Professional Development

Why psychopaths are really that good at getting ahead

Written by Eric Titner

Have you ever wondered why it seems like so many people who make it to the top of the professional food chain and occupy positions of power at work have a similar set of characteristics? You know the type—it’s pretty common to use the following adjectives to describe them as they push ahead and take no prisoners along their inevitable drive toward career success: merciless, cold-blooded, ruthless, ambitious, the list goes on.

The truth is, there’s a group of people that often possess these traits—psychopaths—and sometimes the volatile and unpredictable ways in which they behave works to their advantage and allows them to get ahead in our ultra-competitive work world.

Why do workplace psychopaths seem to be successful so often? Do you need to be a psychopath in order to get ahead these days? Recently, CNBC investigated why psychopaths are so good at getting ahead. Let’s take a deeper look at this issue and try and shed some light on the “psychopath question.”

What is a psychopath?

According to CNBC, “Psychopathy is an inherited mental disorder, an illness that is the result of a deformity in the brain. Those who are born with psychopathy can be dangerous. They are also often very successful in ascending to positions of power. Usually, psychopaths are cunning and charming, have an over-sized sense of self-worth, and are pathological liars. They show an unwillingness to accept responsibility for their actions, as well as callousness and lack of empathy.”

How psychopaths gain the upper hand

The ability to carefully control one’s emotions, allowing for logical decision-making to take hold, while displaying a sheen of chameleon-like charm that helps win the favor of those around them—typical characteristics of a psychopath—can help an individual advance in their career, regardless of industry or field. Simply put, the ability to effectively manipulate others around them, and display a manic energy that comes across as high-energy enthusiasm, are traits that are admired and valued in most workplace settings.

CNBC notes that “In an office environment, overly emotional individuals are often at a disadvantage because their judgment is clouded by a desire to protect those they care about. Inversely, lacking empathy, more often than not, will help you in an environment where you have to make decisions that create negative consequences by necessity for other people…emotional, empathetic people may struggle to make what are often chalked up to tough business decisions because of the ramifications those decisions can have on other people. Empathy can interfere with you doing your job quite a bit. And in the competitive workplace, empathy is discouraged because it may interfere with what you need to do for work… It is very well known you should not be bringing your personal issues or your emotions to work.”

Confidence is another key trait that separates those who are successful at work from those who stay in the shadows, under the radar, and typically on the lower rungs of the career ladder—and it’s also something that psychopaths possess in abundance. These individuals typically have an intense belief in their abilities, even to the point of grandiose magical thinking, and as long as it doesn’t completely dip into the realm of absurd fantasy it could impress colleagues and help them rise above the competition. According to CNBC, “other psychopathic traits that make for successful CEOs include a comfort with lying and a lack of fear of failure. The resulting bravado can translate as aggressive ambition to a corporate board… Sometimes psychopaths’ thrill-seeking behavior and impulsivity are mistaken for high energy and enthusiasm, action orientation, and the ability to multitask. To the organization, these individuals’ irresponsibility may give the appearance of a risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit.”

Should you change your personality to get ahead?

So… should we all aim to be psychopaths at work if we want to get ahead in our respective careers? In a word, no. Although it’s true that psychopaths do often present with characteristics that help them advance in their careers, true psychopaths also display a variety of unsavory behaviors that can have the opposite effect. Their coolness tends to veer towards cruelty, and they often possess an inability to effectively collaborate with peers and operate for the greater good, instead operating in a completely self-serving manner.

CNBC notes that “psychopaths are not only able to make decisions without regard for other people, they are also driven by a desire to hurt their peers… Adding to the threat of psychopaths is their ability to deceive those around them. The most disturbing part of the psychopathic condition is that it can be very hard to distinguish… While psychopaths are successful, theirs is certainly not the kind of success others should try to emulate… As they make it to the top, psychopaths may step over, trample on, or back-stab anyone in the way.”

Clearly, psychopaths possess a wide array of characteristics and personality traits, some of which are beneficial to no one and can actually be dangerous to society, and some of which that can indeed be beneficial at work. Therefore, the relative success of a psychopath in the workplace depends on her or his ability to control the particularly deviant behaviors while allowing those alpha-like traits to shine. So, rather than seeking to become psychopaths ourselves, we should strive to identify and emulate the positive traits that psychopaths tend to possess that help them make it to the top while avoiding the destructive traits that make psychopaths dangerous to be around, which should serve to help each of us find tangible and lasting success in whatever career path we choose to pursue.

About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.