Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Psychopath in the Office

Here's another article by Paul Wood alluding to the Romanian HR environment. I must apologize to Mr. Wood for the delayed posting. My college graduation and the eternal job hunting saga have considerably affected my blogging consistency in the past few months.

Paul Wood is Managing Director of Apple Search and Selection, the executive search company, and has worked in executive recruitment in Romania since 1998. He can be contacted at pwood@execs.com.
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The Psychopath in the Office
How many do you know?

The word ‘psychopath’ instills a pleasurable ripple of fear into anyone who saw a conscienceless killer in a Hollywood film such as Basic Instinct or The Silence of the Lambs. But psychopaths exist outside the movies. Only a fairly small minority are violent criminals, more are confidence tricksters but most are not criminals at all. Many hold positions of power (think of Saddam Hussein or Slobodan ). Psychopaths are also known as sociopaths and the syndrome is also named Anti-Social Behaviour Disorder. The Victorians used the term ‘moral insanity’ but in fact psychopaths are exceptionally sane. They simply have no consciences and no empathy. Every reader of this article has knowingly or otherwise met some. Long-term their goal is always to accumulate power or money by any means available and to damage and abuse those over whom their power extends.

‘Industrial psychopaths’ is the term recently coined by psychologist Paul Babiak, author of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, for psychopaths who hold good jobs. They can be priests, academics, charity workers, actors or media stars, HR managers or accountants but very frequently they are found in professions that enable them to have power over others: in particular, the medical and legal professions (they are especially attracted to becoming judges and prosecutors), the police and armed services and, most irresistible of all to psychopaths, in politics.
How do you recognise a psychopath in a social or business setting? You probably wouldn’t. They are pathological liars, masters of dissimulation and excel at interviews, the perfect theatres for their talents. In the West‘s increasingly atomised and competitive world, where ambitious go-getters are valued and efficiency sometimes prized above moral scruples, the psychopath’s qualities resemble those of the successful business leader. In developing economies where power structures are fluid and standards of business and political ethics are hazy psychopaths thrive. Present-day Romania is a perfect breeding ground for the species.

The psychopath thrives in situations of rapid change. The industrial psychopath identifies and ingratiates himself with the people whom he identifies as easily manipulated and those with power who can help him reach the top. According to Professor Babiak, 'During the manipulation stage, the psychopath spreads disinformation to enhance his image and disparage others. He is adept at creating conflict between those who might pool negative information about him. This is followed by a confrontation stage in which he abandons the pawns who are no longer useful to him and takes steps to neutralise detractors. Finally, the most successful psychopath enters an ascension phase during which he abandons his patrons - those who have helped his rise to power.' In the Romanian expression “treading on dead bodies to the top”.

No-one knows what are the causes of the condition although research suggests that the psychopath’s brain functions abnormally and that a lobe may be missing. There is no cure. No-one can be given a conscience transplant.
Professor Robert Hare, Professor of Psychology at Vancouver University, is the world’s leading authority on psychopaths. He estimates that about 1% of the population are psychopaths. Hare says they are "amusing and entertaining conversationalists, ready with a quick and clever comeback, and can tell unlikely but convincing stories...They can be very effective in presenting themselves well and are often very likeable and charming. To some people, however, they seem too slick and smooth, too insincere and superficial. Astute observers often get the impression that psychopaths are play-acting, mechanically ‘reading their lines.’

Psychopaths are always highly intelligent (a parallel can be drawn with autists) and often possess photographic memories but their knowledge tends to be wide but superficial. They can be superb linguists and readily assimilate the latest jargon expressions as they emerge. Lacking normal human feelings, they are actors who learn how to behave by mimicking those around them. They may therefore come across as affected, insincere or false. Hare says they have a "narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astounding egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the centre of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules.” They can seem very charismatic but are rarely popular with those who work or interact with them closely. A few perceptive people sense at once that they are evil.

The psychopath will always prefer what he can gain by trickery, dishonesty or force majeure to the fruits of honest toil, which bores him. He is usually lazy and unfocused where routine work is concerned although at networking or marketing he can be a workaholic. As a boss he will steal his subordinates’ ideas, pick on victims to bully and very often sexually harass staff but also use manipulative skills to retain subordinates’ loyalty (Adolf Hitler remembering his secretaries’ birthdays).
In business psychopaths will take pride in using every dishonest subterfuge from bribes to blackmail to acquire mandates or retainers, happily getting away with substandard work as a result. They are exceptionally astute at reading others and are adept at gleaning information about those around them to feed their sense of power and enable them to exploit others. If they judge it safe to do so, they will delight in hurting those whom they can injure (I know of one HR Manager who framed a series of staff members with no ulterior object beyond the fun of sabotaging their careers). Psychopaths inhabit a Hobbesian universe where power is the only value and love of power means love of mischief.

The female psychopath (there are thought to be roughly two male psychopaths for every one female psychopath) is exactly as pitiless as her male counterpart but will use the advantages open to her as a woman to help her career path. If attractive she will exploits her looks, sleep her way to promotion or with clients to make deals happen, while at the same time she may be ready to concoct false charges that she herself is the victim of sexual harassment rather than the perpetrator. If appropriate she will cultivate the image of a devoted wife or mother as a useful cover.

Industrial psychopaths of either sex can be very effective at PR, at sales and marketing and their management techniques can be effective in the short or medium term but in the long term their business enterprises are likely to founder, their companies fail, their partners part ways from them or their employees vote with their feet. Psychopathy causes enormous damage in all our lives. We have seen in recent years the consequences when a succession of fraudulent businesses have collapsed. Who will psychoanalyse Enron or Worldcom, Bancorex or FNI?

So what should we look for as pointers to alert us against this dangerous breed of people when for example conducting interviews? The tell-tale signs include contradictory lies, oleaginous flattery, haughty body language, the penetrating and prolonged ‘psychopathic stare’ with which they fix their victims, poor spelling, an excessive interest in status and material things, their love of belittling others, boasting particularly about their lack of scruples and all sorts of unusual ways of talking, dressing or behaving, designed to draw attention to themselves.

Hare and Babiak have joined forces to create a new diagnostic tool, the “B-scan” intended to help businesses keep psychopath- is a series of questions asked of referees rather than candidates, looking for sixteen key qualities including: insincere, arrogant, insensitive, remorseless, shallow, impatient, , unfocused, parasitic, dramatic, unethical and bullying.

How many do you know?



[April(?) 2005, Vivid magazine]

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