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Do you need to be a psychopath to get ahead at work?

Behavioural psychologist Charlotte Austin believes sometimes you can be successful by channeling your inner psycho...
Do you need to be a psychopath to get ahead at work?
February 9, 2017   |    Charlotte Austin

Hollywood has given us some great examples of workplace psychos, from the lawless trader Gordon Gekko in Wall Street to cruel magazine editor Priestly (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada.

I, too, have worked in media, helping to resolve conflict and manage challenging relationship dynamics, and I met many functioning psychopaths and people with other ‘difficult’ personalities – in fact, the industry is crawling with them.

The word ‘psycho’ describes people who are unlike us, or who we perceive as being morally questionable or just plain difficult. And many of us have come into contact with them at some point in our working lives – the sort of person who lacks empathy and remorse, has a manipulative behaviour and superficial charm, and is happy to take risks.

As a behavioural psychologist and coach, I help people deal with these personality types in the workplace – whether they’re on the receiving end of them, or because they play host to these tendencies themselves.


Some psychopathic traits are good, and a person with them will work very hard to achieve success, but there are other people who will do anything – back-stab, cheat or lie – to get to the top. Let’s face it, Abba was right, the winner takes it all. From school sports day to gaining a place at university and eventually landing that dream job, we are programmed us to believe that we must achieve certain goals in order to progress. The message is: you must win – at all costs.

Couple this with our obsession with TV dramas, books and films featuring psychopaths, from Jamie Dornan’s serial killer in The Fall to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and you begin to find yourself wondering… does our appetite for success and psychopathy suggest we secretly harbour the desire to become psychopathic ourselves?

There is a common misconception that psychopaths are crazy, evil, law-breaking individuals. In fact, evidence from the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy shows that one in 25 people is a functioning, non-criminal psychopath. The odds are that most of us have met one – and some of you reading this will score highly on the psychopathy scale (take the mini-test in the panel, right). So is it actually a bad thing to have psychopathic tendencies?


Having worked closely with many people with this syndrome, I can support the fact that some of their characteristics are desirable. A number of academics in the field of psychology, such as Professor Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Oxford, actually argue that we should strive to become more psychopathic to engender professional success.

In order to get promoted, we are often encouraged to foster characteristics – ambition, single-mindedness, emotional disconnection from decision making and action-orientated – that would give us a higher score on the Psychopathy Checklist. As these traits develop, it is reasonable to question whether we are actually becoming psychopathic in your pursuit of success.

So, how do you know if you’re a good or bad psychopath? The darker side of psychopathic tendencies include lack of empathy, remorse or guilt, and pathological lying. If you would do anything to get what you want, using any or all of the above, regardless of the negative impact it would have on colleagues or clients, family or friends, then you are becoming destructive and self-serving, and you should look critically at your behaviour.

A simple way to determine whether you are becoming psychopathic in such a negative manner that you could harm others, is to do an empathy test: can you imagine how you make people feel about themselves at this moment and in the future? When you think about the people who are important to you, are you concerned about how they feel now and over a long period? If you genuinely care about how you make someone feel, and you modify your behaviour accordingly to cause minimal upset, you are unlikely to be a high-scoring psychopath. Psychopaths don’t think about long-term relationships. They manipulate people for as long as they are useful to them. Once they have got what they want, they have shown no regard for how they leave that person feeling.


I have spent many years with people who I’d consider have the Dark Triad of personality disorders – this refers to three traits which, taken together, capture the worst of humanity: psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism – and I do not believe that you have to be cut-throat and manipulative in order to make a success of your life. Yes, you have to be strategic and focused, often, sadly, to the detriment of your personal life, but through awareness of yourself and others, it needn’t stay this way. I know this to be true because I have seen it happen hundreds of times.

Ambitious, spirited people can get to the top in business through positive influence, empathetic behaviour and creating genuine win-win situations for themselves, their colleagues and clients. Balance ambition with empathy for others (and that includes family), focus on your goals and help your contemporaries to also achieve theirs. Because, let’s face it, the more genuinely helpful you are to others, the more likely they are to reciprocate the favour when you most need it. In embracing the positive characteristics of psychopathy, it doesn’t mean you have to be obnoxious.

Exclusive discount for Balance readers: To get 20% off How to Live and Work with a Psychopath by Charlotte Austin (£12.99, Amazon), simply email, putting Balance-001 in the subject box.


If, in all aspects of your life, you answer yes to these questions, you may be at risk of causing upset to people and would benefit from seeing an expert. See Chat Global for more information:

Do you act with lack of remorse, empathy or guilt at work and in your personal life?
Do you experience a general failure to accept responsibility in and out of work?
Do you lie more than tell the truth to get what you want?
Can you imagine how all the people in your life feel on an emotional level?
Are you often impulsive?
Do you use people for power, money, thrill… but do not provide a beneficial return of these benefits?

Read more: How to deal with stress at work

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