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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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.
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.
Aiken, L. S., & West, S. G. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Arbuckle, N. L., & Cunningham, W. A. (2012). Understanding everyday psychopathy: Shared group identity leads to increased concern for others among undergraduates higher in psychopathy. Social Cognition, 30, 564–583.
Ashkanasy, N., & Dorris, A. (2017). Emotions in the Workplace. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113231.
Babiak, P. (1995). When psychopaths go to work: A case study of an industrial psychopath. Applied Psychology, 44, 171–188.
Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. (2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York: Harper.
Babiak, P., Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2010). Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 28, 174–193.
Bakker, A. B., Schaufeli, W. B., Leiter, M. P., & Taris, T. W. (2008). Work engagement: An emerging concept in occupational health psychology. Work & Stress, 22, 187–200.
Barrick, M. R., Mount, M. K., & Li, N. (2013). The theory of purposeful work behavior: The role of personality, higher-order goals, and job characteristics. Academy of Management Review, 38, 132–153.
Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.
Baysinger, M. A., Scherer, K. T., & LeBreton, J. M. (2014). Exploring the disruptive effects of psychopathy and aggression on group processes and group effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 48–65.
Benning, S. D., Patrick, C. J., & Iacono, W. G. (2005). Psychopathy, startle blink modulation, and electrodermal reactivity in twin men. Psychophysiology, 42, 753–762.
Blackburn, R. (1975). An empirical classification of psychopathic personality. British Journal of Psychiatry, 127, 456–460.
Blair, R. J. R., Mitchell, D. G., Richell, R. A., Kelly, S., Leonard, A., Newman, C., et al. (2002). Turning a deaf ear to fear: Impaired recognition of vocal affect in psychopathic individuals. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111, 682–686.
Blickle, G., & Schütte, N. (2017). Trait psychopathy, task performance, and counterproductive work behavior directed toward the organization. Personality and Individual Differences, 109, 225–231.
Boddy, C. (2011). The corporate psychopaths theory of the global financial crisis. Journal of Business Ethics, 102, 255–259.
Chiaburu, D. S., Muñoz, G. J., & Gardner, R. G. (2013). How to spot a careerist early on: Psychopathy and exchange ideology as predictors of careerism. Journal of Business Ethics, 118, 473–486.
Christian, M. S., Garza, A. S., & Slaughter, J. E. (2011). Work engagement: A quantitative review and test of its relations with task and contextual performance. Personnel Psychology, 64, 89–136.
Christopoulos, G. I., Uy, M. A., & Yap, W. J. (2016). The body and the brain measuring skin conductance responses to understand the emotional experience. Organizational Research Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1094428116681073.
Clarke, J. (2002). Working with monsters. Australia: Random House.
Cleckley, H. (1976). The mask of sanity. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.
Comiteau, L. (2014). When the boss is a psychopath. BBC.com. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20140306-do-you-work-for-a-tyrant. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Coyne, S. M., & Thomas, T. J. (2008). Psychopathy, aggression, and cheating behavior: A test of the Cheater-Hawk hypothesis. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 1105–1115.
Deresiewicz, W. (2012). Capitalists and other psychopaths. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/opinion/sunday/fables-of-wealth.html. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Dindo, L., & Fowles, D. (2011). Dual temperamental risk factors for psychopathic personality: Evidence from self-report and skin conductance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 557–566.
Dutton, K. (2012). The wisdom of psychopaths. Canada: Doubleday.
Edens, J. F., Marcus, D. K., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Poythress, N. G., Jr. (2006). Psychopathic, not psychopath: Taxometric evidence for the dimensional structure of psychopathy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115, 131–144.
Falkenbach, D., Poythress, N., & Creevy, C. (2008). The exploration of subclinical psychopathic subtypes and the relationship with types of aggression. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 821–832.
Fragale, A. R., Overbeck, J. R., & Neale, M. A. (2011). Resources versus respect: Social judgements based on targets’ power and status positions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 767–775.
