Psychopathic behaviour is a hidden problem in higher education

Fear of reprimand is stopping researchers from looking into why workplace bullying is reported more in higher education than in other sectors, say Daniel W. Lund and Nick Forster 

March 6, 2020

Irina Dumitrescu’s November 2019 article in Times Higher Education “Ten rules for succeeding in academia through upward toxicity” highlights an important issue that all university administrators should be more aware of: an environment where some psychopaths flourish.

She was correct to say that “universities sing the song of meritocracy but dance to a different tune. In reality, they will do everything to reward and protect their most destructive, abusive and uncooperative faculty [and] some universities even hire people in the full knowledge of abuse allegations against them.” If this is indeed an accurate characterisation, a pressing question that needs addressing is: why do academics with toxic personalities often rise to senior positions in higher education and stay in those positions long-term?

We address this question in an article published in December 2018 . Numerous studies indicate that workplace bullying has occurred for as long as organisations have existed. It is a serious issue in most private and public sector organisations and can cause substantial problems in any workplace environment.

While exploring this issue, we encountered a subcategory of psychopaths known as “functional psychopaths” – a group of men and women who are heavily over-represented in senior positions in all professions and occupations, and who zealously enjoy exercising power over other people.

Some studies have also suggested that certain functional psychopathic traits are necessary prerequisites for those aspiring to become leaders in their chosen profession or occupation; a group known as “successful psychopaths” or “the successfully sinister”.

As the Canadian psychologist Robert Hare observed in 1993: “Psychopaths…appear to function reasonably well as lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, academics, mercenaries, police officers, cult leaders, military personnel, business people, writers, artists, entertainers and so forth – without breaking the law, or at least without being caught and convicted. These individuals are every bit as egocentric, callous, and manipulative as the average criminal psychopath. However, their intelligence, family background, social skills, and circumstances permit them to construct a façade of normalcy, and to get what they want with relative impunity.”

Hence, while they are particularly suited to careers in politics and finance, they can be found in all organisations and professions, including academia. As Alistair Mant, an expert on organisational systems and leadership, suggested more than three decades ago, functional psychopaths can be found everywhere and “seem to survive and flourish, spewing their neuroses all about them right to the bitter end”. 

However, having conducted an extensive literature review, we were surprised to find just one peer-reviewed article that looked specifically at the prevalence of psychopathic behaviour in the higher education sector. We found this puzzling because we had supposed there must be some functional-psychopaths working in universities.

We contacted prominent academics who had published articles on functional-psychopaths in business organisations and asked them why they had not looked at psychopathic behaviour in universities. They explained that the topic had become a “no-go” taboo subject for them. Their replies explain why:

  • Academic 1: “We very quickly worked out that this would be a career killer for us both. Academics with sociopathic tendencies rise rapidly in the university system and many become journal editors. It became quite clear that revelations about these issues in the university sector, and psychoanalyses of some of its “stars”, would get us into more trouble than even we were prepared to accept. So, unfortunately, we have no useful response to your request. We have some views and opinions, but we never followed up with attempts to find supporting evidence and, after all, it seemed so obvious from our experiences that the evidence was all around us.”
  • Academic 2: “I had planned to do some research on this in the [name of country] higher education system, but quickly realised that it would probably not have been a good career move. While there are clearly several people in senior academic positions in this and other universities in [name of country] who fit the “psychopathic” profile, it would have been difficult to publish any research on this topic that could have kept their identities secure; and the chair of our research committee told me informally that my original research proposal was unlikely to get the appropriate approvals. So, reluctantly, I dropped this.”

While the research on functional psychopaths in universities was almost non-existent, we did find several studies on bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment in higher education within the broader literature on workplace bullying – a behaviour that is the inevitable consequence of psychopathic personality traits.

These studies reported considerable variance in the incidence of workplace bullying that ranged from 11.7 to 67.7 per cent in employee self-report surveys in higher education organisations, compared to 3.7 to 19.8 per cent in other workplaces.

Hence, while we can say bullying certainly does exist, we do not know how widespread it is or why its prevalence in the higher education sector is reportedly much higher than in non-academic organisations.

The research literature also indicated that the distribution of functional psychopaths in academia is skewed. Those with authoritarian, narcissistic, aggressive and domineering personalities will naturally gravitate towards universities where there are few restraints on their dysfunctional behaviours, or to institutions where there are already a number of functional psychopaths in leadership positions.

We also identified clear conceptual and theoretical links between the literature on psychopathy and the research that has been conducted on bullying and intimidation in universities. 

It is clear that more research should be conducted to help us better understand the nature and prevalence of this largely hidden, yet destructive problem in higher education.

Those responsible for university oversight should consider undertaking periodic reviews of the competence, performance and behaviour of their senior administrators and “academic stars”.

Confidential upward performance appraisals could also be implemented, along with “thick-screening” selection and recruitment processes based on best-practices in high-performance business organisations (including psychometric testing).

Although not foolproof, keen awareness, diligence and a trained eye for spotting the warning signs of psychopathic behaviour could help to identify and minimise the participation of, and damage caused by, toxic functional psychopaths in the higher education sector.

Daniel W. Lund is dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at IQRA University in Pakistan and Nick Forster is an author and business consultant based in New South Wales, Australia.

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Reader's comments (7)

Psychopaths rise in all levels of HE - not limited to faculty/research! A senior administrator, I reported to a VC and a division director at two UK HEIs. Both men were clearly BPD and in both situations, despite being fully aware of the issue HR was utterly ineffective. So no change there.
Hidden?
Interesting, I remember a study from basketball long ago on the impact of a good coach - full of praise, showing techniques, saying way to go, rewarding improvement versus a mean possibly psychopathic coach, yelling, throwing chair when player not performing, name calling, giving punishment on failure (push-ups laps) on free throw shooting of various individuals. The result was counterintuitive, the ones with the mean coach showed the most improvement although received the worst satisfaction rating from the individuals. Not sure if it was ever repeated or if there are similar studies. Could be the functional psychopaths get the best performance even though they are not liked. What should we prioritize?
Wellbeing? Do not get me wrong, doing well at your job can certainly make people feel better, though less so if people are forced to persistently meet unrealistic expectations.
I know a few cases in academia where victims of harassment by a senior academic in managerial position won in court but were under gag order. The university system allows toxic behaviour to endure, and does not seem to do much to discourage it. Far from it. Colleagues in managerial posts tend to mimick their boss in that regard, turning into bullies and reproducing abusive behaviour at every level of the chain, perhaps because according to their perception"this is what power looks / should look like"... Universities are like any other corporation and staff should be able to bring suit and file for damages instead of just quitting.
Hidden? Hardly...
Psychopathy is not the only trait that gets rewarded - Narcissism as well. There is a wealth of research evidence for this. Narcissism is on the rise for senior/leadership positions and students...

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