Who’s Allowed to Be Mean? A History

To combat our workplaceepidemic of meanness, we need to confront not only the mean men (and women) themselves but also the surrounding culture that enables them. We often rationalize that anger and meanness are a fixed “mentality,” and, even worse, we let it slide in those who have the privilege of power. Disgraced former congressman Michael Grimm—who was packed off to prison last month—is an excellent example of a man at the top who was allowed to be angry and abusive simply because that’s “just who he is.”  Meanness and rage are what he’s known for, his trademark, and he felt theyought to be respected as such.

Anger itself can become a cheap substitute for character. A mean man like Grimm could think: “If I’m known for being the angry guy, I can just react according to expectations without having to figure out how I really feel, andmy behavior will be excused because, well, that’s who I am.” This happens to be  consistent with psychopathy. Even the subclinical psychopath can be fully stymied when emotions arise. He has little to no capacity to understand how he is feeling, let alone why, so it’s easier to just let the free-emotion fire hose loose and act out.

Looking at the history of workplace culture in the United States tells us something about how we got here. The trajectory  has led us to a place where some are allowed to express their anger, while for others—notably any woman in power—it remains taboo.

1930s: Industrial psychologist Elton Mayo began his study of a novel phenomenon that was emerging: workers were angry, and they were letting it show. While some psychologists were willing to accept that conflict was not only inevitable but also potentially good, Mayo considered a work dispute the collective equivalent of a nervous breakdown, a serious and ideally avoidable malfunction.

In his quest for workplace harmony—which has obvious advantages in terms of reduced labor turnover and time lost in strikes—Mayo and his colleagues made important claims that centered on the understanding and handling of anger at work.

His conclusion was that “worker anger had nothing to do with the job itself.” The idea resonated with managers, as it removed the blame from their shoulders. Mayo’s theory was a crowd-pleaser for the manufacturers who employed the workers and the industrial psychologists who made excuses for them. These human-relations experts (as they were known at the time) claimed in 1938 that critics of capitalism were merely “projecting their own maladjustments upon a conjured monster, the capitalists.” But the basic message was more subtle: workers brought anger to the job from other sources, typically from home.

Harmony required restraint from both managers and employees. If workers were angry not because of the job but because of home life, then an angry response from management was inappropriate. In order to enjoy a superior rationality over emotion-driven employees, it was essential that the manager display consistent restraint.

Mayo posited that “a uniformly benign emotional style was the best managerial tool.” This was probably the greatest shift in thinking that emerged between the two world wars. The gruff, authoritarian boss now took his place alongside the angry, punitive parent in what amounted to a major enlargement of the campaign against anger. Expressing anger—being mean—became one of the leading justifiable causes for being fired. The standards for being a good boss were changing remarkably. These standards didn’t, however, apply to owners and those at the very top.

1940s: Once, an ideal foreman was someone who met production quotas and took charge of technical innovations on the shop floor, but by the forties the foreman was expected to be a human-relations expert who blocked grievances and reduced turnover by managing his own emotions as well as those of his underlings. Bosses were urged to recognize that “the day of the ‘bully’ and ‘slave-driver’ had gone and the day of the ‘gentleman’ and ‘leader’ had arrived.”

Yet ambivalence and hypocrisy remained in this period’s otherwise sweeping attempt to reduce meanness at work and elsewhere. While anger control was expected of workers and internalized by many white-collar managers up the hierarchy, it never quite touched the top executive levels. Executives urged restraint on secretaries without any reciprocity. They sent subordinates to emotion-training sessions, but they didn’t go themselves. At the top, executives could still be bullies, because they were in charge.

1950s: Middle managers were expected to make a particular point of being patient and avoiding aggression; an ability to control their tempers under provocation was paramount. Yet studies from the time showed that top managers were not expected to make being pleasant a priority.

In dealing with grievances or disciplinary cases, restraint was not required of the top ranks.  Aggressiveness and drive—the prerequisites of American gumption—seemed incompatible with reining in one’s spirited emotions. And so the executive temper had to be tolerated, and it was up to the subordinate to learn how to time bad news and to put a favorable gloss on problems in order to minimize conflict.

Sadly, sixty years later, we have not moved forward much from this way of thinking—in other words, meanness and anger are okay for those at the top, but heaven forbid the underlings should push back. But with all of the shifting expectations around work life  that the millennial generation brings with it to the office, could this culture finally be in for an overhaul? Let’s hope so.