Furnham, A. (2015). Backstabbers and bullies. New York: Bloomsbury Information Ltd.
Furnham, A. (2016). Psychopaths at work: How do you recognize and deal with psychopathic work colleagues? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201601/psychopaths-work. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Gervais, M. M., Kline, M., Ludmer, M., George, R., & Manson, J. H. (2013). The strategy of psychopathy: primary psychopathic traits predict defection on low-value relationships. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 280, 20122773.
Hare, R. D. (1978). Psychopathy and electrodermal responses to nonsignal stimulation. Biological Psychology, 6, 237–246.
Hare, R. D. (2003). Manual for the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Multi-Health Systems.
Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Hayes, T. L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268–279.
Hershcovis, M. S., & Barling, J. (2010). Towards a multi-foci approach to workplace aggression: A meta-analytic review of outcomes from different perpetrators. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 24–44.
Hicks, B. M., & Patrick, C. J. (2006). Psychopathy and negative emotionality: Analyses of suppressor effects reveal distinct relations with emotional distress, fearfulness, and anger-hostility. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 115, 276–287.
Hoobler, J. M., & Hu, J. (2013). A model of injustice, abusive supervision, and negative affect. The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 256–269.
Jonason, P. K., Slomski, S., & Partyka, J. (2012). The Dark Triad at work: How toxic employees get their way. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 449–453.
Jonason, P. K., & Webster, G. D. (2010). The dirty dozen: A concise measure of the dark triad. Psychological Assessment, 22, 420–432.
Judge, T. A., & LePine, J. A. (2007). The bright and dark sides of personality: Implications for personnel selection and team configuration. In J. Langan-Fox, C. Cooper, & R. Klimoski (Eds.), Research companion to the dysfunctional workplace: Management challenges and symptoms (pp. 332–355). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Judge, T. A., Livingston, B. A., & Hurst, C. (2012). Do nice guys—and gals—really finish last? The joint effects of sex and agreeableness on income. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 390–407.
Judge, T. A., Rodell, J. B., Klinger, R. L., Simon, L. S., & Crawford, E. R. (2013). Hierarchical representations of the Five-Factor Model of personality in predicting job performance: Integrating three organizing frameworks with two theoretical perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 875–925.
Judge, T. A., Scott, B. A., & Ilies, R. (2006). Hostility, job attitudes, and workplace deviance: Test of a multilevel model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 126–138.
Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 692–724.
Karpman, B. (1941). On the need of separating psychopathy into two distinct clinical types: The symptomatic and the idiopathic. Journal of Criminal Psychopathology, 3, 112–137.
Le, H., Oh, I. S., Robbins, S. B., Ilies, R., Holland, E., & Westrick, P. (2011). Too much of a good thing: Curvilinear relationships between personality traits and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 113–133.
Lee, K., Ashton, M. C., Wiltshire, J., Bourdage, J. S., Visser, B. A., & Gallucci, A. (2013). Sex, power, and money: Prediction from the Dark Triad and Honesty-Humility. European Journal of Personality, 27, 169–184.
Levenson, M. R., Kiehl, K. A., & Fitzpatrick, C. M. (1995). Assessing psychopathic attributes in a noninstitutionalized population. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 151–158.
Lilienfeld, S. O., & Andrews, B. (1996). Development and preliminary validation of a self-report measure of psychopathic personality traits in noncriminal populations. Journal of Personality Assessment, 66, 488–524.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Waldman, I. D., Landfield, K., Watts, A. L., Rubenzer, S., & Faschingbauer, T. R. (2012). Fearless dominance and the US presidency: Implications of psychopathic personality traits for successful and unsuccessful political leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 489–505.
Lilienfeld, S. O., & Widows, M. R. (2005). Psychological assessment inventory-revised (PPIR). Lutz, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Lipman, V. (2013). The disturbing link between psychopathy and leadership. Forbes.com. Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/04/25/the-disturbing-link-between-psychopathy-and-leadership/#71091b222740. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Lykken, D. T. (1957). A study of anxiety in the sociopathic personality. Journal of Abnormal and Clinical Psychology, 55, 6–10.
