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Do psychopaths really make better leaders?

Take a look around your office. Would you classify any of your colleagues as psychopathic?


While it may be a term more often associated with film industry depictions of knife-wielding killers like Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan, there is evidence that suggests psychopaths are surprisingly common in the business environment.

虽然这个词往往会令人想起汉尼拔·莱克特(Hannibal Lecter)和迪克斯特特·摩根(Dexter Morgan)这些电影里塑造的杀人狂魔,但有证据表明,精神病态者与商业环境有着很多惊人的共性。
Studies have indicated that, depending where you look, up to one in five of those filling company boardrooms and senior management positions are hiding psychopathic tendencies, using certain personality traits to charm and manipulate their way through the workplace.


Research by New York-based psychologist Paul Babiak's has suggested up to 4% of business leaders in the US could be psychopaths. Another study of supply chain managers found between 3% and 21% had clinically significant psychopathy, compared to 1% of the general population.

纽约心理学家保罗·巴比亚克(Paul Babiak)曾经表示,美国多达4%的商业领袖可能是精神病态者。另有一项针对供应链经理进行的研究发现,3%至21%的受访者存在临床意义上的精神病态,而普通大众的这一比例仅为1%。

These figures paint a picture of business leaders who put ruthless ambition above everything else and have no qualms about using people for their own advantage.


But new research is challenging the idea that psychopaths might not be as well suited to the boardroom as these earlier studies have suggested.


Challenging assumptions


Hedge fund managers scoring higher for psychopathy perform worse than their colleagues, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Denver and the University of California, Berkeley. They compared the personality traits of 101 hedge fund managers with their investments and financial returns from 2005 to 2015, and found those with greater psychopathic tendencies produced lower returns.

根据丹佛大学(University of Denver)和加州大学伯克利分校(University of California, Berkeley)共同进行的一项研究,在病态人格测试中得分较高的对冲基金经理,实际业绩不及自己的同事。他们将101位对冲基金经理的人格特质与他们在2005至2015年间的投资和财务回报进行对比后发现,精神病态倾向较高的人取得的投资回报较低。

Leanne ten Brinke, lead author of the research and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver, believes it is time to “rethink” old assumption that ruthlessness and callousness are favourable traits for business managers.

固有观念认为冷酷无情是商业领袖的优良品质,而该研究的首席作者、丹佛大学心理学助理教授林恩·滕·布林克(Leanne ten Brinke)却认为,是时候对此进行反思了。

“Our findings are consistent with other research suggesting that individuals with more psychopathic traits seems to be able to 'talk the talk’, but not ‘walk the walk’,” she says.


Psychopaths are more likely to gain power through dominance, bullying and intimidation, rather than respect, she adds.  “However, gaining power is not the same as wielding it effectively."


Research shows that psychopaths often leave behind a trail of chaos. One psychopathic CEO of a charity, for example, caused higher staff turnover and a decline in revenue. Another  study found that, despite their charm, psychopaths cause counterproductive behaviour, bullying and conflict in the workplace, as well as lower employee wellbeing.


Yet, there are some roles where being a psychopath can bring benefits. Dr Kevin Dutton, research psychologist at the University of Oxford and author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, argues that as well as the right skills for the job, personality also plays a big part in how someone gets on in the workplace.

不过,精神病态者也并非毫无益处。牛津大学心理学家、《精神病态者的智慧》(The Wisdom of Psychopaths)一书的作者凯文·达顿(Kevin Dutton)认为,个性与工作能力一样,都在人们适应职场的过程中扮演重要角色。

“You need the right kind of personality to enable you to optimally operationalise that skill set," he says." There are some professions which, at times, require higher levels of psychopathic traits than we might be comfortable with in everyday life.”


One common way of assessing the presence of psychopathic traits in people is to use an assessment known as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. Let's take a look at some of the traits it lists to see whether they can cause destruction or promotion in a work environment.

"海尔病态人格检核表"(Hare Psychopathy Checklist)是评估一个人的精神病态特质的常用工具之一。下面来看看上面列举的一些特质,思考一下这些特质在职场中究竟有利有弊。

Superficial charm


Psychopaths are often considered to be charming, engaging and smooth, due to a lack of self-consciousness which frees them from the inhibitions and worries about saying the wrong thing that can cause others to be more socially awkward.


