The Upside of Psychopathy in Leadership: Fearless Dominance
The trait of psychopathy has been widely studied, making its way into mainstream media and popular culture. Highly psychopathic people are described as remorseless and coldhearted manipulators who can't control their impulses and can seriously harm the people around them. They don't seem to fear the consequences of their actions, are rarely stressed, and don't hesitate to act in pursuit of their personal goals. These traits that psychopaths lack—fear of consequences, stress, and hesitancy to act in pursuit of personal goals—are scientifically known as fearless dominance.
But what exactly does fearless dominance entail? Fearless-dominant people are emotionally resilient, self-assured, talkative, and outgoing. They remain calm in the face of threats and display both physical and social fearlessness. People with a high degree of fearless dominance remain composed even in the toughest situations, whether it's during a challenging business negotiation or in a physically dangerous situation.
This poise in the most nerve-wracking of situations might remind you of comic book heroes found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or even real-life heroes such as firefighters. However, these same characteristics also describe many criminals. So, it's unclear if it's good or bad to be fearless dominant. On the one hand, it can be helpful to be bold and intrepid, but on the other hand, people with fearless dominance can take very risky actions, and be excessively stubborn and determined.
Under the right conditions, fearless dominance might lead to workplace success. But what are these 'right conditions?' Current research suggests early socialization might be a key factor.
The Well-socialized Psychopath?
David T. Lykken proposed in his work on antisocial personalities that altruistic heroes and dangerous criminals are different branches of the same psychopathy tree. The key difference between them lies in their socialization, the process through which children and adolescents learn, follow, and accept the norms, values, and behaviors necessary for social living. During this socialization, young people transition to orienting themselves toward their peers and society. But what constitutes successful socialization? Is it possible that a fearless dominant young person who accepts and adopts these social expectations could blossom as a prosocial adult in the workplace?
In an online survey study involving 163 professionals and their colleagues, our research team at the University of Bonn, Germany, investigated the relation between fearless dominance, socialization, and workplace performance. We used educational attainment as an indicator of successful socialization, because achieving a higher degree of education suggests the more successful adoption of society's expectations. We found that fearless dominant participants who had higher levels of education received more positive performance evaluations from their work colleagues than fearless dominant participants with lower levels of education.
In a second study, we examined the long-term effects of fearless dominance on success among more than 4000 employees. Using education level to indicate socialization, we found that the impact of fearless dominance on work success depended on socialization. For those with greater education, fearless dominance was a helpful resource for coping with career challenges. In contrast, for those with less education, high fearless dominance led to professional failure. These "unsocialized" fearless dominants showed a strong tendency towards risky behaviors and less willingness to change their behavior in response to negative experiences—characteristics that explained their professional failure. They earned about €1000 less than their well-educated counterparts after four years, and some even experienced income losses over time.
Fearless Dominance, Social Competence, and Leadership
But how does fearless dominance relate to leadership? To answer this question, we first looked at some of the building blocks of good leadership. To be effective leaders, people need to be socially skilled. They must build and maintain networks of valuable contacts, so they can quickly access resources and support when needed. Having good social competence also means having a keen understanding of subtle social cues, which can reveal the full picture of any given social situation. Also, the socially savvy can influence others to gain their approval and support. Finally, socially competent people are perceived as honest and reliable, whether accurately or not. When combined, these qualities, named political skill, have been shown in prior research to create workplace relationships of trust. Therefore, we reasoned that the more highly educated fearless dominant leaders would be perceived by others as possessing workplace social competence, and that this political skill would determine whether those in leadership roles are effective.
To test these ideas, we recruited 239 leaders from a variety of different organizations to participate in an online study investigating the association between fearless dominance, social competence, and leader success. These leaders had an average of 8 years of leadership experience and 11 direct subordinates. We recruited their direct supervisors and at least one subordinate to provide ratings of social competence, quality of leadership and team performance.
As we expected, highly educated leaders with high fearless dominance were rated as highly socially competent by their supervisors. In contrast, leaders with high fearless dominance but subpar education were seen as lacking in social competence. Furthermore, subordinates rated the socially competent leaders as performing their job better, being more transformational (inspirational) as a leader, and delivering higher team performance.
Putting these findings together, we found that fearless dominant leaders who have greater educational attainment can be an asset for the organization. The value they produce in their leadership role is due to their high social competence, resulting in their subordinates perceiving them as more effective leaders.
In sum, our research confirms that psychopathy—at least the aspects associated with fearless dominance—need not be evil. Fearless dominance combined with social competence can be beneficial for leaders, their subordinates, and their organization.
For Further Reading
Genau-Hagebölling, H. A., Meurs, J. A., Kückelhaus, B. P., & Blickle, G. (2023). Fearless dominance and leader effectiveness: A chance for excellence in leadership. Applied Psychology: An International Review, APPS_12504. https://doi.org/10.1111/APPS.12504
Blickle, G. & Genau, H. A. (2019). The two faces of fearless dominance and their relations to vocational success. Journal of Research in Personality, 81, 25-37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2019.05.001
Blickle, G., & Schütte, N. (2017). Trait psychopathy, task performance, and counterproductive work behavior directed toward the organization. Personality and Individual Differences, 109, 225-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.01.006
Bastian Kückelhaus is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bonn, Germany. His research topics include the Dark Triad of Personality as well as personnel testing and assessment.
Gerhard Blickle is a full professor of psychology at the University of Bonn, Germany. He researches a wide variety of workplace-related topics that include (dark) personality at work, interaction and communication in the workplace, ethics and counterproductive work behavior, occupational performance diagnostics as well as organizational and occupational socialization.
James A. Meurs is an Associate Professor in the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University, USA. He has published articles in a range of management and applied psychology journals on the topics of occupational stress, personality at work, and political skill.