Five Common Misconceptions About Psychopaths

As we explore the link between entrepreneurship and psychopathy, it’s crucial to examine some common misconceptions about what a psychopath is. This Halloween season, dozens of movies and television shows featuring crazed axe-wielding villains chasing screaming coeds will hit the airwaves. And those gory pictures may match up closely with what we think of as a psychopath. The research on psychopathy that I’ve delved into, however, offers a much more nuanced portrait of this complex disorder, one that debunks some common misconceptions about this most pernicious of personality disorders. But as we look more closely at what may be our own biases for who is and is not behaving in a way that indicates psychopathy, it’s also critical that we understand the ways in which our cultural narrative may steer us away from seeing those disordered individuals who hide in broad daylight, or in the corner office.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with violence.

Many of us most readily equate psychopaths with the famous serial killers whose unimaginable and outrageous acts captivated the public’s imagination: monsters like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. The media continues to use the terms psychopathic and killer almost interchangeably. But psychopathy can and does occur in the absence of any criminal behavior, and many individuals assessed as psychopathic have no history of violence. Psychopaths, more broadly, tend to engage in behaviors that may cause harm in a social or emotional sense (malicious gossiping, lying, manipulating others, or acting without regard for the feelings of others). As distasteful as these actions may be, none of them are violent or illegal.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with psychosis.

Owing perhaps in part to the similarity of the words psychopath and psychotic, another common assumption is that psychopaths are irrational, out of touch with reality, or both—these being characteristics of psychosis. Not helping matters is the news media using the term psychopath when featuring such famous killers as Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, and John Hinckley, who all showed indications of unmistakable psychotic thinking. More recently, the term psychopath was used by at least one political commentator in the context of Jared Lee Loughner, who shot and killed six people and wounded thirteen others, including US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona.

While psychopathic traits can appear in conjunction with psychotic symptoms, they don’t necessarily do so. People with psychopathy alone generally look quite different from those presenting with psychosis only. Psychopathic individuals are generally rational, free of delusions, and well oriented to their surroundings. Psychotics act very differently from this.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

Until the most recent version of the DSM was released, it was strongly implied that being psychopathic and being antisocial were interchangeable. Many may find their differences to be unremarkable, but once again, the crucial difference comes down to violence and criminality. Psychopathy is determined by characteristics of someone’s personality, whereas ASPD depends on the individual in question engaging in antisocial, criminal, and—to some extent—violent behaviors. This is not just scientific hairsplitting. As diagnostic methods have become more precise, seeing a history of criminal and violent behavior as an indicator of psychopathy has dropped precipitously.

Misconception: Psychopaths are born, not made.

Our understanding of the interplay between nature and nurture in shaping someone’s personality is ever evolving, with current thinking being that psychiatric conditions—including psychopathy—are not either born or bred but are a combination of the two. Based on what is now known, it seems very likely that psychopathy has many causal factors in addition to its genic component, and that one’s environment (particularly family setting and dynamics) could have a significant effect.

Misconception: Psychopathy is inalterable.

Despite the fact that this belief lacks convincing scientific basis, it is extraordinarily pervasive. So pervasive, in fact, that researchers have not even bothered to test the notion until recently. Initial empirical work now suggests that personality traits in general, and psychopathic traits specifically, do change as one moves through what are known as “developmental transitions.” Intentional, motivated change—with the help of highly skilled therapists—is showing some promise in limited clinical settings.

The difficulty in coming to terms with psychopathy—and psychopaths—has largely been due to overreliance on criminal behavior to define the disorder. Unquestioned assumptions have fostered the mistaken impression that psychopathic individuals invariably commit crimes. Leading researchers in the field have now made a significant pivot away from this belief. The behavior of psychopaths might be much subtler than we imagined but, in many ways, no less dangerous.

American Psychos: The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

Last week, I talked about the line between “mean” and disordered. I used the example of “Noel,” who’d been a patient of a colleague of mine and who had, after a lifetime of abominable behavior, been diagnosed as a psychopath. I noted that in some ways Noel was particularly well suited for an entrepreneurial life. Why might a psychopath thrive in this arena? It’s helpful to look at personality traits on a spectrum, and to think of a person’s traits being monitored by a temperature gauge. For most people, most of the time, a collection of traits will hover somewhere in the middle, the “normal” range, and only periodically heat up and brush against the red zone. Let’s take our ten traits of the entrepreneur—drive, autonomy, need for control, etc.—and imagine these in the higher midrange for a long duration. This could identify our signature mix for the “entrepreneurial personality” while still indicating a relatively well-adjusted person.

