3 09 2011

I have been following some interesting discussions on LinkedIn about psychopaths in the workplace (Leaders Institute of SA group). While I believe sociopaths is probably more accurate, I have to admit psychopaths has more of a ring to it. So I will bow to peer pressure!

I won’t go into too much detail – if you are interested, google it, there is a wealth of information. But basically they are talking about people who exhibit sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies such as a lack of empathy, extreme self-absorption and focus on benefitting themselves irrespective of the cost or impact to others or to the organisation.

Many years ago I had one of these as a boss – the entire organisation was dysfunctional as a result – and more recently I have been observing (from what I hope is a safe distance) a couple of others in action courtesy of some friends who are currently suffering.

However the one area I haven’t seen much conversation about is the enablers.

The original Psychopaths in the Workplace text (which I have unfortunately forgotten the name of and hence can’t link), talks about how the psychopath can appear charming and plausible. It is part of their psyche to be able to manipulate people and you can’t do that unless you can form alliances, bring people on-board. If they were instantly repellant and obvious then they wouldn’t be so effective at their manipulation.

The stats seem to say 25% of senior execs display psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies. And we aren’t just talking about leaders with poor people / communication skills, people who are driven to achieve, or people who have to do tough and unpleasant things like retrenching employees. The important difference is that for the psychopath, their focus is entirely on themselves and they completely lack empathy. Benefits to the organisation are incidental only in that they reflect well upon them. If came down to a choice between the organisation or themselves – well there really isn’t a choice.

So the people around the psychopath fall into a number of categories. The most obvious is the victims – anyone who gets in their way is in this category as they will stop at nothing.

Then there are the useful ones – they are the worker bees, often subordinates to the psychopath, who are rewarded or protected because they are useful. They might do work for the psychopath, or provide intelligence. They may or may not see the psychopath for what he or she is. They are safe so long as they serve a purpose and don’t get in the way. Any threat will be eliminated.

The other category often mentioned is those above the psychopath. While they have potential to be in the way and hence fall into the victim category, they also can be useful to the psychopath. They may be in charge of conferring promotions or opportunities, or being referees. So often the psychopath will put on the charm offensive, and these people won’t see him or her for what they truly are.

But the enablers. And here is where I am going out on a limb. My experience and observations are that the psychopath often has one or two enablers. These are people who have formed an alliance with the psychopath. They are, if you like, super-worker-bees – or perhaps henchmen. They do the bidding of the psychopath and display similar tendencies.

Are they mini-psychopaths in the making? Are they simply modelling what seems to be effective and/or rewarded behaviour? Do they have Stockholm Syndrome? I really have no idea, and maybe it is a mixture of all three.

But if they are not psychopaths, then they are almost more culpable, because they have set aside their ethics and morals to do things they know to be deleterious to others.

The psychopath doesn’t know any different.

Disclaimer: I stress that I am not a clinician and hence this is the opinion of a layperson – a keen amateur diagnostician, as I like to refer to myself.

Further information on this topic can be found in the fascinating book The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronsson). There are a whole load of resources at Amazon. And as always, Wikipedia provides us with information on the Hare psychopath test.

If you like this posting you might also like When organisations turn Cannibal and Swimming with Sharks.

When organisations turn cannibal

21 07 2011

Many years ago I worked for a boss who fits all the criteria for “psychopath in the workplace”. He, and the place I worked, shall remain nameless for the purpose of this blog! (Disclaimer: If one of my former bosses is reading this and worried it is them – the fact you are worried means it is not you.)

This man ran a small organisation with four different operational arms. I can only suspect he was worried about his managers getting together and overthrowing him (much as he had done to the previous CEO) because the culture he encouraged was for each of the managers to attack the other managers’ units as a way of deflecting attention and negative focus from their own. To say that the organisational culture in this workplace was toxic is an understatement. When a manager came through your office you hid whatever you were doing and said nothing of any value to them at all. Non-cooperation was the order of the day. Staff turnover was endemic – people couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Years later I had risen through the ranks and happened to work alongside one of the “other” managers from this workplace. Her view on the experience was illuminating. She did what she had to do to survive and to keep her staff safe – as we all did. Imagine how effective the organisation could have been if everyone had been focussed on achieving organisational goals instead of cannibalising each other.

So a recent Forbes India article about leadership intrigued me. There were of course the usual “bad” manager types (Sociopaths, Opportunists and Chameleons) but one of the “positive” leadership types – Achiever – also had some cautionary tales attached to it.

The Achiever, according to the article, is highly prized for reaching goals and achieving outcomes. However, they tend to have a shorter term, insular view of their goals. An example given was shutting down investment in R&D as a cost-saving measure. Very effective in the short-term, but ham-strings the organisation in the medium to long-term.

Another example is where the achiever is competing against internal competitors. They do things that benefit their unit (and disadvantage other units) without understanding or perhaps caring about the broader organisation. Short term personal gain – their unit is working well, they may look good – but causing problems for the organisation.

Management book “Think One Team” uses the example of a jelly bean company (one of my former staff called the book “Jelly Bean Dreaming”) to illustrate how silos that compete against each other and don’t have an organisation-wide view actually work against the company.

While silos exist for a reason – the coalition of like services into units makes sense organisationally – silos that don’t see themselves as achieving for the whole organisation, or worse, compete with each other and actively disadvantage each other, equal a dysfunctional organisation.