12. Snakes in Suits: Good Leader or Corporate Psychopath?

Early research suggests that the behaviors of most psychopaths were too dysfunctional to make long-term survival in organizations possible and that they might be better suited to work on their own…However, based on our own research and that of others, we now know that some organizations actively seek out and recruit individuals with at least a moderate dose of psychopathic features. Some executives have said to us, ‘Many of the traits you describe to us seem to be valued by our company. Why shouldn’t companies hire psychopaths to fill some jobs?’ A proper, scientific answer is that more research is needed to determine the impact of various doses of psychopathic characteristics… The ‘optimal’ number and severity of such characteristics presumably is higher for some jobs (such as stock promoters, politicians, law enforcement, used-car salespeople, mercenaries, and lawyers) than for others (such as social workers, teachers, nurses, and ministers). Until such research becomes available, we can safely say that those who believe that ‘psychopath is good’ clearly have not had much exposure to the real thing…and certainly have never worked for one.” Or possibly could presumably be one!

For an organization, one psychopath, unchecked, can do considerable harm to staff morale, productivity, and teamwork. The problem is that you cannot choose which psychopathic traits you want and ignore the others; psychopathy is a syndrome, that is, a package of related traits and behaviors that form the personality of the individual. Unfortunately, for business, the ‘good’ traits often conceal the existence of the ‘bad’ when it comes to a psychopath. However, there are cases in which some individuals fake or simulate bad traits and behaviors in order to ‘fit in.’

 Emulating the Psychopathic Lifestyle S 8.2 The attitudes and behavior of individuals with many psychopathic features are systemic, a natural and pervasive syndrome defining their general lifestyle. However, there are others whose nature is less psychopathic than pragmatic and adaptive. They adopt or feign some of the trappings of a ‘psychopathic lifestyle’ in order to succeed, ‘fit in,’ or excel in a profession or organization that rewards such behaviors. Some may succeed in this personal makeover by becoming sycophants, opportunistic acolytes, and free riders who model their behaviors after those of their psychopathic superiors, a process common during war, in cults, and in terrorist and criminal organizations. ‘Good men is not what the moment requires. Right now, the time calls for dark men to do dark things.’ (taken from Black Sails)

Of course, the more psychopathic one is to start with, the easier it is to follow a road map of personal preservation and corporate predation! Many pop-psych and self-help books promote or justify a philosophy of aggressive greed, self-entitlement, and the importance of ‘number one.’ Some pundits write about ‘the good psychopath’ (an oxymoron?), whereas others tell us how to use our dormant psychopathic tenancies to achieve success, fame, and fortune.

This could present a problem for those (e.g., Human Resources..) who monitor and evaluate these faux psychopaths and who must separate them from the real thing. For this reason, it is essential to conduct evaluations about a given individual using much more than… ‘gut feel.’

A true psychopath can easily feign leadership and management traits sought after by executives when making hiring, promotion, and succession planning decisions. A charming demeanor and grandiose talk can be mistaken for charismatic leadership and self-confidence. Furthermore, because of its critical importance to effective leadership, charisma observed in a candidate can lead to a ‘halo’ effect- that is, a tendency for interviewers and decision-makers to generalize from a single trait to the entire personality. The halo effect acts to ‘fill in the blanks’ in the absence of other information about the person can overshadow more critical judgments. As mentioned earlier, even seasoned researchers-who know they are dealing with a psychopath-often accept things at face value.

The ability to influence events and decisions and to persuade peers and subordinates to support your point of view are critical executive management skills. Not everyone has these skills at the level required by general management jobs. Organizations constantly seek people with these skills and invest significant sums of money in training, coaching, and the development of staff to improve them. To find someone who seems to have a natural talent for influence and persuasion is rare. When found, it is hard for decision-makers to look past it. We know that psychopaths are masters of conning and manipulation-especially with their deceitful veneer of charm-leading to the perception that they have strong persuasion and leadership skills.

Visionary thinking, the ability to conceptualize the future of the organization, is a complex skill requiring a broad perspective, the ability to integrate multiple points of view, and a talent for looking into the future, that is, to think strategically. Psychopaths are not good at establishing and working toward long-term, strategic objectives; they are much more opportunistic. Yet they can weave compelling stories about situations and events of which they know very little into surprisingly believable visions of the future. Because visioning is so difficult for the average person to understand, it is little wonder that the vague but convincing, illogical but believable, rambling but captivating, and compelling but lie-filled discourses of the psychopath can look like brilliant insight into what the organization should do. This is especially true in times of chaos, when few can make these lofty predictions, and many are looking for leadership-a savior or knight in shining armor-to fill the vacuum.

History offers some good examples of leaders who embody and are able to apply the complex mix of high-level executive skills necessary to handle difficult situations.” Like Caesar, his forces were being overpowered in the battle for Gaul. He put on his armor and dressed in red to attract attention; he joined the battle himself, rallied his troops, and won – he took a considerable risk. 

“…Risk-taking,…is a trait that closely lines up with what we expect of leaders in times of crisis. How much is appropriate? How much risk will be effective in saving the day or, in more mundane business settings, achieving objectives? Another psychopathic trait, impulsivity, accentuates risk-taking behavior, leading to acting without sufficient planning and forethought. Thrill-seeking often involves taking dangerous risks just to see what will happen. Elements of extreme impulsivity and thrill-seeking can also be mistaken for high energy, action orientation, courage, and the ability to multitask, all-important management traits.

Despite the risks to his own life, Caesar’s risk-taking behavior in this last battle for Gaul was far from psychopathic. He was a prudent risk-taker sizing up the realities he faced, the resources he (and the enemy) had, the probabilities that would influence the outcome, and the risk to his legion posed by not taking a risk. He was also not a thrill-seeker, at least not to the degree exhibited by psychopaths. He and the Roman legion he commanded were a disciplined machine, hardly the image of a rampant leader and his band of psychopaths fighting for the thrill of it.

Psychopaths’ emotional poverty-that is their inability to feel normal human emotions and their lack of conscience-can be mistaken for three other executive skills, specifically the ability to make hard decisions, to keep their emotions in check, and to remain cool under fire. Making hard decisions is one of those management tasks that executives have to do on almost a daily basis. Whether it is to choose one marketing plan over another, litigate or settle a lawsuit, or close a manufacturing plant, major decisions have emotional components that influence decision-making. Most executives often must suspend their own emotional reactions to events in order to be effective. They have feelings, but the constraints of their jobs often preclude them from sharing them with others, except family members or close confidants. Of particular importance, as dictated by some business realities, is appearing cool and calm in the midst of turmoil.”

Surely this is the opposite of not caring; great leaders keep their cool whilst being aware of the potential impact of their decisions, they keep themselves in check whilst a psychopath doesn’t care, impacts on others are irrelevant, leading to bad decision making as the only impact that matters is that on the psychopath.

“ It is easy for someone to confuse behavior that is psychopathically motivated with expressions of genuine leadership, especially when carefully packaged as leadership. In such a case, with the phony persona so tightly bound up in business expectations, the psychopathic fiction ‘I am the ideal leader’ works well. It often takes good results and a solid track record to differentiate between the two.”

One day I hope that someone will look at those that were in charge of the banks and financial institutions that crashed in 2008 to assess how much psychopathy was involved. I know that psychologists don’t like to comment on those they’ve not met. However, to prevent future crashes, it is surely more important to establish the types of personalities that shouldn’t be in the positions that caused the most damage in 2008?

#SnakeInSuits #workplaceculture #HR #Management #workplacebullying

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