When Psychopaths Are In Charge, Watch Out!


Ever since the March/April issue of CFA Magazine published an article, The Financial Psychopath Next Door by Sherree DeCovny, everyone’s been talking about sociopaths and psychopaths in management.

[Update: On March 14, 2012, a Goldman Sachs executive director resigned after publishing a New York Times op-ed that said the firm’s culture is “toxic,” with managers openly talking about “ripping their clients off … sometimes over internal e-mail.”]

Charming, bright, dangerous, lying psychopaths

As DeCovny wrote: “These “financial psychopaths” generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think. At the same time, they display an abundance of charm, charisma, intelligence, credentials, an unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation, and a drive for thrill seeking.”

Seems she’s rung bells with a lot of people. One Wall Street therapist told her that although there’s an estimated 1 sociopath in 100 in the general population, he’d put it at four times that many on Wall Street. And as we have watched the economy melt down on high-risk investments presented as AAA opportunities, we have to admit: that number seems less than surprising.*

You really DO know psychopaths

Just out of curiosity, I took the FastCompany “Is Your Boss a Psychopath” quiz and answered a few questions about a former colleague, the one who regularly taunted me with a nickname that I was still too Northern to know was nasty. The quiz results? “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Too late.

Protect yourself from psychopaths

Martha Stout, the Harvard psychologist whose research opened this topic half a decade ago when she published The Sociopath Next Door, urges individuals facing sociopathic bosses (or friends or family members) to focus first on self-protection.

“Do not try to redeem the unredeemable,” she urges in an interview published by Broadway Books. “Second (third, fourth, and fifth) chances are for people who possess conscience. … we cannot control the behavior — let alone the character structures — of other people. Learn this fact of human life, and avoid the irony of getting caught up in the same ambition he has– to control.”

Redeem a psychopath? This is a job for God!

Well, I know I can’t redeem anyone. And when I read DeCovny’s description — and think about the first business psychopath I knew, who was described as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by even a non-believing coworker — I know that psychopaths are unusually clear channels for evil to act in our world.

So that makes the task of redeeming the psychopath, as an individual, a job for God. Of managing the psychopath, as an individual, a job for human law. And we, of course, mediate in prayer and through responsibilities God may have given us in the legal system. Should, God forbid, the psychopath be another believer, we are charged by God with the responsibility of confronting him or her:

“You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).

That is to say: we would be in sin if we held anger against a psychopath; we may (but do not have to) correct him or her; and again, we shall not do evil ourselves as a result of a psychopath’s behavior.

When the system is psychopathic, what then?

But what is our responsibility when an entire system of enterprise has fallen to the control of psychopaths?

First, this is not a surprise. As DeCovny describes the psychopath, we hear echoes of him who fell from Heaven in rebellion. The one who is often called Lucifer, “light bearer,” because in his charisma, his graceful language, his charm, he still bears an glimpse of the heavenly light from which he came. We understand why our forebears named the early friction match after this one — it’s something that starts a fire suddenly, with the slightest irritation. We know that the system of this world is under the control of this one we do not follow. So it should be no surprise to find many of those leading this world system following his patterns of leadership.

Second, God has told us that we are not ourselves to behave like psychopaths in business: “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 25:17).

So what does that mean if you find yourself in a business directed by a psychopath, who expects you to behave in ways that are contrary to how God would run a business?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Not of the psychopath who’s managing the company, but of the Lord your God. And do what God says. Pray. And then, if you need to: Run. Not just to God’s arms, but to an entirely new field of endeavor, if need be. Perhaps to regulators as a whistleblower who will be persecuted and lose the dignity and respect you used to hold in the psychotic system, but who might just help to change it.

As Edmund Burke — the British MP who supported the American Revolution — said:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Will we continue to let evil triumph? Or will good Christians stand, confident that our God is greater than the evils of our times?

Dave Cohen takes issue with the prevalence of psychopathy in the population and on Wall Street — then suggests that as long as “corporations are people” THEY are psychopaths in a very interesting blog post.

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About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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7 Responses to When Psychopaths Are In Charge, Watch Out!

  1. Matt Kanrowitz says:

    At His Mansion, we regularly get men and women purportedly here to get healed,get clean and sober, and to give their lives to the Lord: But there’s always a few that cheerfully, charmingly, obstinately resist any real change They manipulate and obfuscate with great skill. But they will not or cannot change.. Are they psychopaths? If so, our question is not how to work with them, but how to minister to them. Any thoughts?

    • I’m afraid I’m not an expert. It would seem to me that in your setting, a bad apple (a consistent con artist, etc) could do a great deal of damage to the whole enterprise. I know that God is ultimately powerful to accomplish anything; but I also know that each makes our own choices, and that some people seem to have made very clear and committed choices for evil. I’m not sure you can maintain them in your setting over time. I would talk to and pray with your local advisors. Some of the ones you’re struggling with may be experiencing a kind of psychosis without insight that I’ve seen before which could be treatable (although I don’t know where your organization stands on medical treatment of mental illness). Some may be ACOA, whose particular family role included amusing and distracting from the chaos. Some may be adult survivors of childhood abuse, who stand on a large structure of lies to avoid seeing the horror of what happened to them. There are a number of possibilities … wise friends locally are in the best position to help you discern these individuals.

      • Matt Kanrowitz says:

        Most of our residents are ACOA, victims of childhood abuse, or both. We do arrange for them to get psych medication when needed. Does that constitute “treatment?”

        Whether you call them “con men,” “psychopaths,” or “sociopaths,” it breaks our hearts, wastes our time, and frustrates and discourages us when men and women hell-bent on self destruction cheerfully, willfully and cunningly play with us for months at a time before we finally figure out that they can’t or won’t change.But praise the Lord, many do get healed, and end up serving God the rest of their lives.

  2. Praise the Lord indeed! And it is heartbreaking to see the ones who are in self-destruction. Thank God for His Mansion and other places like yours.

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