Thriving Under An Abusive Boss? You Might Be A Psychopath, Study Finds

NORTH BEND, Ind. — If you feel like your boss oversteps his or her boundaries to the point of abuse, yet you notice you tend to thrive under their leadership, you might be a psychopath, according to a new study.

A series of studies led by Charlice Hurst, an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, found that people who are happier when working for an abusive manager exhibit higher levels of psychopathy.

Man wearing Scream mask at office desk
Have a horrible boss, yet you find yourself happier under his or her leadership? A new study finds you just might be a psychopath.

Hurst notes that psychopathy employs a spectrum — and everyone is on it to some degree. We all know about the famous serial killers on the extreme end of the scale, but psychologists actually define psychopathy as a personality trait that we all have at different levels.

She explains that there are two main types of psychopathy: primary and secondary. “Both consist of high levels of antisocial behavior; however, people who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless. They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful or angry,” she says. “Secondary psychopaths are more hot-headed and impulsive.”

For the study, the researchers ran two experiments involving 419 working adults. The first experiment asked participants to react to descriptions of managers who showed constructive or abusive behavior and management styles. Individuals who felt happier after imagining themselves working for an abusive boss were determined to have high levels of primary psychopathy.

The second study asked participants to describe their own managers and supervisors. Those with high primary psychopathy levels reported feeling more upbeat and engaged in environments with bosses who were generally rude or often exhibited behaviors such as invading workers’ privacy, gossiping about other employees, breaking promises, and other potentially abusive behaviors.

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“We found that primary psychopaths benefit under abusive supervisors,” says Hurst. “Relative to their peers low in primary psychopathy, they felt less anger and more engagement and positive emotions under abusive supervisors.”

While most companies have accurate ways of measuring employee engagement, Hurst’s study suggests that companies need to be astutely aware of managers’ behaviors before workers find themselves surrounded by a group of potential lunatics.

“If they have a problem of endemic abuse,” Hurst says, “like Wells Fargo — where former employees have reported that managers used tactics designed to induce fear and shame in order to achieve unrealistic sales goals — and upper-level managers are either unaware of it or are not taking action, they might notice increasing levels of engagement due to turnover among employees low in primary psychopathy and retention of those high in primary psychopathy. At the extreme, they could end up with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths.”

The full study was published in The Journal of Business Ethics.

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