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It’s a well-known trope: the powerful, high-earning businessman with the pathologically low levels of empathy. A study showing a high number of CEOs in Silicon Valley who could be clinically diagnosed as psychopaths, therefore, is more likely to elicit a knowing smirk than send shockwaves.

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Perhaps because of the legacy of places like the Lehman Brothers and AIG, we are comfortable with the notion that hyper-successful businesses—and by extension, the people who work in them—are fundamentally lacking in characteristics we consider to be basic decency.

The psychopath as a CEO or manager is the embodiment of this. Psychopaths are individuals who “possibly because of brain function abnormalities in the ventro-lateral, orbito-frontal cortex, and amygdala, have no con- science and no ability to love or feel any empathy for other people.”

While most psychopaths are seen as a menace to society, a psychopath’s capacity for cold calculation and lack of empathy can make them shrewd businessmen. There are indeed elements of psychopathy that lend themselves well to Silicon Valley’s unforgiving environment. Those who can function in normal society, and end up in high-power positions are termed “corporate psychopaths.”

“You have to have a tremendous amount of ego [and] self-deception to embark on that journey,” Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bryan Stolle told The Guardian.  “You have to make sacrifices and give up things, including sometimes a marriage, family and friends. And you have to convince other people.”

On the other hand, a study in the Journal of Business Ethics shows that psychopathy has little staying power in upper management. The vast majority of the population aren’t psychopaths. And they don’t like working for them, either.

The Journal of Business Ethics reports, “Links between leaders with personality disorders and dysfunctional management have been increasingly reported.”

It is emotionally taxing to work directly for someone lacking in compassion, and studies showed cases where “the individual concerned becomes stressed, lacking in confidence and feels helpless and worthless as a result of becoming the target of a psychopath in an organization.”

Additionally, although we like to believe big business is run specifically for the good of the company, to the exclusion of all other interests, many employees are happier working for companies they agree with socially and ethnically. This is difficult to achieve with the psychopath’s inherent lack of a moral compass.

The study concludes, “The power inherent in senior managerial roles in major organizations and corporations means that the implications of these findings are obviously significant for corporate governance and for the societies in which those organizations operate…Organizations and societies that want business corporations to operate in ways that benefit society, the environment, the local community, and employees, will need to make sure that Corporate Psychopaths are not running those businesses.”


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Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 97, No. 1 (November 2010), pp. 1-19