But what if several of the traits within this defined set were always in the red zone? If an entrepreneur is unable to adapt to the extent to which these traits have effectively taken over his personality, then this may be the sign of a disordered personality, specifically of psychopathy. These men have crossed the border into the realm of lying, manipulating, if not downright cheating, and perhaps even engaging in criminal behavior (though they may never have been caught). They are completely unfettered by anxiety and totally unbound by conscience.

Let me be clear: I do not mean to make the definition of psychopathy so broad as to easily lump into it those who are merely objectionable; this is a matter of extreme personalities. The notion that psychopaths choose entrepreneurship as the stage for acting out their internal psychological drama adds a new and disturbing dimension to our understanding of the entrepreneurial phenomenon. The data indicates that this connection is anything but random.

Because those with disordered personalities fail to change, the pathological themes that tend to dominate their lives become vicious cycles. So blind are they to opportunities that may lead to improvement that repeated dysfunctional themes provoke new problems and create situations that remind them of their failures over and over again.

Discovering the relationship between the List of Ten—specifically, when a disproportionate number of the characteristics are in the red zone—and the personality disorder of psychopathy was, frankly, a shock to me. I had not expected to find a correlation with a disorder with such dark implications. Perhaps some garden-variety narcissism combined with one or two other traits? Sure. But this was a revelation. When I first made this connection, my own understanding of psychopathy—a complex disorder that has been more fully understood only in the last decade—was at the time superficial at best. But as I dug into the research on psychopathy and matched it with the characteristics and behaviors of the mean men I’d observed, I became convinced that this disorder was by far the best fit. Let’s explore it.

The Mask of Sanity

The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley was a top pioneer in understanding people who blended dangerously antisocial behaviors with a mask of normalcy. Cleckley worked at a psychiatric hospital in the late 1930s, a facility that often housed criminal offenders believed to be suffering from some form of mental illness.

These men seemed “normal” under most conditions. Cleckley watched as they charmed and then manipulated and took advantage of other patients, family members, and even hospital staff. As a result, he recognized that the psychopaths he worked with wore a cloak of normalcy to help them live in the world. He also came to believe that unlike the stereotypical criminal, these men generally came from “good homes” with loving parents and yet still ended up ruining lives without remorse, shame, or conscience.

Cleckley also found that these patients continually repeated dysfunctional or unfruitful behaviors; adaptiveness, as noted earlier, was elusive to them. They lacked insight about themselves and the impact their behaviors had on others. Because they were unmoved by the feelings of others, notions of remorse or shame were alien concepts. While they often appeared to be very honest—at least from the perspective of those with little experience interacting with them, particularly new staff members—they were frequently insincere.

Cleckley’s review of his patients’ records indicated they could be extremely egomaniacal and virtually unable to experience deep emotions, particularly love and compassion. They seemed unable to feel intensely any of the emotions that others experienced with the exception of a category known as proto-emotions, which includes very primitive emotions such as anger, frustration, and rage.

He personally experienced these patients as having superficial charm and reasonably good intelligence. They could tell creative, believable stories; they did not seem to show the delusional thinking that often characterizes psychiatric patients.

As he noted in his fifth edition of The Mask of Sanity, this patient “presents a technical appearance of sanity, often one of high intelligence capacities, and not infrequently succeeds in business or professional activities” [emphasis added]. The book’s title captured Cleckley’s belief that these men do not show obvious symptoms of mental illness.

Cleckley was quite taken by a profound underlying characteristic of the psychopathic disorder in which the language and emotional components of thought are not properly integrated, a condition known as semantic aphasia. Individual emotion-laden words or phrases are understood—“I adore you,” “I’m annoyed,” “I’m heartbroken”—but the psychopath cannot grasp the broader meaning of what he hears. This individual has a deep-seated inability to understand the emotional dimension of language, particularly those aspects associated with attachment and empathy. He can say the word “love,” for example, without an understanding of what it means, and certainly without any idea what it feels like.

Cleckley was startled by something else: nothing about the disorder suggested oddness, inadequacy, or moral frailty. The “mask” is one of robust mental health. But behind the mask he found pathological liars, adept at sizing up situations and feigning sincerity. Put the sum of these ingredients together, stir lightly, and you’d have a dangerous psychological profile that should sound awfully familiar to those reading this blog.

When Does “Mean” Become a Personality Disorder?

