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Science Has Finally Figured Out Why So Many Big 4 Partners Are Psychopaths

Here at Going Concern, we’re especially fascinated by the ever-unchanging dynamic between grunts and the benevolent leaders they serve. That’s why when I saw this article pop up on some sciencey subreddit I follow for no discernable reason, I just had to share.

Let’s jump right into “Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership,” shall we? First, the abstract.

Both scholars and the popular press have expressed concern regarding the potential prevalence of individuals with psychopathic tendencies in corporate leadership positions and the negative effects they may have on both individual workers and their organizations as a whole. However, research to date has been inconclusive as to whether such individuals are more likely to emerge as leaders or whether they are (in)effective leaders. To clarify the state of the literature, we conducted a meta-analysis on the association between psychopathic personality characteristics and leadership emergence, leadership effectiveness, and transformational leadership. Our results, based on data from 92 independent samples, showed a weak positive correlation for psychopathic tendencies and leadership emergence, a weak negative association for psychopathic tendencies and leadership effectiveness, and a moderate negative correlation for psychopathic tendencies and transformational leadership. Subgroup analyses on methodological factors did not indicate any differences from the main results. However, moderator analyses showed a gender difference in these associations such that psychopathic tendencies in men were weakly positively correlated with leadership emergence and effectiveness and negatively correlated with transformational leadership, while psychopathic tendencies in women were negatively associated with effectiveness and transformational leadership, and largely unassociated with emergence. In addition, small but consistent curvilinear associations were found for all leadership criteria. Overall, these results suggest that concern over psychopathic tendencies in organizational leaders may be overblown, but that gender can function to obscure real effects.

So basically all those articles about how one in five CEOs are psychopaths and that “CEO” is the most attractive job position of all for a bonafide psychopath are kinda overblown. In the way ketchup is kinda overrated as a condiment.

Psychopaths share three personality characteristics:

  • Boldness in asserting dominance over others;
  • Being impulsive without inhibition; and
  • Lack of empathy.

“Overall, although there is no positive or negative relation to a company’s bottom line when psychopathic tendencies are present in organizational leaders, their subordinates will still hate them,” said Dr. Peter Harms, associate professor of management at the University of Alabama. “So we can probably assume they behave in a manner that is noxious and whatever threats they make to ‘motivate’ workers don’t really pay off.”

However, the researchers discovered that the same assy qualities that make psychopathic men appear to be effective leaders actually work against women who show the same characteristics. In other words: it pays for dudes to be psychopaths, but women in the workplace are punished for it.

Now, this gets interesting in the conversation about how to make public accounting a more welcoming place for female leadership. Lacking a plethora of female leaders to look up to, aspiring women may instead look to male leadership and form their leadership style based on these men. As the study found, however, that may backfire on ambitious women.

“The existence of this double standard is certainly disheartening,” said Karen Landay, lead author on the paper. “I can imagine that women seeking corporate leadership positions getting told that they should emulate successful male leaders who display psychopathic tendencies. But these aspiring female leaders may then be unpleasantly surprised to find that their own outcomes are not nearly as positive.”