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Personal Finance

Is your boss a psychopath?

Do you ever wonder why the bad guy is in charge — and the good guy is pushing paper?

There may be a reason for that. Bad bosses often promise the world, according to Deborah Ancona, a professor of leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, and hard-working employees can be left to deal with the aftereffects. “Toxic leaders are often talking about all the great things that they can do,” she told MIT Sloan.

Management are always looking for solutions and someone who talks a good game, she said, but those people may not have the best interests of the staff or company at heart. Charisma and building a personal brand that inspires confidence can be enough to get the corner office. “Only later, through interaction or their behavior over time do you start to see the underbelly that isn’t always visible at first glance.”

‘Toxic leaders often talk about all the great things that they can do.’
—Deborah Ancona, founder of the MIT Leadership Center
Are bad bosses more likely to be men or women? A 2013 experiment published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization found that women are selected much less often as leaders, even when they have a stellar track record. The researchers noted key differences between the sexes: men were “overconfident” and more likely to exaggerate their past performance.

These personality traits are not pretty, and don’t bode well for employees, customers or, indeed, investors. The “dark triad,” cited by Ancona, consists of narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (manipulation of others) and psychopathy (acting impulsively with no regard for other people’s feelings). One is bad enough. But all three would make for a difficult work culture, especially in a competitive field with power and prestige at stake.

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Dorothy Ann Spry, an organizational psychologist and author of “Psychopathic Leadership: Good, Bad & Downright Ugly,” has worked with companies in the U.K. about how to recognize “dark triad” measures. “Sadly, a lot of people that train in emotional intelligence are not trained to recognize these dark traits — high manipulation, dysfunctional narcissism. Instead, recruiters are selecting charismatic, persuasive and cunning individuals.”

This is of concern to investors and employees, Spry says. “Just the thought of the existence of a narcissistic, authoritarian, manipulating and controlling leader wandering the corridors of an organization should be of interest to those involved in corporate management and corporate governance,” she said, “because their very presence influences the way organizations are run and their negative effects both on society and the environment we live in.”

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