New research from the University of Notre Dame suggests that employees who respond well to an abusive manager may be primary psychopaths, or the type of person who does not react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful, or angry.

Many psychologists believe the term describes a personality trait or combination of traits. and we all fall somewhere along a scale from low to high levels of psychopathy.

“There are primary and secondary dimensions of psychopathy,” said Dr. Charlice Hurst, assistant professor of management in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

“Both consist of high levels of antisocial behavior; however, people who score high in primary psychopathy lack empathy and are cool-headed and fearless.

They don’t react to things that cause other people to feel stressed, fearful, or angry. Secondary psychopaths are more hot-headed and impulsive.

“We found that primary psychopaths benefit under abusive supervisors. Relative to their peers low in primary psychopathy, they felt less anger and more engagement and positive emotions under abusive supervisors.”

Hurst, along with Lauren Simon (University of Arkansas), Yongsuhk Jung (Korea Air Force Academy), and Dante Pirouz (Western University), conducted two studies with 419 working adults.

In one study, participants were asked to react to profiles of managers depicted as constructive or abusive. In that study, there were no differences in anger between high and low primary psychopathy participants, but the participants high in primary psychopathy reported feeling happier after imagining themselves working for an abusive manager.

In a second study, participants rated how abusive their own supervisors were. They were asked about behaviors such as rudeness, gossip about employees, not giving proper credit for work, invasion of privacy, and breaking promises.

Those high in primary psychopathy reported feeling less angry, more positive, and engaged.

Hurst says the research underscores the many ways that enabling managers to abuse employees can be harmful.

“It may reward and retain exactly the kind of people who are likely to perpetuate abusive cultures,” she said. “Psychopaths thriving under abusive supervisors would be better positioned to get ahead of their peers.”

Companies use engagement as a measure of organizational health, but Hurst’s research shows the importance of delving deeper.

She explains that if a company has a problem of widespread abuse, employee turnover could result in a company of individuals high in primary psychopathy.

“At the extreme, they could end up with a highly engaged workforce of psychopaths.”

The research is forthcoming in the Journal of Business Ethics.

Source: Notre Dame