The Empathy of Corporate Psychopaths

In my workshops on Lifting Your Emotional Intelligence I spend a certain amount of time on how to recognise and deal with corporate psychopaths. Many participants have difficulty in understanding how I can claim that one reason corporate psychopaths are successful is that they have considerable empathy. Far too many people immediately conclude that empathy and psychopathy are mutually exclusive. What I have said in workshops up till now is that while psychopaths do not have emotional empathy, they certainly have cognitive empathy. Indeed they have superior persuasion and manipulation skills because they can spot emotional weaknesses in other people and can fake emotions (crocodile tears) if they need to.

However a new answer to this conundrum has come to light. According to a BBC Science Report on 25 July recent research has shown psychopaths are born with an empathy switch. They don’t lack empathy but unlike the rest of us they can turn empathy off and on at will.

The ability to empathise with others – to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – is crucial to your social development. The neurological explanation for this are mirror neurones which fire up in our brain when we watch someone do a task and when we do it ourselves. They are thought to play a vital role in the ability to empathise with others in order to respond appropriately in everyday situations. When we see someone in pain, our mirror neurones activate empathetic painful emotions within us.

Psychopaths are characterised by superficial charm, pathological lying and a diminished capacity for remorse. Evidence suggests they are also more likely to commit fraud than people without the psychiatric condition. For example recent research by Professor Robert Davidson has shown that CEOs with even one minor legal infraction such as a speeding ticket are seven times more likely to engineer an accounting fraud than CEOs with completely clean records.

Neurological scientists have found that only when asked to empathise did the criminals’ empathy reaction, also known as the mirror system, fire up the same way as it did for the controls. Without instruction, they show reduced activity in the regions of the brain associated with pain. In other words psychopaths have an “empathy’ switch that the rest of us are lacking.

If you happen to have a corporate psychopath as a boss it can be particularly challenging. With this new research it is even more so because when you now have a one-on-one meeting with them you will never know if the “empathy switch” is on or off.


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Chris Golis - Author


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