Do Psychopaths Get Promoted Faster?

Are you charismatic and emotionless? If so, right this way to the corner office!

Do Psychopaths Get Promoted Faster?

It’s as catchy as a pop song: Your boss is an axe-wielding psychopath, a Pat or Pattie Bateman just waiting for the right time to strike.


The argument crops up in business tomes from time to time (even in this publication); we’ve even furnished you with a handy quiz for your armchair psychiatry.

But is the research ready?

While a new meta-analysis has concluded that “business psychopathy” is a “budding field,” being cautious with our conclusions might serve us well–although it makes for less exciting headlines. As the British Psychological Society’s Occupational Digest Blog argued last week, the research needs to mature. The widely cited finding that 3% of managers are psychopaths versus 1% of the general population comes from a single study.

One of the authors of that study is Robert Hare, who developed the most-used instrument for measuring psychopathy, the PCL-R. Hare was a central subject of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, in which the British journalist waded into the madness industry. Ronson portrays Hare as an intelligent, complicated, and self-promotional man, a further reminder that science is done by people–it doesn’t fall from the sky.

What psychopaths are awesome at

But still, the traits of psychopaths do match up well with promotion-centric cultures. Since psychopaths have a lack of empathyThe Psychopath Test has a telling passage where psychopaths are fascinated, rather than repulsed by, images of human gore–and talents for charismatic communication, making impressions, and identifying peoples’ needs, motives, and preferences, they are adept at exploiting relationships.

So it follows, then, that if they’re in cultures where impressing one’s boss is the direct path to advancement–as in, the perception of what you’ve contributed holds equal value as what you’ve actually done–psychopaths will flourish.

How do you get around this? By having a system where leadership arises organically, rather than being appointed via promotion.

Workplace psychopathy: the knowns and unknowns


[Happy Businessman Image: Icons Jewelry via Shutterstock]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.