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Bullying and Psychopathy at Work

Bullying and Psychopathy at Work

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Bullying and Psychopathy at Work


Clive Boddy

Right. Hello, everybody. I'm here to tell you a bit of a story about why I got interested in the link between corporate psychopaths and bullying.


A long time ago, in a land far away, I was running a business in the Far East, and as a part of that, I was moved offices. And when I was moved offices, I was told I was getting a new boss. Various people came up to me and said, “You have to be careful about this new guy, this new boss you're getting. He's very manipulative, he's very ruthless, very cunning, and he's almost downright evil.”


So I thought, hm, this guy sounds like a bit of a monster, a bit of a devil. When people say things like that to you, that's what you expect. You expect to meet a monster. What you actually meet is an utterly charming man, in a well-cut suit, who looks very attractive. He's very sociable, very extroverted, and he doesn't look like a monster at all. He looks like your next best friend. So you get confused.


Then you think that these people must have been wrong. He’s not a monster, he’s a really nice guy, I'm going to really enjoy working with this person. Looking back years later, people would say to me, “Well, how did you end up in the circumstances that you ended up with?” And I could never answer that, until I read about corporate psychopaths. And then it all clicked together.


So, that's my personal reason for getting involved in psychopathy and corporate psychopaths. And, as I started to read about bullying as a different part of my academic job, I realized there's probably a large area of crossover between bullies and psychopaths in the workplace. 


So, I started to look at bullying itself. It's usually described as being the regular and repeated belittling, or humiliating, or, in some way, intimidating a person. And it's usually a single person, in the workplace, on a regular basis, as I said. So, it involves things like regular conflict, arguments, yelling, rudeness in the workplace, directed at a single person.


It seems to be all over the place, basically. If you look at the papers to do with bullying, it seems to be in every organization, and significant numbers of people have experienced it--usually it's in the 30 and 40 percentages.


Even organizations like the Departments of Consumer and Employment Protection, in Western Australia, where I was at the time, whose job is to prevent bullying, were accused by their own staff of having a culture of bullying. And the staff insisted that they bring in private investigators to investigate the bullying that was going on in the organization (that was there to prevent bullying). So, it's all over the place.


So, that made me think, “Why? Why is it all over the place?” And the other thing that struck me in reading about it is that companies and corporations and organizations don't seem to know what to do about it.


They tend to want to sweep it under the carpet, to pretend it doesn't exist. And quite often, they'll do things like, they'll pay off the people who are being bullied, and they'll insert a clause into that payoff, into that contractual arrangement, whereby they're not allowed to talk about it. So it all gets swept under the carpet. 


The bully, in the meantime, gets promoted, and they're the only one that's left in the organization. But there are many ethical and financial reasons why bullying should not be swept under the carpet, and some of these are to do with individual reasons.


The negative effects, the psychological effects on the individual in concern are quite devastating. So, they feel humiliated, belittled, their careers quite often get ruined or disjointed. They'll try to withdraw from the workplace, they'll seek other jobs, and they end up in lesser positions, or unemployed, or in jobs they don't really want to do. And their confidence and motivation is destroyed at a personal level.


But it also has an effect at a corporate level or an organizational level as well, because there's a typical fight-or-flight response to being in a conflict situation or to being bullied. So, in terms of flight, people withdraw their time and effort. So, they'll stop doing overtime, they'll stop their extracurricular activities, in terms of commitment to the organization and helping the organization grow.


And they'll fight back in terms of things like counterproductive work behavior. So, typically, if the bully is your manager, or your supervisor, or your boss in some way, you take him or her as a representative of the company. And, therefore, your revenge is not on them particularly, as an individual. It tends to be against the company. So, you'll stop working properly, you'll sabotage normal work processes, you'll withdraw your effort and your commitment to what you're doing. And the result of all that is just further conflicts within the organization. 


The ethical and moral climate of the organization starts to diminish, and that has knock-on effects in terms of how you treat your suppliers, how you treat your tax returns and everything else to do with the company.


So, reading some of the literature on bullies and bullying, there seems to be a sort of unspoken, underlying sense of bewilderment, “Who are these people? Who are these people that enjoy watching people get hurt?” ‘Cause it doesn’t seem a normal thing to do, a normal thing to want to do or to enjoy doing, and they clearly enjoy it.


Reading about bullies, the words that are used to describe them are on the screen there: They enjoy hurting other people, they're cruel, they're selfish, they're parasitic, Machiavellian, and you start to get in the literature a lot of words to do with a dissocial personality. So, antisocial personality disorder, sociopathy, psychopathy, and lots of these words are similar to words used to identify corporate psychopaths. 