In last week’s post, I talked about how crucial my time at the Austen Riggs Center was for me in terms of making sense of my research about entrepreneurs, and understanding the true impact that mean men can have not only on the organizations they run but on anyone who crosses their path, especially their children. It was an awakening to the deeper question of who these men are and, frankly, what is wrong with them. In a much earlier post, I discussed the ten traits that entrepreneurs share. In moderation, these traits aren’t necessarily problematic, but if taken to extremes, this cluster of traits can add up to a personality disorder.

Take Noel*—a patient of a clinical-psychologist colleague of mine—a senior executive who was forced to resign from his position in a large company. Persistent difficulties with top management compromised his ability to perform effectively, and his long-standing interpersonal problems grated on many who crossed his path. Superficially charming, he manipulated the affections of others to get what he wanted and withdrew his attention when he found them no longer useful. Friends and colleagues eventually came to avoid him.

“All is fair in business” was Noel’s rallying cry. Asking subordinates to manipulate the sales numbers to increase his bonus was in keeping with another of his mantras: you are guilty only if you get caught, and the law is for losers.

Noel was the only child of wealthy parents, an Ivy League frat boy who drank heavily while underage, used illegal drugs, vandalized neighbors’ homes, hired hookers, and bragged that all the while he was never caught. He eventually married a family friend because “it was good for business.” Over the years he had a number of extramarital affairs for which he never expressed remorse.

After he was fired from his executive position, he fell into a depression—which he eventually overcame. Back on his feet, he moved into an arena where men like Noel often thrive, up to a point: entrepreneurship.

Noel wasn’t just your run-of-the mill jerk, however. My colleague went on to diagnose him as a Psychopathic Type: having a sense of inflated grandiosity and a pervasive pattern of taking advantage of—and manipulating—other people, disregarding ethical considerations and moral norms, and showing little if any remorse for his actions.

So what’s the difference between a guy like Noel and a more “normal” person who has the traits that Noel had in extremes? In normal individuals, these traits tend to be more adaptive. Normal people may have an intense level of ambition or drive, but they also have an ability to rein it in, to adapt those traits to circumstances when it’s prudent. Not so for the disordered personality. Their ambition or drive doesn’t adapt to reality or convention. The internal censor or sense of restraint just never kicks in.

Being adaptive allows us to size up situations with greater objectivity. And it makes us easier to work with or for, too. Normal, adaptive people don’t gift their female employees vibrators—as yet another lawsuit against Dov Charney of American Apparel alleged that he did—or say things like: “I frequently drop my pants to show people my new product.”

Characterizing and cataloging personality disorders was the life work of Theodore Millon, former Harvard and University of Miami professor and author of nearly a dozen books on the subject. Millon was among the most influential psychologists in the world, taking complex disorders and distilling them down to understandable traits. Equally important, he conceptualized the notion of personality disorder in a way that’s clearer than any I’ve examined.

Millon showed how personality disorders are made up of maladaptive traits, and he offered two explanations for the severity of a disorder as one moves along the continuum from health to pathology. First, specific traits can be more intense in the ways they are expressed, or have a higher dimension. Second, the number of an individual’s maladaptive traits can increase along that continuum.

For most people, coping strategies are diverse and flexible. When one strategy or behavior doesn’t work, we just try something else. But those with personality disorders tend to practice the same strategies repeatedly with only minor variations in outcome. When things fail to improve, their stress level keeps rising—which further amplifies their sense of vulnerability—and, ultimately, they find themselves in crisis mode. Their perception of the world becomes increasingly distorted. Though oversimplified, the throwaway cliché of craziness defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result has a kernel of truth here.

Psychologically healthy people know when to change something in their lives and also know how to adapt to what the world offers them. If, for example, the boss wants something done in a particular way, most people will follow directions without much fuss. In many ways these situations are almost scripted; we know what to do and how to behave in a seemingly limitless number of situations.

But personality-disordered people are limited by having far fewer alternative strategies in their repertoire. To make matters worse, they impose strict, irrational conditions for implementing these alternatives, almost as though factors (and this often means other people) in their environment will somehow knowingly conform to their needs. Ultimately, when the environment cannot be arranged to suit the person, a crisis erupts. Unlike normal people, who often find new experiences enjoyable and seize opportunities to learn new and more adaptive strategies, the disordered individual derives far less enjoyment in these circumstances. In fact, new situations that require rather quick adaptability can be a living hell for them, and they react with seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Seen through this lens, I began to wonder if some of the most extreme mean men I was studying—the Dov Charneys and Peter Arnells of the business world—weren’t quite beyond help. And what of the society that made them heroes?


