Startup entrepreneurs are ‘arrogant and psychopathic’

The startup economy is well-known for lauding the most successful young entrepreneurs, those twenty-somethings who are turned into millionaires — or even billionaires — through their exploits. Yet there are also plenty of stories about the bad behavior and kill-or-be-killed attitudes that often emerge inside startups.

That’s no coincidence, say a pair of German academics.

In an interview in Germany’s Der Spiegel, Dominik Schwarzinger and Matthias Kramer, who are researching the entrepreneurial personality, say that borderline personality disorders can actually be crucial elements behind startup success.

As part of a study that has been underway since 2009, the duo suggest that there are several traits that may be highly unpleasant in ordinary life but can help startups succeed.

Among successful entrepreneurs, for example, they see higher incidences of three particular traits: self-regard and narcissism, manipulation and trickery (known as Machiavellianism) and — perhaps most disturbingly — what they refer to as “subclinical psychopathy”. This trio is what psychologists call the “dark triad”.

Schwarzinger: “Our studies show that these features, which other people perceive as negative, can actually help their businesses.”

Kramer: “Our results show those with narcissistic personalities have a higher propensity to start businesses. Having a strong belief in yourself can have a positive impact when dealing with risks — founders are always plagued by uncertainty of how well their idea will work once it hits the market.”

In many ways, this is no revelation. After all, it is not exactly news that those who are prepared to clamber over everybody else to get what they want often manage to do so. Just read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, or watch The Social Network, or talk to anyone who’s ever worked alongside startups, and there will plenty of examples of bad behavior on the road to success.

And it’s not confined to the technology industry either: stories of industrial douchebaggery abound throughout history, and management theorists have long researched the impact of certain personalities on business.

The duo admit that in most cases, these are not full blown personality disorders (hence the “sub-clinical”) and merely trends. And Kramer admits that there is a “bit of narcissism in everyone… the desire for status or money, as well as ambition and certain kinds of aggression.”

But still, while we often talk about the anti-social tendencies of some business gurus, their psychological states are rarely acknowledged in such a straightforward way. Will that change? Unlikely: I certainly don’t see many startup founders admitting that they are narcissistic, Machiavellian psychopaths — even if that’s what makes them who they are.