I Feel Like We’re Being a Little Too Chill About This ‘Psychopaths at Work’ Thing?

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Photo: Angela Cappetta/Getty Images

Every March in Austin, disparate groups of people come together to discuss big and important ideas: Tech! Music! Innovation! Tacos! Tacos … in a truck! Psychopaths! Wait. What?

The SXSW festival is host to hundreds of official and unofficial panels, shows, and events each year. On Tuesday, there was a panel entitled Psychopaths in Silicon Valley: A Guide. Here’s the official description:

Whether you’re living the start-up life or laughing at its caricature portrayal in HBO’s Silicon Valley, you’ve likely used the word “psychopath” as a casual insult. Is there any truth to it? There are uncanny parallels in the description of a glorified tech exec or online troll and the clinical definition of a psychopath, and the latter can cause massive damage to an organization or community. How do you know if you’re working with/for a psychopath? How do you manage him/her? This panel features a clinician, social scientist, and venture capitalist, each with a different intimacy with psychopaths. Learn how to identify and deal with a psychopath, whether a colleague, troll or date from hell.

While a practical how-to is helpful for many different workplace issues, it seems that we should try to avoid hiring people who are “glorified tech execs” instead of figuring out how to manage our expectations of them once they’re in charge and we realize they are … psychopaths. AHHHHH!!!

According to a report about the panel from the Guardian, psychologist Michael Woodworth explained that “a true psychopath is someone that has a blend of emotional, interpersonal, lifestyle, and behavioral deficits but an uncanny ability to mask them. They come across as very charming, very gregarious. But underneath there’s a profound lack of remorse, callousness, and a lack of empathy.” Venture capitalist Bryan Stolle confirmed that this could be why there are so many of them in Silicon Valley: “You have to make sacrifices and give up things, including sometimes a marriage, family, and friends. And you have to convince other people.”

Much ado has been made about the “alarmingly high” percentage of psychopaths in the workplace, particularly in leadership positions. (It’s estimated that 3 to 4 percent of senior positions in business are occupied by psychos.) According to a dubious study published last year, 21 percent of CEOs are psychopaths. Sure, I’d believe it, but doesn’t that scare anyone else??? Why are we being so chill about all these psychos running big companies with a lot of money? Maybe we should focus on lowering the number of psychopaths at work instead of just accepting their presence as a cute fact of life. Right? ANYONE???

As the SXSW panel proves, the conversation around office psychopathy is reaching the tipping point that many discussions around workplace behavior eventually reach: Hey, maybe being a psychopath at the office could work to your advantage? (Like start-ups with robust parental-leave policies and public-facing commitments to diversity that also treat women horribly and make dismal attempts at actually hiring diverse candidates.) It certainly helps to be an impassioned but emotionless, hardworking but egomaniacal person if you want to run a ruthlessly successful start-up. Being a psychopath could actually be good for your bottom line, you know?

BUT AHHH, wait, what were we talking about again? Oh right, psychopaths. AHHH. Isn’t the workplace scary enough? Let’s back up for a second. Hello!!!

Thankfully, the panel speakers at least had a suggestion for what to do if you think you might be working with a psychopath (even if he is a psychopath that makes your company a lot of money): Run! Haha, no. Jeff Hancock, a Stanford social scientist who studies psychopathy, recommended text-based communications if you’d like to avoid being manipulated because psychopaths are “verbally not very skilled.” And besides, one can be a nonviolent psychopath, so at least the odds are probably in your favor. Hopefully? Who can say.

But just in case, I’d add: If you’re working with a psychopath, be careful. And whatever you do, if one day he decides to run for office, please don’t vote for him. AHHH.

Are We Too Chill About This ‘Psychopaths at Work’ Thing?