FLORIDA, December 3, 2012 — Most of us experience empathy at some level. It is one of those things that keep us human, even in the face of great adversity. Are psychopaths capable of such deep emotion?
Over the last several years, we have been hearing more and more about psychopaths wreaking havoc in the workplace. Are actual incidences of psychopathic behavior on the rise?
Furthermore, can business leaders take steps to deal with the possibility of psychopathy among their employees?
The co-author of “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work,” Paul Babiak is an industrial-organizational psychologist, who has devoted much of his career to raising awareness about how mental and emotional predators have found their way into the business world.
In this second part of our discussion, he shares his views on the above-mentioned questions, explains what inspired him to write about psychopaths in the workplace, and discusses his life and career.
Joseph F. Cotto: Empathy is something that most us experience, though for very different reasons. Are most workplace psychopaths able to empathize at all?
Dr. Paul Babiak: Lack of empathy, remorse and guilt are some of the defining features of a psychopath, whether they are incarcerated, out in public or working for an organization.
So, I would say they are incapable of feeling any empathy for those they manipulate. They also do not feel any loyalty to their companies or teams, despite a persona (mask) that portrays them otherwise.
Cotto: Have incidences of psychopathy in the workplace increased over the last several years?
Dr. Babiak: It would seem so based on the increasing number of financial frauds, horrific murders and audacious crimes that are being reported in the media.
However, I need to temper that statement by saying that we have improved our ability to more accurately assess psychopathy, and serious crimes against individuals, organizations and even societies have captured more “headlines” than in the past.
In general, though, I would say that the incidence of psychopathy in the population is increasing but until more research data is available, I cannot state that definitively.
Cotto: Can business leaders take steps to deal with the possibility of psychopathy among their employees?
Dr. Babiak: Ideally, a company would not want to hire a psychopath in the first place. But this is easier said than done. My recommendations would be to strengthen the hiring, selection and placement processes to screen out anyone who could potentially have psychopathic traits. This need not be a full-on psychological assessment procedure, though.
By training hiring managers to be good interviewers, using more than one person to interview any candidate, by making sure that all interviewers meet as a team to discuss all candidates, and by following up diligently with background checks and so forth, they can minimize the risk that a psychopath will “fool” an interviewer into thinking that they will be “an ideal employee and future leader.”
Any evidence of lying, misrepresentation, or “too good to be true” impressions should be investigated fully, although I would, in general, recommend a pass on those candidates.
Cotto: What inspired you to write about psychopaths in the workplace?
Dr. Babiak: I met my first psychopath while consulting for a company on a teambuilding project (many years ago now). Those in power viewed one of the individuals on the team as an up-and-comer, yet coworkers and peers saw him as a “snake.” My initial impression of him, while working with the team, was quite positive. However, over time I came to see many dysfunctional behaviors (conning, lying, backstabbing, even thievery) which made me suspect.
Yet I was amazed by his ability to keep up his mask when it suited him. It was only after this project ended and I began to ponder what had gone on that I recalled psychopathy (from my graduate school studies).
I contacted Dr. Robert D. Hare who shared with me his new Psychopathy Checklist and once I did the assessment, I was convinced (as was Bob) that I had been dealing with a psychopath. Since then, I have found other psychopaths in business and now consult with executives who are trying to deal with them in their organizations. [Note: Robert D. Hare is my co-author on our book: “Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work,” HarperCollins, 2006.]
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be such a prominent psychologist. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Dr. Babiak: Well, I wouldn’t say prominent, but I appreciate your kind words. I have a doctorate in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. My undergraduate work was in engineering and physics, but during my graduate days I took several psychology courses, which changed my career direction.
My early work was in Organization Development (training managers and executives to become better leaders, designing effective work teams and organizations, and implementing company-wide systems to improve performance). That evolved into general human resources work, and ultimately I left the corporate world to consult on psychopathy-related issues.
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