distinguishing between the adaptive and maladaptive effects of psychopathic traits at work.
1.1. Psychopathy at Work
The concept of psychopathy originated in the clinical and forensic literature but interest in its prevalence and impact in the workplace has grown quickly. It was recognised that traits associated with psychopathy could potentially be successful in the workplace for several reasons. First, some aspects of psychopathy, such as charm and confidence, are beneficial in the social environment of work [6
]. Second, leaders who are fearless and bold can be advantageous both for their followers and the organisation [7
]. Third, there are certain occupations where some of the traits associated with psychopathy, such as fearlessness and low reactivity to stress could be extremely beneficial, such as in the military or police [8
The complex effects of psychopathy are reflected in the conflicting findings of research on work outcomes too. For example, while overall job performance decreases with higher levels of psychopathy, there are positive associations with specific elements of performance such as communication and creativity [9
]. In addition, there is evidence that senior managers report significant levels of psychopathy [10
], a strong indication that psychopathic traits are in some way adaptive in the workplace, at the very least in helping individuals gain promotion.
In attempting to understand the complexity of psychopathy at work, one of the earliest case studies distinguished between primary and secondary psychopathy, suggesting that “corporate” psychopathy included the primary callous emotional traits but not the anti-social or criminal tendencies of secondary psychopathy [2
]. Nevertheless, while there is broad consensus on the multi-dimensionality of the psychopathy construct, the number of dimensions and the centrality of each to the construct are still under debate [5
The triarchic model of psychopathy was developed in an effort to clarify and reconcile these differing conceptions of psychopathy in the literature [11
]. It models psychopathy in terms of three distinguishable traits: boldness (indexing confidence, social assertiveness, emotional resilience and fearlessness), meanness (measuring a lack of empathy and capacity for affiliation, as well as contempt for others and a tendency to exploit or be cruel towards them) and disinhibition (including impulsivity and lack of restraint along with hostility and mistrust towards others) [4
]. Each of the three traits makes distinct contributions to externalizing psychopathy [12
], and the model is particularly appropriate for use in workplace samples as it enables psychopathic traits to be measured as continuous dimensions in the normal population.
The boldness trait may be particularly relevant for understanding the adaptive effects of psychopathy, while the maladaptive and harmful effects of psychopathy are likely to be more strongly related to the meanness and disinhibition traits [5
]. Boldness, for example, is associated with higher social status and better personality functioning while disinhibition is related to lower status, and both meanness and disinhibition are related to poorer personality functioning [14
Because boldness may relate to potentially adaptive behaviours [11
], some researchers have disputed the relevance of this trait to psychopathy. However, a recent meta-analytic review confirmed that the three triarchic constructs are of equal relevance [15
]. Assessing psychopathy with measures that index all three constructs to the same degree is therefore essential, as failing to do so would provide an incomplete picture of how psychopathy manifests [13
]. It is surprising then that many studies in the organisational literature have typically utilised measures that report a total psychopathy score or have not reported findings related to each psychopathy factor [16
], and this may indicate a need for an organisationally relevant measure of psychopathic traits. There is consensus that psychopathy is an underlying factor in deviant interpersonal behaviours that cause distress for co-workers [17
], and there have been several and repeated calls for measures of psychopathy suitable for use in organisational settings [18
The most commonly used measure of psychopathy is the Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) and its various revisions and adaptations [1
], which assess psychopathy on interpersonal, affective, lifestyle and antisocial dimensions. The most significant of these adaptations in workplace settings is the B-Scan 360 [18
], which assesses the conceptually similar dimensions of Manipulative/Unethical, Callous/Insensitive, Unreliable/Unfocused and Intimidating/Aggressive. The B-Scan is planned as a 360-degree instrument, although to date only the other-rating version has been presented and does not evaluate the boldness element of psychopathy adequately. Another widely used measure of psychopathy, the PPI-R (Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised), is a self-report measure developed specifically for community samples and includes subscales to capture the adaptive features of psychopathy such as stress immunity [20
]. This measure, however, is fairly long, consisting of 154 items and does not have an equivalent other-report version.
Not only is the triarchic model bringing unity to the psychopathy literature [16
] but its associated measure (the 58 item Triarchic Psychopathy Measure (TriPM) [21
]) has the advantage that it focuses on the behavioural indicators of multidimensional psychopathy models and specifically includes the experiential aspects of psychopathy [5
]. It indexes the three traits of boldness, meanness and disinhibition to the same degree and is appropriate for use with a general population rather than forensic or clinical applications. This makes it particularly suitable for self-report as well as other (non-expert) report.
The ability to gauge psychopathy in terms of self-reported traits and as other-perceived traits will enable multi-level organisational research, allowing the investigation of both the within-person effects of psychopathy and the impact of perceived psychopathic traits on co-workers. In this paper, therefore, we develop the TriPM (Work): a short, work-focused measure of psychopathy based on the triarchic model that can be used for both self- and other-report.
Using this measure, we test the proposition that boldness represents a predominantly adaptive domain of psychopathy while meanness and disinhibition capture the more maladaptive domains. We do this in three ways. First, we test the relationship between managers’ psychopathic traits and their leadership styles, as reported by subordinates. Second, we test the within-person effects of psychopathic traits on individuals’ work-related outcomes, such as well-being and performance; and third, we test the effects of managers’ perceived psychopathic traits on their subordinates’ work-related outcomes.
1.2. Psychopathy and Leadership Styles
Psychopathy in leaders is of particular concern given the potential of those in power to have significant negative influence on their followers and the ease with which decision-makers may “mistake psychopathic traits for specific leadership traits” [9
] and promote more psychopathic individuals to leadership positions. There are many theories and models of leadership, and in order to distinguish the adaptive and maladaptive effects of psychopathy at work, we focus here on two leadership styles which represent contrasting approaches to leading others. Servant leadership is an other-oriented, beneficial style that has been shown to have incremental predictive validity over other beneficial forms of leadership such as ethical or transformational [22
]. Abusive supervision, as an active form of destructive leadership, provides a distinct contrast and has strong negative effects on employee well-being and performance [23
Servant leadership has a focus on prioritizing followers’ needs and demonstrating a concern for the wider organisation and community [24
]. The relationship between psychopathy and servant leadership has not yet been addressed, but we would expect the traits of meanness and disinhibition, with their disregard of others, to be negatively related to servant leadership. We also suggest that boldness represents a trait essential to effective leadership and can manifest in an adaptive way at work and therefore would be positively related to this effective leadership style.
Abusive supervision is a distinctly contrasting leadership style that includes sustained, “hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviours, excluding physical contact” [25
] by supervisors towards their subordinates. Recent research with employees working for a non-profit organisation who reported on their supervisors, demonstrated a positive relationship between psychopathy (using the B-Scan 360) and abusive supervision [26
]. While findings such as these indicate some relationships between psychopathy and abusive supervision, research on the constituent dimensions of the triarchic model has not yet been conducted. We argue here that boldness is an adaptive and positive trait for a leader and will therefore be negatively associated with abusive supervision. In contrast, meanness and disinhibition, which index hostility towards others and a greater likelihood of engaging in abusive behaviour, respectively, are expected to be positively associated with abusive supervision.