*name has been changed

One Significant Way Good People Can Go Bad

The mean men we’ve discussed on this blog come from diverse sectors of our economy and culture: from organized religion to politics to apparel companies. But one thing that their disparate trajectories have in common? They were all enabled for years—in some cases decades—by those who surrounded them. How could this happen? Even if we consider that some of these men are actually evil, surely most of those who worked for them—who literally followed their lead—were not. How did ordinary people witness years of abuse without stepping in and, in some cases, even participate in mean behavior themselves? Probably nobody is more qualified to answer this question than esteemed Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His real-life experiments have asked these questions and tested our shared notions about the boundary between good and evil—and the ease with which someone might cross it. He’s come to rather shocking conclusions.

In his now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, Zimbardo and several of his colleagues set out to answer the questions: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does the institution take over or does humanity emerge? They chose twenty-four college-age male volunteers—all deemed to be normal, healthy, and well-adjusted—and randomly divided them into two groups: “guards” and “prisoners.” The prisoners were arrested and put in “jail,” and the guards were given custody over them. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks.

Despite the fact that the students were all judged to be normal and healthy and were fully aware that they were participating in an experiment, by the sixth day, all hell had broken loose. Some of the guards were displaying alarmingly sadistic behaviors, and the prisoners showed worrying signs of depression and trauma. Zimbardo put a halt to the study. His findings have gone on to have profound effects on how we analyze the behaviors of humans in institutional settings.

Since that time, Zimbardo has dedicated his career to examining how ordinary people become capable of deplorable acts and, perhaps more importantly, how situational circumstances affect our behaviors—how the barrel, if you will, can poison the apples. He may also know more than anyone else about the monstrous realities of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, having served as an expert witness for one of the guards tried. Zimbardo testified that the guard was not innately evil or sadistic. Rather, the root of the problem was structural mismanagement (since the far-flung CIA ran the prison, there was no one qualified in an executive leadership role to establish a culture of civility) and horrendous working conditions. The guards were low-level, inexperienced military police, slogging through twelve-hour shifts for forty straight days, with no oversight to guide their actions under extreme stress.

The key factor missing in those who participated in the Abu Ghraib scandal was empathy. Long before this case even began, Zimbardo had found that in similar situations, it’s crucial to be able to see a given situation from different points of view. The only way for the suffering of the prisoners to become real for the guards was to have the guards see the situation through the prisoners’ eyes.

“Empathy,” as defined by Cambridge University neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, “occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.” Single-minded attention happens when we are thinking only about ourselves, our current thoughts and perceptions. But if we engage in double-minded attention, we are thinking of someone else at the very same time. When empathy is switched off, we focus only on our own interests. If we are capable of flipping the switch to “on,” we then focus on other people’s needs simultaneously with our own. Through those different points of view, we may not feel what other people are feeling, but we do see what they are seeing. Only then can we make a judgment.

This brings us back to Hannah Arendt and her indictment of Eichmann and his inability to take into consideration an “enlarged mentality.” If we are too narrow-minded, our judgment can become thoroughly invalid, out of whack. If we do not try to enlarge our mentality, we will never be able to think from another person’s point of view.

When people are in a situation in which they do not utilize double-minded attention, they’re prevented from identifying what others are thinking or feeling. The result is that they act out toward others in ways that, at the very least, are inappropriate. At worst, they can be diabolically mean. What Zimbardo’s experiment showed us is that this lack of empathy can become ingrained in an institution’s culture to the degree that otherwise normal people will act in deplorable ways.

One need not be a subclinical psychopath to be incapable of empathy and act egregiously toward others. Otherwise normal people are put in organizational contexts that turn off their empathy “switch” more often than we may think. I’ll bet we all can think of a time when this happened to us, when without our conscious awareness, the switch was turned to “off” and we acted in ways that shocked us or made us feel ashamed. It may be unpleasant to think about, but until we accept that empathy can be turned off, we can’t figure out how to turn it back on.

The Irony of Accountability: It’s About the Money, Not the Meanness

The best evidence of how much latitude mean men are given lies in the stories of how most of them finally fall. Rarely are they brought down for being mean; often they are ousted only when they stop hitting home runs—or when they take their bat and bludgeon someone so publicly and so badly that keeping them around becomes a liability. Dov Charney is a poster boy for the irony of accountability: he wasn’t forced out of American Apparel because of his well-known and longstanding record of sexist and outrageous behavior; he was forced out because he was driving the company into financial ruin. He is living proof that in today’s era of bottom-line triumphalism, as long as you are making a lot of money for shareholders, investors, and owners, it’s OK to be an ogre.

