According to a new study, male leaders are “given a pass” to behave badly in the workplace. Is anyone surprised?
If you’ve ever had a particularly demanding, aggressive or callous boss, you might have referred to them once or twice as a “psychopath”. The p-word is bandied around a lot, often without seriously considering its true meaning. While many individuals may display some psychopathic traits – such as antisocial behaviour, deviousness and a lack of empathy and remorse – relatively few people are true psychopaths.
Yet the idea that many company bosses have psychopathic tendencies is a pervasive one. (Google “my boss is a psychopath” and you’ll be presented with almost 6 million results.) Over the last 15 years, and particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, several academics have explored the concept of corporate psychopathy: the idea that psychopaths may be more likely to ascend the professional ladder than the general population, thanks in part to their innate ruthlessness, desire for control and ability to manipulate others.
According to a fascinating new study, people with psychopathic traits are slightly more likely to be bosses – although concerns about the prevalence of the issue are probably overblown.
But while male bosses are generally allowed to get away with displaying psychopathic tendencies in the workplace, women are punished – suggesting that beliefs about ‘appropriate’ behaviour for men and women can disguise workplace psychopathy.
Researchers at the University of Alabama found that exhibiting psychopathic characteristics – such as boldness in asserting dominance over others, being impulsive without inhibition, and a lack of empathy – can help men emerge as leaders and be perceived as professionally effective.
However, these same traits are viewed negatively when demonstrated by women.
“Aggressive behaviour is seen as more prototypical of men, and so people allow more displays of that kind of behaviour without social sanctions,” said Dr Peter Harms, associate professor of management at the University of Alabama.
“If women behave counter to gender norms, it seems like they get punished for it more readily.”
Doctoral student in management Karen Landay was the lead author on the paper, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. She described the double standards applied to male and female behaviour as “disheartening”.
“I can imagine women seeking corporate leadership positions getting told that they should emulate successful male leaders who display psychopathic tendencies,” she continued.
“But these aspiring female leaders may then be unpleasantly surprised to find that their own outcomes are not nearly as positive.”
While intriguing, the results of this study aren’t especially surprising. In fact, they support something that other research and anecdotal evidence has long suggested. We know that people tend to associate leadership with stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits, such as assertiveness, competitiveness and forcefulness.
We also know that male leaders are often allowed to get away with terrible behaviour, so long as they are perceived as being effective bosses. Look at Harvey Weinstein, who – even before he was accused of multiple instances of sexual assault and harassment – was well-known for being a hideous bully.
Or consider Fred Goodwin, the CEO who presided over the Royal Bank of Scotland at the time of its collapse in 2008. Goodwin was renowned for his brutal treatment of colleagues and for fostering a culture of fear in his workplace.
That’s not to say that Weinstein and Goodwin were necessarily psychopaths, or that female bosses never behave badly (they do).
But extensive research has shown that when women display anger, aggression and dominance in the workplace, they tend to be penalised for bucking gender norms, in a way that men are not. In 2014, Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of The New York Times, was fired from her post – with her “brusque” management style being cited as a factor in her departure.
Ultimately, however, few people want to work for or with someone who displays psychopathic tendencies – regardless of whether we think their aggressiveness makes them an effective leader.
Rather than feeling envious that male leaders can get away with behaving like psychopaths, the researchers on this latest study say that workplaces should crack down on manipulative and aggressive behaviour.
“We should be more aware of and less tolerant of bad behaviour in men,” said Dr Harms.
“It is not OK to lie, cheat, steal and hurt others whether it is in the pursuit of personal ambition, organizational demands or just for fun.”
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