Studies show that chief executives with high psychopathy scores tend to be seen as charismatic, creative and adept at communicating. This is because a psychopath’s charm can smooth over behavioural issues, according to a study in 2010 by Babiak. He found that those who score highly on a measure of psychopathy had overall poorer performance reviews, but were associated with good communication skills, strategic thinking, and creativity.




There is a close link between psychopathy and dysfunctional impulsivity, including criminal and violent behaviour. But it can also mean psychopaths have a tendency to engage in risky behaviour without thinking of the consequences. This impulsivity comes from a lack of fear, according to criminal psychologist David Lykke.

精神病态与不正常的冲动(包括犯罪和暴力行为)之间存在密切联系。但这也表明精神病态者更容易不计后果地从事高风险活动。犯罪心理学家大卫·里克(David Lykke)表示,这种冲动的根源是缺乏恐惧。

While it can hurt others at times, this impulsivity can sometimes be a force for good. Researchers have found a link between psychopathy and heroics, such as helping rescue someone from a dangerous situation.


Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, wrote in a Psychology Today article that highly impulsive people can thrive in fast-paced environments, such as a busy workplace, but they also speak and make decisions without thinking of the implications first.

伦敦大学学院(University College London)心理学教授阿德里安·弗海姆(Adrian Furnham)在《今日心理学》(Psychology Today)上撰文称,容易冲动的人更能适应快节奏的环境,例如忙碌的职场,但他们也会不假思索地说话或制定决策。

Risk-taking goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship, according to research from Cambridge University. Tests of 16 entrepreneurs showed they had highly adaptive, risk-taking behaviour that allowed them to make decisions quickly under stress.


Lack of remorse or guilt


It is commonly thought that psychopaths don’t feel any guilt or remorse, but recent research shows they are capable of such negative emotions, but only when something impacts them directly. In other words, if they hurt someone else, they won’t be racked with guilt like someone else might, but if a situation leaves them worse off financially, for instance, they may feel regret.


A series of studies in 2014 found that those prone to feeling guilt tend to avoid forming interdependent relationships with other people they perceive to be more competent than themselves. The reason - the prospect of not contributing enough to the relationship could make them feel guilty.


But clearly there are upsides to feeling guilt too. The studies also found that when guilt-prone people do form these relationships, they work harder to avoid letting people down. A study from Stanford Graduate School of Business also found that guilt can act as a motivator. It also helps guide people morally by acting as a deterrent from doing things that are legally and morally wrong. Psychopaths know intellectually what’s right and wrong, but they don’t feel it, as one expert puts it.

但内疚感显然也有好处。研究还发现,当容易内疚的人与他人建立关系时,他们会更加努力地避免辜负对方。斯坦福商学院(Stanford Graduate School of Business)的一项研究还发现,内疚可以成为一种激励因素。它还能给予人们道德上的指引,发挥威慑作用,避免人们从事违反法律或道德的事情。正如一位专家所说,精神病态者理智上知道对错,但却无法感受到。

Parasitic lifestyle


Another key characteristic of the psychopath is that they mostly form superficial, short-term relationships with others, before casually discarding them.


“Psychopaths generally try to perform best for themselves, but not necessarily for the people they work with or for,” says Galynker. “They’re very good at making good impressions, getting promoted and having their salaries raised, but not necessarily good in management. They’re only invested in a company if it’s needed for them to be promoted and make more money.”


People who act in their own self-interest can be seen as more dominant, even compared to people who contribute more, according to a series of experiments from Kellogg School of Management. But self-interest needs to be balanced with altruism, says to researcher Robert Livingston.

凯洛格管理学院(Kellogg School of Management)的一系列实验表明,与那些做出贡献的人相比,为谋求自身利益采取行动的人会被视为更具统治地位。但研究人员罗伯特·利文斯顿(Robert Livingston)表示,自私自利也需要与利他主义相互平衡。

“If you’re too soft – no matter how competent and able you are – people may not respect your authority," he says. "But if you only have dominance and you don’t have great ideas, and you use force to stay in power, then people will resent you. Being successful as a leader requires one to have both dominance and prestige.”


The right context


While there are clearly some traits that can be bad for business, the impact of personality traits ultimately come down to context, says Dutton.


“Whether psychopathic traits are useful depends on context,” he says. “Ruthlessness is not a bad thing but in the wrong context can morph into callousness. Fearlessness can also be advantageous, but in the wrong context can slip into recklessness. The key is having the right combination of traits at the right levels and in the right context."

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