Are “Bad” Employees Happier Under Bad Bosses? Differing Effects of Abusive Supervision on Low and High Primary Psychopathy Employees

Abstract

Psychopathy is typically seen as a trait that is undesirable in any context, including the workplace. But several authors have suggested that people high in psychopathy might possess resources that preserve their ability to perform well in stressful contexts. We consider the possibility that primary psychopathy is adaptive—for the employee, if not for the organization—under conditions of abusive supervision. In particular, we draw from the multimotive model of interpersonal threat (Smart Richman and Leary in Psychol Rev 116:365–383, 2009) and the theory of purposeful work behavior (Barrick et al. in Acad Manag Rev 38:132–153, 2013) to argue that high primary psychopathy individuals possess characteristics that enable them to experience higher levels of well-being and lower levels of anger than their peers under abusive supervisors. Based on a scenario study and a time-lagged field study, we found support for a model in which abusive supervision moderates the relationships between primary psychopathy and positive work-related outcomes (positive affect and engagement), such that these relationships are positive under conditions of abusive supervision and either diminished or negative under conditions of low abusive supervision. Abusive supervision also affected the relationship between primary psychopathy and anger in the field study such that high primary psychopathy individuals were less angry under more abusive supervisors. Thus, there appears to be some credence to the notion of a “psychopathic advantage” in that primary psychopaths do have access to greater psychological resources than their peers under abusive supervision. However, these findings also suggest that abusive supervisors may empower employees with characteristics that hold strong potential to damage the organization and its stakeholders.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Babiak et al. (2010) used the Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (PCL-R; Hare 2003) to measure psychopathy. Although the PCL-R has been conceptually and empirically linked to primary and secondary psychopathy (see, for example, Lykken 1995; Poythress et al. 2010), and although several items in the PCL-R do reflect primary psychopathy, Babiak et al. (2010) did not use such terminology. Thus, these findings are not specific to primary psychopathy per se. Moreover, the PCL-R is based on expert ratings derived from information obtained through semi-structured interviews, while several other measures such as the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI; Lilienfeld and Andrews 1996; Lilienfeld and Widows 2005) and Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale (LSRP; Levenson et al. 1995) are self-reported. We cite research that has used both types of measures with the understanding that each is designed to assess similar aspects of psychopathy, and that, to a reasonable degree, findings should generalize across measures. Finally, also worth noting is that the PCL-R is often used as a typological measure of psychopathy, in which a cutoff score distinguishes psychopaths from non-psychopaths. However, Babiak et al. (2010) have also treated scores on the PCL-R as lying on a continuum when linking them to certain outcomes such as strategic thinking, creativity, and communication. Thus, it appears that the PCL-R can be used both as a typological/taxonomic device and as a continuous measure of psychopathy.

  2. 2.

    As noted by Fragale et al. (2011), although there is a tendency to equate power and status, consensus is emerging that these are two related, but distinct constructs. Status is the extent to which an individual is admired, respected, and well regarded among others, whereas power refers to the extent to which one controls others’ outcomes via granting or withholding valued resources. Because both power and status are potential sources of dominance or influence over others (Fragale et al. 2011), it is reasonable to assume that individuals higher in primary psychopathy would value power and status. Given this, and that in Barrick’s theoretical framework, status is defined in part as the desire for power, we use both terms where theoretically appropriate.

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This study was funded by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada.

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Hurst, C., Simon, L., Jung, Y. et al. Are “Bad” Employees Happier Under Bad Bosses? Differing Effects of Abusive Supervision on Low and High Primary Psychopathy Employees. J Bus Ethics 158, 1149–1164 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3770-5

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Keywords

  • Psychopathy
  • Abusive supervision
  • Affect