Lykken, D. T. (1995). The antisocial personalities. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Marsh, A. A., & Cardinale, E. M. (2012a). Psychopathy and fear: Specific impairments in judging behaviors that frighten others. Emotion, 12, 892–898.
Marsh, A. A., & Cardinale, E. M. (2012b). When psychopathy impairs moral judgments: Neural responses during judgments about causing fear. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9, 3–11.
Marshall, A. J., Ashleigh, M. J., Baden, D. B., Ojiako, U., & Guidi, M. G. D. (2015). Corporate psychopathy: Can ‘search and destroy’ and ‘hearts and minds’ military metaphors inspire HRM solutions? Journal of Business Ethics, 128, 495–504.
Mathieu, C., Neumann, C. S., Hare, R. D., & Babiak, P. (2014). A dark side of leadership: Corporate psychopathy and its influence on employee well-being and job satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 59, 83–88.
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1987). Validation of the 5-factor model of personality across instruments and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81–90.
Morgenson, G. (2013). It’s one mistake for another here. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/business/senate-report-shows-anxious-moments-for-jpmorgan-traders.html?ref=morganjpchaseandcompany. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Namie, G. (2012). The WBI website 2012- H instant poll: Workplace bullying perpetrators’ rank & numbers. Workplace Bullying Institute. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/multi/pdf/WBI-2012-IP-H.pdf. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Neumann, C. S., & Hare, R. D. (2008). Psychopathic traits in a large community sample: Links to violence, alcohol use, and intelligence. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 893–899.
O’Boyle, E. H., Jr., Forsyth, D. R., Banks, G. C., & McDaniel, M. A. (2012). A meta-analysis of the dark triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 557–579.
Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2012). Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingencies, and outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 55, 787–818.
Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2016). How does leader humility influence team performance? Exploring the mechanisms of contagion and collective promotion focus. Academy of Management Journal, 59, 1088–1111.
Owens, B. P., Johnson, M. D., & Mitchell, T. R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: Implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organization Science, 24, 1517–1538.
Patrick, C. J., Fowles, D. C., & Krueger, R. F. (2009). Triarchic conceptualization of psychopathy: Developmental origins of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness. Development and Psychopathology, 21, 913–938.
Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 556–563.
Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. M., Lee, J., & Podsakoff, N. P. (2003). Common method variance in behavioral research: A critical review of the literature and recommended remedies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 879–903.
Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Moorman, R. H., & Fetter, R. (1990). Transformational leader behaviors and their effects on followers’ trust in leader, satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 1, 107–142.
Poythress, N. G., Lilienfeld, S. O., Skeem, J. L., Douglas, K. S., Edens, J. F., Epstein, M., et al. (2010). Using the PCL-R to help estimate the validity of two self-report measures of psychopathy with offenders. Assessment, 17, 206–219.
Preacher, K. (2003). A primer on interaction effects in multiple linear regression. Retrieved from http://www.quantpsy.org/interact/interactions.htm. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Protess, B. (2012). House report says Corzine’s risky bets aided MF Global’s fall. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/congressional-report-blames-corzine-for-mf-globals-collapse/?ref=jonscorzine. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Rauthmann, J. F. (2012). The Dark Triad and interpersonal perception: Similarities and differences in the social consequences of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 487–496.
Ray, J. V., Hall, J., Rivera-Hudson, N., Poythress, N. G., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Morano, M. (2013). The relation between self-reported psychopathic traits and distorted response styles: A meta-analytic review. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 4, 1–14.
Reidy, D. E., Shelley-Tremblay, J. F., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2011). Psychopathy, reactive aggression, and precarious proclamations: A review of behavioral, cognitive, and biological research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16, 512–524.