Well, corporate psychopaths are those psychopaths who are about 1% of the population, and just by the way, who go into organizational and corporate positions, rather than into a criminal career. And psychologists have slowly come to realize that those from better socioeconomic backgrounds, perhaps with a good education, good family background, work out fairly early, that it's far easier to get the power, the prestige, and the money that they want from a corporate career than it is from a criminal career.


And so, they go into the corporate world. So, the same words are used to describe them, these psychopaths, as I used to describe bullies, with the exception that psychopaths, the outstanding thing about psychopaths is they have absolutely no conscience. So, there's nothing that inhibits them, in terms of how they behave. 


They can be totally ruthless and sleep perfectly well at night, because nothing they do bothers them, because they don't have a conscience, and there's no feeling, no emotion in their lives.


So, having realized that there's probably a large link between psychopathy and psychopaths and bullying, I thought it would be interesting to do some research to see how large that link actually is. So, I took a psychopathy measure from reading 200 and odd psychology papers on psychopaths, and embedded it in a management survey of management behavior, firstly doing this in Australia. And what I found was one of the most outstanding things.


I found that psychopaths seemed to account for around 26% of all bullying in that particular sample of managers, of Australian managers. It was 346 managers, research carried out in 2008, I think. And there were quite a few other interesting statistics there, as well.


I mean, under normal managers, employees encountered bullying less than once a month. If there were corporate psychopaths in the organization, then bullying went up to more than once a week. 1.3 times a week, I think it was--and I measured lots of other things as well, besides bullying, but that was the interesting thing for the purposes of today. Because those results were so dramatic, I repeated it again in the U.K. And I found even more bullying in the U.K. than I found in Australia. 


And I found that psychopaths and corporate psychopaths accounted for more of that bullying than they did in Australia. So, up to 36% of all bullying is down to the presence of corporate psychopaths in an organization, in this sample. And the knock-on effects, more yelling, more arguments, more disruption, more conflict, when psychopaths are there, compared to when they're not there.


So, under normal managers, everything is, in terms of conflict, everything is lowered, and much more sedate, and much more smooth, and much less chaotic, and less confusion.


In conclusion, having established the link between corporate psychopaths and bullying, it starts to explain some of the big questions that are to do with bullying. For example, why is it so pervasive in all companies, around the world and in all countries? Well, the answer to that might be that, because psychopaths are 1% of the population.


If we assume they are normally distributed across the whole population, then, in every major company there will be psychopaths. And if there are psychopaths, there will be bullying. So, that explains why bullying is so common. The other thing it explains is why bullying occurs in the first place.


Psychopaths bully for two main reasons. One of them is predatory. So they do it because they like it. They do it because they enjoy it. They do it because they like to see people squirm. They like just to hurt people, they like to damage their careers, and that's the thing that's hard for the rest of us to understand. It's enjoyable. That's one of the reasons they do it. 


The other reason they do it is what I've called instrumental bullying. So, they're doing it quite often to create confusion and chaos all around them, so that they can forward their own political and social and career agendas, while everybody else is emotionally distracted. So, it creates a smokescreen for them to get on with what they're really doing, which is gaining power, influence, prestige, and money within the corporation.


So, anybody, for example, a boss looking down on this whole situation of bullying and emotional reactions will see that the only person that seems to have kept their cool is this psychopath, because he started it all in the first place. And therefore, the only person that seems like they deserve a promotion is the psychopath. 


So, that's why it helps to answer the question of why psychopaths seem to get promoted at the hierarchy more than ordinary people do. Because they create confusion around them and that enables them to forward their own agenda to promote themselves.


So, if you link it at an organizational level, companies like Enron, which was the biggest fraud in history at the time, before the global financial crisis and things like that, was reported to have a culture of bullying within it. And they bullied their agencies, they bullied their advisers, they bullied their suppliers to keep them in check and to stop them asking questions, so that they could perpetuate this massive fraud that was going on for years. So, it's a means to an end, as well as an end in itself. 


And I think bullying in corporate banks, for example, and linking it to the global financial crisis, was very evident as well. There is a culture of, “Don't ask questions, or you'll get into trouble.” So, no ethical questions are allowed in these institutions, and it enables them to get on with what they're doing, with their fraud, and it prevents people from exposing it.


If anyone is interested in finding out more about any of these things, those are the things to look up in your search engine. Thank you for listening. Goodbye. [APPLAUSE]

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