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15th March 2016

Exploring the links between Psychopathic Personality Traits, Destructive Leadership and Workplace Bullying

Chloe O’Keeffe, one of our Business Psychologists, has written a summary of her research on the links between psychopathic personality traits, destructive leadership and workplace bullying.

An estimated cost of £13.75 billion to UK organisations was incurred due to workplace bullying in one year.[1] In an attempt to pin down the causes of workplace bullying, research has recently become somewhat richer when examining the personality of the ‘bully’. In particular, personality traits underpinning the construct of psychopathy have been linked to workplace bullying, with one study reporting that 26% of all bullying incidents were associated with the presence of ‘corporate psychopaths’.[2]

Other precursors of workplace bullying studied recently are contextual factors, such as destructive leadership styles.[3] The prevalence of destructive leadership behaviour in one work sample varied from 33.5-61%.[4] With this, destructive leadership studies have found detrimental costs on productivity and the bottom line, one study reporting a cost of $23.8 billion annually for US companies.[5]

Undoubtedly, there is overlap between the two constructs; corporate psychopathy and destructive leadership, with both showing extremely negative outcomes for individuals and organisations. With a gap identified i.e. how do these constructs relate to each other and to workplace bullying, a conceptual model was built and tested.

Each construct was broken down, psychopathy was measured by traits which included callousness, manipulativeness and impulsivity and destructive leadership was measured by styles such as derailed and tyrannical leadership. Participants from commercial environments were asked to evaluate their manager’s personality traits and leadership styles, while at the same time noting any negative acts they recently experienced in the workplace. The results were staggering – with the final statistically analysed model showing that when psychopathic personality traits were present in managers, destructive leadership was present in a high amount of cases. In turn, the presence of destructive leadership was highly predictive of negative acts reported in the workplace.

Clear applications exist for the model, foremost adding to the literature which endeavours to identify the predictors of workplace bullying. The model can be practically applied to strengthen organisational interventions and policies by highlighting potential sources of negative behaviour at work. With this, screening procedures can be enhanced by understanding the stem of negative behaviour. Finally, the decision making processes of these destructive individuals can be better understood – to learn from past mistakes and develop better leaders of the future.

Click here to read about how the Organisational Behaviour Audit tool explores the occurrences and perceptions of negative behaviours in the workplace.

[1] Giga, S. I., Hoel, H., & Lewis, D. (2008). The costs of workplace bullying. University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

[2] Boddy, C. R. (2011). Corporate psychopaths, bullying and unfair supervision in the workplace. Journal of Business Ethics, 100(3), 367-379

[3] Hauge, L. J., Skogstad, A., & Einarsen, S. (2007). Relationships between stressful work environments and bullying: Results of a large representative study. Work & Stress, 21(3), 220-242.

[4] Aasland, M. S., Skogstad, A., Notelaers, G., Nielsen, M. B., & Einarsen, S. (2010). The prevalence of destructive leadership behaviour. British Journal of Management, 21, 438–452.

[5] Tepper, B. J., Moss, S. E., Lockhart, D. E., & Carr, J. C. (2007). Abusive supervision, upward maintenance communication, and subordinates’ psychological distress. Academy of Management Journal, 50, 1169–1180.