Rilling, J. K., Glenn, A. L., Jairam, M. R., Pagnoni, G., Goldsmith, D. R., Elfenbein, H. A., et al. (2007). Neural correlates of social cooperation and non-cooperation as a function of psychopathy. Biological Psychiatry, 61, 1260–1271.
Ross, S. R., & Rausch, M. K. (2001). Psychopathic attributes and achievement dispositions in a college sample. Personality and Individual Differences, 30, 471–480.
Rupp, D. E., & Spencer, S. (2006). When customers lash out: The effects of customer interactional injustice on emotional labor and the mediating role of discrete emotions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 971–978.
Schaufeli, W. B., Bakker, A. B., & Salanova, M. (2006). The measurement of work engagement with a short questionnaire. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 66, 701–716.
Schaufeli, W. B., Salanova, M., González-Romá, V., & Bakker, A. B. (2002). The measurement of engagement and burnout: A two sample confirmatory factor analytic approach. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 71–92.
Schneider, B. (1987). The people make the place. Personnel Psychology, 40, 437–453.
Schneider, B., Goldstein, H. W., & Smith, D. B. (1995). The ASA framework: An update. Personnel Psychology, 48, 747–779.
Schütte, N., Blickle, G., Frieder, R. E., Wihler, A., Schnitzler, F., Heupel, J., et al. (2015). The role of interpersonal influence in counterbalancing psychopathic personality trait facets at work. Journal of Management. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206315607967.
Siemsen, E., Roth, A., & Oliveira, P. (2009). Common method bias in regression models with linear, quadratic, and interaction effects. Organizational Research Methods, 13, 456–476.
Simon, L. S., Hurst, C., Kelley, K., & Judge, T. A. (2015). Understanding cycles of abuse: A multimotive approach. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 1798–1810.
Skeem, J. L., Polaschek, D. L. L., Patrick, C. J., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2011). Psychopathic personality: Bridging the gap between scientific evidence and public policy. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12, 95–162.
Smart Richman, L., & Leary, M. R. (2009). Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model. Psychological Review, 116, 365–383.
Smith, S. F., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2013). Psychopathy in the workplace: The knowns and unknowns. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 204–218.
Smith, S. F., Lilienfeld, S. O., Coffey, K., & Dabbs, J. M. (2013). Are psychopaths and heroes twigs off the same branch? Evidence from college, community, and presidential samples. Journal of Research in Personality, 47, 634–646.
Steinberger, M. (2004). Psychopathic C.E.O.’s. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/12/magazine/12PSYCHO.html?_r=0. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Tellegen, A., Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063–1070.
Tepper, B. J. (2000). Consequences of abusive supervision. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 178–190.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013). May 2012 national occupational employment and wage estimates United States. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/oes/2012/may/oes_nat.htm#00-0000. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Verona, E., Patrick, C. J., Curtin, J. J., Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (2004). Psychopathy and physiological response to emotionally evocative sounds. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113, 99–108.
Vitale, J. E., Brinkley, C. A., Hiatt, K. D., & Newman, J. P. (2007). Abnormal selective attention in psychopathic female offenders. Neuropsychology, 21, 301–312.
Voigt, K. (2012). Bad bosses: The psycho-path to success? CNN International. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2012/01/19/business/psychopath-boss. Accessed 20 Dec 2017.
Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 794–799.
Weiss, H. M., Suckow, K., & Cropanzano, R. (1999). Effects of justice conditions on discrete emotions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 786–794.
Wille, B., De Fruyt, F., & De Clercq, B. (2012). Expanding and reconceptualizing aberrant personality at work: Validity of five-factor model aberrant personality tendencies to predict career outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 66, 173–223.
Wilson, M. S., & McCarthy, K. (2011). Greed is good? Student disciplinary choice and self-reported psychopathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 873–876.
This study was funded by the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Ivey Business School, Western University, Canada.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Human and Animal Rights
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Abusive supervision