Ideas & Debate

Firms beware, psychopaths can easily charm their way up the career ladder

Your average psychopath is extremely manipulative and will probably charm the socks off the interviewing panel and his managers. FOtosearch
Your average psychopath is extremely manipulative and will probably charm the socks off the interviewing panel and his managers. FOtosearch 

A September 2011 article in Time magazine by Maia Szalavitz titled “One in twenty five business leaders may be psychopaths” makes for interesting reading.

The findings are a result of research by psychologist and executive coach Paul Babiak who studied 203 American corporate professionals that had been chosen by their companies to participate in a management training programme. He evaluated their psychopathic traits using a version of the standard psychopathy checklist developed by Robert Hare, an expert in psychopathy at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Psychopaths, who are characterised by being completely amoral and concerned only with their own power and selfish pleasures, may be overrepresented in the business environment because it plays to their strengths. Where greed is considered good and profitmaking is the most important value, psychopaths can thrive. They also tend to be charming and manipulative — and in corporate America, that easily passes for leadership. But, as the U.K.’s Guardian reported:

“The survey suggests psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath, Babiak said.”

In fact, it can be hard spot the psychopath in any crowd (according to Robert Hare, psychopaths make up one per cent of the general population).

They’re not all ruthless serial killers; rather, psychopaths who grow up in happy, loving homes might end up channelling their energies in a less violent way — say, by becoming a CEO.

The interesting conclusion of Babiak’s research is that three per cent of managers are psychopaths versus one per cent of the general population. But do we have the ability to discern whether psychopaths can be found within our own general population?

A psychopath is defined as a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour. In the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, Babiak who co-authors the book with Robert Hare takes a thorough look at how psychopaths operate effectively in the work place.

They state: “Several abilities — skills, actually — make it difficult to see psychopaths for who they are. First, they are motivated to, and have a talent for, “reading people” and for sizing them up quickly.

They identify a person’s likes and dislikes, motives, needs, weak spots, and vulnerabilities… Second, many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people.

Third, they are masters of impression management; their insight into the psyche of others combined with a superficial —but convincing — verbal fluency allows them to change their situation skilfully as it suits the situation and their game plan.”

Thus, while we are conditioned to think of psychopaths in a criminal setting performing vile acts and engaging groups or cults even to perform viler acts, the fact is that psychopaths are seemingly normal, well heeled individuals who are charismatic, charming, and adept at manipulating one-on-one interactions.

In an organisation, one’s ability to advance is determined in large measure by a person’s ability to favourably impress his or her direct manager.

Unfortunately, certain of these psychopathic qualities – in particular charm, charisma, grandiosity (which can be mistaken for vision or confidence) and the ability to “perform” convincingly in one-on-one settings — are also qualities that can help one get ahead in the business world according to Forbes Magazine’s Victor Lipman.

Conversely, however not all psychopaths in the work place are charmers. The book Snakes in Suits goes ahead to explain:
“Some do not have enough social or communication skill or education to interact successfully with others, relying instead on threats, coercion, intimidation, and violence to dominate others and to get what they want. Typically, such individuals are manifestly aggressive and rather nasty, and unlikely to charm victims into submission, relying on their bullying approach instead. Snakes in Suits is less about them than about those who are willing to use their “deadly charm” to con and manipulate others.”

Firstly, this book should be made mandatory reading by all Human Resource managers in the world. What it brings to fore is that people managers should have a heightened awareness of the ability for employees to create a façade of good work place behaviour that is completely at odds with what their respective subordinates are experiencing.

The findings in the book also lead one to conclude that a well-established system of internal succession planning is an excellent way of observing the behaviour of identified talent over a period of time. After all you can fool some people some of the time, but it becomes increasingly difficult to fool all the people all of the time.

The challenge then for any organisation recruiting senior management is what to do when hiring an outsider for a role, where there is very little opportunity to observe their leadership style and ethos. Remember your average psychopath is extremely manipulative and will probably charm the socks off the interviewing panel and will have a long list of accomplishments typed up in boldface on his résumé.

A comprehensive reference checking process which includes both social and professional contacts will be critical in identifying the behavioural traits of a potential senior hire.

One headhunter that I know undertakes a very rigorous reference checking process that probes the social side of the individual from peers within and without the workplace.

As a result, he has uncovered an incredible amount of damaging information about potential hires that would never surface in an interview, formal reference check or well-written résumé. This is not to say that all business leaders are psychopaths, on the contrary, this is to serve as a notice to you that they-the psychopaths- walk amongst us.

The question is: do you have an effective system of identifying them?

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Twitter: @carolmusyoka