Peter Arnell heaped abuse on employees for years, and Omnicom—the company that had purchased his entrepreneurial branding firm, the Arnell Group and trusted him to lead it—turned a blind eye. It was only when Arnell began to take embarrassing and costly advertising missteps that Omnicom “suddenly” woke up. What sunk this infamously nasty CEO? It wasn’t his violent outbursts within the office or even the lawsuit filed against him by four former female employees—it was orange juice.

When the Arnell Group won the PepsiCo contract to design new logos for both Pepsi and Tropicana, the design for the former drew mixed reactions, but the design for the latter caused thousands of Americans to practically lose their breakfast. Customers complained that the new labeling was so different they couldn’t find Tropicana on the shelf.

The blogosphere exploded with criticism aimed at Arnell: “Give us back our orange with a straw in it!” One blogger went so far as to call him “the Bernie Madoff of brands.”

Just weeks after the new design’s launch, Tropicana announced it would revert to its old packaging. The company lost millions of dollars.

It was around this time that the infamous Mona Lisa memo Arnell had written to PepsiCo was made public. With its references to the famous painting—and to the Parthenon, the golden ratio, the relativity of space and time, the “gravitational pull” of a can of Pepsi on a supermarket shelf, and the rate of expansion of the universe—some thought the memo was a joke. It wasn’t.

Most people in Arnell’s position would have hidden in shame and embarrassment or offered an apology to the American public, but as is typical of narcissistic mean men, Arnell responded to critics by saying: “What the hell—I got paid a lot of money.”

He was fired soon thereafter from the group that bore his name but has recently resurfaced. We’ll see how that goes.

We know it takes a while for bullies to get their comeuppance. Mean men rarely retract their claws; they dig deep into their organization’s flesh. They possess their company’s culture. Demon, monster, beast, ogre, asshole—there are multiple labels for mean men, and they’ve heard them all and do not care.

Former Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap, known as Chainsaw Al, was notorious for his mass layoffs, but as long as share prices rose, none of the higher-ups were asking him to stop. Interestingly, Jon Ronson interviewed Dunlap for his book The Psychopath Test, and, though admitting he is not a psychologist, reported that “Mr. Dunlap scored positive in category after category.” Ronson noted: “The morning continued with Al redefining a great many psychopathic traits as leadership positives.”

Longtime business journalist and editor John A. Byrne wrote: “In all my years of reporting, I had never come across an executive as manipulative, ruthless, and destructive as Al Dunlap. Until the Securities and Exchange Commission barred him from ever serving as an officer of a public corporation, Dunlap sucked the very life and soul out of companies and people. He stole dignity, purpose, and sense out of organizations and replaced those ideals with fear and intimidation.”

Byrne knew how Dunlap felt about him too: “He once told a reporter for the New York Times, ‘If he were on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him.’”

What did it take to get Dunlap to leave? Numbers.

Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, is best known for making outrageous comments, insulting women’s bodies—insisting some women were not made to wear the clothes his company produces—and claiming it was “funny” to hear Japanese people talk about his brand “because they have a hard time pronouncing their Ls.” Children who lived on the streets or in developing nations, Wilson believed, needed money—so perhaps child labor laws should be loosened.

This inhumane man got away with saying all this until the public had enough. Lululemon made the 2014 Ten Most Hated Companies in America list, and stock prices dropped. Perhaps Wilson’s behavior is less offensive than that of the others mentioned here, but it is still not suited to the top of the C-suite.

Mean men are everywhere, and only a small portion of the worst offenders are in jail. Many, like Arnell, remain dormant for a spell, only to resurface like the undefeatable creatures they are. For a nation fixated on teaching its children not to bully one another in school, we seem to swallow the adult-bully-as-workplace-genius pill whole.

But social media has mobilized power to the people. Non-shareholders, non-investors, and non-yes-men and women can raise significantly more public outcry now than they could in the past—meaning that some mean men are being held accountable sooner than they might have been just five years ago.

Perhaps the tolerance for psychopaths who belittle, berate, harass, and destroy others is decreasing—especially as study after study shows that this kind of behavior is ineffective. But any tolerance for this level of cruelty in the workplace begs the question: Why do we continue to accept it at all?

