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Education The Faculty Graduate Schools Graduate School of Behavioural and Social Sciences Research Master
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Psychopathy in supervisors

Date:20 July 2021
Author:Anne Klaver
Supervisors with high scores on psychopathy are ofte able to advance to higher levels within organizations
Supervisors with high scores on psychopathy are ofte able to advance to higher levels within organizations

For my thesis, I conducted research on triarchic psychopathy in the workplace. In this research, I examined a form of psychopathy in supervisors and its effect on perceptions of satisfaction and trust in employees. Triarchic psychopathy is a way of charting psychopathy by examining three different facets: ‘boldness’, ‘meanness’ and ‘disinhibition’. Each of these three facets consists of different properties. 

Meanness, boldness and disinhibition
Supervisors with high scores on psychopathy are often able to advance to higher levels within organizations. Previous studies have revealed that these supervisors can also have positive effects in the workplace. For my research, I examined psychopathy from each of these three facets. ‘Meanness’ is characterized by manipulative and vicious behavior and a lack of empathy. We expected that employees would have less trust in supervisors who exhibit these characteristics, which would also lead to lower levels of satisfaction with these supervisors. ‘Boldness’ refers to a dominant attitude, self-assurance and good social skills. In general, these characteristics can be related to more positive outcomes in the workplace. Beforehand, I expected this characteristic to be positively linked to trust in and satisfaction with a supervisor. ‘Disinhibition’ is characterized by such aspects as unreliability, problems with self-control and affect regulation. I therefore expected that this trait would strengthen the negative relationship between the ‘meanness’ of a supervisor and employee trust, while weakening the positive relationship between the ‘boldness’ of a supervisor and employee trust. 

Dark personality traits
In my Bachelor’s thesis, I investigated Machiavellianism, another dark personality trait. I examined how this characteristic is manifested amongst supervisors in the workplace and its effect on employees. This is what led me in the direction of dark personality traits. For my Master’s thesis, I wanted to delve deeper into the trait that often has the most negative effects in the workplace—psychopathy—and I went in search of possibilities for investigating this further.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I ultimately conducted my research differently than I had originally planned. I had wanted to do field research and collect data on dyads of supervisors and employees. I did this using two separate questionnaires—one for the supervisor and one for the employee—so that I would obtain information from two sources.  Because this method was prematurely discontinued by the pandemic, I ultimately decided to supplement these data with online data. I combined this with my traineeship in England. The data collection method was an online experiment, in which we had participants read a scenario concerning a specific supervisor who exhibited characteristics of meanness, boldness and disinhibition. I ultimately used both sources of data for my research.

According to the results of our research, ‘boldness’ on the part of supervisors did indeed increase trust amongst employees. In contrast, ‘meanness’ was negatively linked to employee trust in supervisors, which led to less satisfaction with supervisors. We also found that the negative effect of ‘meanness’ was strengthened when a supervisor also exhibited the third trait: ‘disinhibition’. This ultimately indicated that two of the three facets had a negative effect, while the other had a positive effect. Our expectations were thus confirmed in part.

In practice, the results of this study could be used to enact guidelines. For example, Human Resources departments could take the scores of supervisors on the three psychopathy facets into account during the selection process. 

I found it extremely interesting to conduct this study, and I am quite pleased with the ultimate results, despite the restrictions due to the COVID-19 measures. My research allowed me to put into practice the knowledge and skills that I had acquired in my Research Master’s programme. I truly enjoyed the freedom that I had to select a topic and to design and carry out my study.

For my part, I would like to do more research on this topic in the future. I am interested in exploring it further and, in the future, examining other conditions and their effects on teams. I am still considering what I would like to do next, and will first complete my second Master’s degree in Work, Organizational and Personnel Psychology. In the future, I am planning to pursue a PhD.

About the author

Anne Klaver
Anne Klaver

Anne (27, the Netherlands) completed a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology at the University of Groningen. She then started the Master’s programme in Work, Organizational and Personnel Psychology and the Research Master’s programme in Behavioural and Social Sciences (BSS). Within the latter programme, she selected the topic of Understanding Societal Change, with a specialization in organizational psychology.