If asked to describe a psychopath, most people will think of a crazy, disturbed, bloodthirsty serial killer. Very few will imagine a successful businessperson or a CEO as a psychopath. They’re known as “executive psychopaths”, “office psychopaths”, “corporate psychopaths”, and “snakes in suits.”

What characteristics are considered psychopathic? Do you think you’ve met, known, or worked with a psychopath? 

This article attempts to answer these questions. It gives you some guidelines on how to spot psychopaths and deal with them to avoid chaos and distress in the workplace.

Psychopathy and Sociopathy: What is the Difference?

The words “psychopaths” and “sociopaths” are sometimes used interchangeably to describe different people on the personality disorder spectrum. It’s essential to know the difference as some behaviours are the same, such as a poor inner sense of right and wrong.

The differences between both cases are spotted by exhibiting the following traits:

Feeling few (if any) emotions
Lack of care for others
Pathological lying
Charming personality
Lack of fear
Risk-taking behaviour
Unreliable in relationships
Inability to love
No remorse for wrongdoing
Lack of life goals
No strong morals or conscience
Breaking the law
Physical aggression
Manipulation of people for personal gain
Anger and hostility
Unpredictable mood swings
Impulsive behaviours
Chaotic and unstable life
The exploitation of other people
No guilt or remorse
Quick to get angry and defensive
The differences between psychopaths and sociopaths

If you’d like to read more about the causes and treatment of psychopathy and sociopathy, check Very Well Health website.

How to Spot a Business Psychopath?

For years, movies and TV series have portrayed psychopaths as cruel, violent, bloodthirsty serial killers. That’s just one way of showing how psychopaths could be.

Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the Boardroom.

Robert D. Hare, a Canadian professor and psychologist.

Not every successful businessperson or CEO shows obvious signs on the spectrum of psychopathy. Psychopathy doesn’t necessarily translate to violence.

In one of his studies called “Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk,” Hare and other professors established that psychopathy is positively associated with charisma and presentation style like creativity, good strategic thinking, and communication skills. It’s also negatively linked to performance and responsibility when it comes to being a team player, management skills, and accomplishments.

If you’d like to spot or avoid hiring a business psychopath, look out for these characteristics

  • Craving validation and recognition.
  • Being self-centred. Being less interested in others and having deficits in empathy.
  • Having high levels of entitlement. Behaving as if they deserve more privileges or have higher status than the others.

Here’s What to Look for in an Office Psychopath

  • The way they talk about their co-workers, employees, or supervisors. Psychopaths follow a behavioural pattern in the corporate environment, and they ‌describe people as machines, not as human beings. You should consider the absence of an emotional connection or a human angle in their narrative.
  • Their lack of a coherent plan or goals. Psychopaths ‌lack life goals, and that can be spotty in their work history. Their inability to make a believable narrative out of an irregular work history should raise a flag. However, it’s fair to mention that this isn’t always the case. People with varied backgrounds can be exceptional assets in the workplace.
  • Their language. Psychopaths tend to speak in a cause-and-effect framework deprived of any emotional connection. They also focus on the lower end of the hierarchy of needs, such as survival, food, and money. These aspects consume their conversations. Be aware of that mindset and how it is reflected in their interactions.

Another thing to take into consideration here is their hostility. Regardless of who they’re talking to, they use negative language, as they can’t adjust their speech for various audiences.

  • Their tenses. Business psychopaths usually speak in the first person. However, every time they describe a negative event, they’ll switch to the third person due to their emotional deficit. They’ll make it seem as if the event occurred a long time ago even when it was fairly recent to distance themselves from the problem.

What to Do if you Work with a Business Psychopath?

It’s very likely to meet a corporate psychopath during your professional journey. If you ever do, here are some tips on how to deal with them:

  • Show interest. As we’ve mentioned above, psychopaths have little to no interest in people other than themselves. They can be bold thinkers who do great things for their companies. Showing interest in their abilities can make your interactions with them successful.
  • Protect your peace of mind. To achieve this, set some rules for your daily interactions with them. This issue is related to the tasks you work on. Make sure they go hand in hand with your values. Don’t let yourself get manipulated.
  • Negotiate through writing. Psychopaths are very charming in face-to-face communication, which makes manipulating others easy for them. Written communication creates a distance between the people involved and strips them from their charm. It’s a shield. Emails and texts are more practical when dealing with executive psychopaths.

Are Successful Businesspeople Psychopaths?

Successful businesspeople have usually climbed their way to the top because of unique traits that helped them along the way. These include charisma, charming personality, fearlessness, risk-taking, resilience to chaos, etc. These characteristics are also associated with psychopaths, and that’s why CEOs are often described as such.

Psychopathy isn’t easy to detect, and it’s not just how Hollywood represents it. Dr. Tara Swart, a psychiatric doctor and neuroscientist, says that psychopathy is a spectrum, and we all fall on it somewhere. What differentiates us from psychopaths is the ability to feel empathy and have a conscience.

Some of the best-known businessmen are considered psychopaths because they are associated with egoistic and narcissistic tendencies, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Jobs, for instance, displayed patterns of low empathy and antisocial behaviour, while Musk manifests a narcissistic personality in his media presence.

However, this is not the case for every entrepreneur. Some entrepreneurs are successful because they have the traits that make them stand out from the crowd and a good leadership style. To learn more about these characteristics, read these two EWOR blog posts: “A Complete Guide To Becoming A Great Leader” and “5 Traits Successful Entrepreneurs Have in Common.”  


Psychopathy isn’t always about serial killers; we encounter psychopaths at work as our colleagues or bosses. It’s important to spot psychopathic traits and know how to deal with them to succeed in the corporate world. If you’re also curious to know whether you fall into the psychopathy spectrum, here’s a link for a quick online test.

About the author

EWOR is a school conceived by Europe’s top professors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. We educate and mentor young innovators to launch successful businesses.

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