Why Women Stay with Mean Men

Last week we took a look at what attracts women to mean men. In many ways, women fall for these men as romantic partners for the same reasons that everyone falls for them: their charm, charisma, and dynamism. The more compelling question might not be why women get together with mean men, but why do they stay? * When we watch accomplished women like Silda Spitzer (wife of Eliot) and Elizabeth Edwards (wife of John) standing by their men through humiliation, we wonder: What is she thinking?

The truth of these partnerships is much more complex than it may appear from the outside. If a man is on the psychopathy spectrum, his romantic relationships are literal psychodramas. He is not so much partnering with his mate as he is colluding with her.

Collusion in this context is a subconscious, repetitive pattern of interaction between two people, with the woman often looking to ease some deep past wound and the man looking to assuage his own anxiety and insecurity by asserting complete control over his partner.

The psychiatrist Jürg Willi defines the collusion principle as the “unconscious interplay of two partners who are looking for each other in the hope of coming to terms together with those conflicts and frustrations in their lives which they have not yet managed to resolve.” They collude around the unconscious hope that they will find in each other what they need to quiet their respective anxieties.

Relationship collusion can suck up an enormous amount of energy. And though the fault for the abusive behavior certainly lies with the controlling partner, the collusion itself is the fault of neither person—no matter how imbalanced it may look to the outside.

If the woman forming a romantic bond with the mean man is his “complement” for collusion, then a mental gridlock emerges and the two become trapped in a parasitic bond.

In Lisa’s case, her husband, Aaron, knew how to lay on the charm and make her feel special. They met when she was a senior in college with her sights set on graduate school at Columbia. But regardless of her intelligence, engaging personality, and attractiveness, she admitted decades later that when she met first met Aaron her self-esteem was low. After she underwent her postdivorce therapy, she saw how the attraction to Aaron and the subsequent twenty years of marriage was, as she put it, “a marriage of psychological convenience. We both brought our own shitty emotional baggage to the marriage but it wasn’t a loving marriage. We were both in it, as psychological near-opposites, trying to get our needs met through the other.”

Although they may appear to others as polar opposites, deep down these toxic couples share a complementary conflict. The roles may shift: the more passive a position she takes, the more active the mean man becomes. And, the actors will intermittently reverse their roles to maintain equilibrium, with the psychopathic husband making the occasional artificial show of loosening his hold on his partner.

Often one partner pawns off on their mate whatever traits he or she can’t quite admit to—anger, depression, neediness, or inadequacy. Think of the paranoid, unfaithful husband who accuses his wife of cheating. In these projections, a couple splits up emotions like household chores. One partner will always be weak, the other always strong.

In Lisa’s case, the one constant in the marriage was her passivity. As she started to clinically deconstruct this drama, she began to understand that she was trying to get from her partner what she lacked at an earlier, critical point in her emotional development.

Like many women married to mean men, Lisa only developed this insight once she’d fully extricated herself from the relationship and devoted her energy to unpacking these issues in psychotherapy. With help, she developed a fuller understanding of her self-defeating proclivities that existed at a subconscious level.

“Willing” victims of psychopathic men are not necessarily suffering from low self-esteem in a conventional sense of the term, however. In fact, they may have a very high opinion of themselves in general, but their self-worth is utterly contingent on having someone to validate them and make them feel special: enter the mean man. Women with a weakness for mean men are often the most loyal of romantic partners, standing by a man no matter what he does wrong. At the extreme, their devotion becomes cultlike.

If a woman is highly susceptible, she may stay with a manipulative man even when he stops validating her on a regular basis and only offers occasional tokens of praise or respect. By that time she may be in too deep to see a way out.

At some point the dysfunctional features of the relationship become painfully obvious. The couple may become too involved in their energy-draining fighting rituals to keep up the pretense of a normal relationship.

When these couples finally do split up, it often gets extremely ugly. The divorce between Vegas impresario Steve Wynn and his wife, Elaine, is grabbing headlines right now as she fights to maintain her seat on the board of a company she was instrumental in building.

It turns out better for some, however. It might have been baffling to watch Silda stand by her husband’s side back in 2008, but this past April when news of her lucrative divorce settlement broke, it appeared she might be getting the last laugh.

*For the purposes of this post I’ve used male and female pronouns to reflect my personal research; however, it is important to note that this toxic relationship dynamic can also exist in gay couples.

