Psychopaths in management are more common than you think

October 5, 2017
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What would you say if I told you there was a higher incidence of psychopaths in business leadership than in the general population?

Sound outlandish? That’s what I thought too until I began to read the work of Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, whose book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, provides an outstanding foundational knowledge on the subject.

Their conclusion, based on years of anecdotal research and a study of management development programs, is that an incidence of 3% psychopaths in management is well above the roughly 1% incidence of psychopathy in the general population. (By comparison, the figure is approximately 15% in prison populations.)

Psychopathic behavior is characterized by egocentric and grandiose actions accompanied by a complete lack of conscience and empathy. As I’ve reflected back on my decades in management and my more recent work in consulting, the conclusions of Babiak and Hare, seem to me, sadly, all too accurate.

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Here are some key things to know about psychopaths. The can be charismatic and charming. Their grandiosity is easily mistaken for “vision,” and being unencumbered by conscience can be a helpful trait when making wrenching (sometimes career-destroying) leadership decisions. Am I saying that psychopaths abound in management? Hardly. But does a 3% figure feel in the right general ballpark? It’s certainly possible.

“Terminate that pregnancy”

I recently collaborated with The Predictive Index to solicit from clients their experiences with potentially psychopathic management. I say “potentially” because the bar for true clinical psychopathy is a rigorously high standard that is difficult to prove without detailed testing. Nonetheless, I wasn’t surprised that some “unusual” management cases were quickly offered. Following are a couple of examples:

“On day one of my employment, the CEO, whom I reported to, said, ‘I want you to listen in on a client call but you are forbidden to speak.’ Who says forbidden? On day two of my employment, when the CRM system that he developed froze, the CEO said, ‘I told my staff that if the backup system didn’t immediately kick in, I would tie someone to the back of my car and drag them across the parking lot.’ I quit after 12 weeks.”

Being dragged across a parking lot is a memorable touch to be sure, but an even more outrageous employee recollection was supplied shortly after that one.

“It was a hostile work environment. Within the first month of the person taking the [management] position, three individuals on the team resigned. The stress was so bad, my healthcare team had to put me on bed rest to ensure I would not lose the baby I was carrying. To put this in a context regarding lack of empathy, the person suggested that I term my pregnancy to figure out my minor health issues… as I could get pregnant again.”

A casual management suggestion to terminate a pregnancy? Pretty close to the gold standard when it comes to absence of empathy, I’d say.

Avoiding a disastrous hire

Needless to say, the wrong person in a position of extreme power can do massive damage to an organization. It can take a company years, even decades, to recover, when indeed recovery is even possible. In Snakes in Suits, Babiak and Hare devote some 40 pages to the critically important topic of avoiding psychopathic hires. Personally, if I were running a large organization, I’d make this section required reading for all of my HR executives.

But in the interests of brevity here, following are my own top three considerations I’d recommend to HR execs, boards and senior managers when considering top-level hires.

1)  Focus on tangible, verifiable results. Above all, focus on real substantive accomplishments that can be verified—more than on personal charm and force of personality. While charisma and powers of persuasion are naturally desirable leadership talents, they’re also well within the repertoire of a psychopath. Be sure there’s a solid foundation of real accomplishment that you can actually verify to support all substantive claims. I’ve personally seen organizations go badly astray and pay a high long-term cost when they let charm carry the day and fail to probe more thoroughly into the real executive skillset.

2) Glean whatever you can about a candidate’s moral and ethical character. This isn’t always easy in a formal interview process, but any subtle insights that can be gained about an individual’s moral compass and value system can be critically important data. Admittedly this can be tricky, but it’s a worthwhile awareness to cultivate. Bear in mind a psychopath’s adeptness at manipulating a situation and telling interviewers what he or she thinks they want to hear.

3) Plan for internal succession. A well-conceived internal succession program is in my opinion the absolute best way to inoculate an organization against a catastrophic candidate. With proper succession planning in place, those making hiring or promotion decisions will have had years—not hours—to study an individual in action and observe his or her character. If the desired skills are available (or can be developed) internally, this is an excellent way to mitigate risk.

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