Married to Mean

If working for a mean CEO sounds awful, imagine being married to one. And yet, many of the men I’ve studied have had devoted spouses, several of whom were with them long before their husbands found success. So what’s the appeal? Aaron*—an ultra-controlling, tantrum-throwing entrepreneur I coached years ago—had been married to his wife, Lisa, for nearly twenty years when I met them. After interviewing a new client’s direct subordinates and a few other key individuals who worked with them, I would often ask to meet with his or her spouse or partner. While some colleagues considered this approach unusual, I found the spouse’s perspective invaluable. Typically, this would entail only one meeting, and I would rarely have reason to see the spouse again. Lisa was an exception.

Over the years, Lisa had learned to cope with Aaron’s deafening outbursts and his increasing need for flashy bling to show off his success. She attributed Aaron’s affectations to the trauma of growing up with an abusive father who told him he’d never amount to anything. Though she wasn’t materialistic like her husband, she grew to feel pride in their opulent, sprawling northern New Jersey mansion.

She’d grown to accept her lot in life and the daily reality of marriage to a controlling, verbally abusive, emotionally tone-deaf husband. On the upside—I imagine she told herself—he was a good provider, he loved his children, and he didn’t cheat on her (that she knew of). While far from idyllic, it could always be worse.

I was surprised when Lisa reached out a year after I terminated my work with Aaron. The voice mail she left asking if we could meet for coffee sounded distraught and desperate. She didn’t sound like the person I recalled from our in-depth conversation years earlier.

When I met up with her, the woman who sat across from me was a different Lisa. Eyes dark from lack of sleep and red from crying, and with thirty-odd pounds shed from her already svelte frame. She was a wreck.

Two months earlier, she told me, Aaron had calmly announced to Lisa that he was divorcing her. There was no discussion of their problems, no screaming tantrums, just a firm, emotionless declaration.

Confused, hurt, and feeling thoroughly responsible for his decision, Lisa groped for explanation. After reaching out to family and friends about him, she thought I might be able to provide some additional insight into what was happening with Aaron. Though I’d certainly been left with an unfavorable impression of the man, my professional boundaries left me powerless to do much for Lisa other than provide a sympathetic ear. But leaving the coffee shop, I too was confused. For all his bravado, experience told me that someone like Aaron needed a woman like Lisa to keep him steady, a dependable partner who would be there during the vulnerable moments he’d never let anyone else see.

Weeks later, Lisa discovered that Aaron had been developing a serious relationship with a woman in Chicago over the past two years. He’d originally told Lisa how excited he was to be working with a new client there, and that he needed to start spending more time there. How convenient.

After an intervening period of intense postdivorce psychotherapy, Lisa started to understand not only how much deception there had truly been in her relationship with Aaron, but also how much insecurity, denial, and rationalization she must have brought into the marriage to endure it for all of those years.

So what would make a woman like Lisa so unable to resist Aaron? Even after those around her—and perhaps on some level she herself—had seen through his façade?

Only recently has there been much research into the victims of subclinical psychopaths (a group we can comfortably include Aaron in) and what they go through. While these partnerships may often look “normal” to the rest of us, they are typically extraordinarily dysfunctional and often become hellish for the female partner.

In a 2005 study, Christine Kirkman, a psychology professor from the University of Bolton in the UK, sought insights into “the psychopathy of everyday life” with a focus on women in long-term relationships with “successful” psychopaths (that is, those who satisfied clinical criteria of psychopathy, but where the men never showed up in any criminal-justice database). Her findings revealed a mosaic of psychopathic interactions and behavior that highlight the emotional difficulties of the women who become involved with these men. Additional studies followed, validating and building on Kirkman’s findings.

Regardless of where the men fell on the spectrum of psychopathy (from mild to extreme), three remarkably consistent themes emerged from Kirkman’s data and the subsequent studies. First, the male partner was consistently reported to have superficial charm and relatively high intelligence, enabling these men to convince the woman—and her friends and family—that he was trustworthy.

Second, one hundred percent of the men in Kirkman’s study were reported to be pathological liars, providing false yet compelling details to the women about themselves, details which sometimes remained undiscovered for years. Many also consistently lied about their involvement with other women, sometimes numerous women at a time—all of them being lied to. As one woman commented to a researcher during a subsequent study, “I wonder now who I had been living with for 10 years. The man I fell in love with did not even exist.”

The third theme was an antisocial, amoral pursuit of power. Women reported that the men gained and retained power over them by a variety of controlling behaviors. Emotional and psychological abuse were also persistent factors.

Conventional wisdom tells us that men who work hard and bring home big paychecks are great catches romantically, but we best beware of the psychopath in the corner office.


*Names have been changed



Next up: “Why Women Stay with Mean Men.”