by Doug Wilson, Featured Contributor
IN HER ARTICLE “7 Things Rich People and Psychopaths Have In Common”, Morgan Quinn reviews multiple studies on psychopathic behaviors.
The research Quinn cites in her article is summarized below with a fictitious leadership example (in italics) drawn from multiple real life examples. These examples are placed in the setting of a new leader who assumed control of an organization with the intent of changing its direction.
Consider several leadership questions:
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- Is there a difference between strong (even tough) leadership required to change an organization and psychopathic behavior? If so, how can one tell if he or she crosses the line?
- Does exhibiting one of the specific behaviors listed indicate a person is a psychopathic leader or are multiple repeated behaviors required?
- Are some behaviors more destructive to organizations and staff than others?
- Can a poor leader unwittingly demonstrate some of the psychopathic behaviors?
- Is it realistic to think that “good leadership techniques” can be practiced consistently in extremely difficult situations?
- Does the distinction between great or tough or lousy or even psychopathic leadership reside solely in the “eye of the beholder”?
These are not easy distinctions to make. Some leaders may be troubled that some of the actions described below describe actions they have taken in the past.
Make your own assessment of this fictitious leader: legitimate leadership behaviors during trying times or psychopathic actions?
- Psychopaths often share the same goals as many others: money, power, material goods and influence. The difference is the psychopath views any means, (even harmful, cruel or illegal actions), as justified if it achieves the desired end. (Snakes In Suits by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare).
- Psychopathic Behaviors
(Jon Ronson describes seven psychopathic behaviors in the book The Psychopath Test. Six of those behaviors are reviewed here).
- Lack of Empathy
- Psychopaths cannot understand the feelings and experiences of other
- People tend to value social connections with people who offer them the most value.
- In an organization that was very successful (it had one of the best brands in its market), a respected leader was replaced in a palace coupe. Despite the previous success of the organization, the replacement (hand selected by the board chair) immediately discredited the success and talent of the previous leader and leadership team. According to the new leader, remaining leaders and professional staff did not meet minimum talent qualifications required. This was also the view of the board chair. New talent was needed (with friends or acquaintances of the leader being hired).
- The new leader’s entire focus was on the board chair, the chair’s spouse and a few select board members. Feedback from staff on proposed actions was discounted if it ran contrary to the direction received from above. The president huddled with the board chair on a regular basis to plan strategy and action and to discuss individuals in the organization. As a result, staff saw the new president as a puppet, not a leader. The staff lived in a state of constant surprise (and turmoil) over what would come next.
- The leader would regularly ask staff (below the direct report level) for their opinions. (Leaders were constantly irritated by what they felt was bypassing the chain of command). He welcomed and encouraged honesty but was known to mock staff responses to his inner circle when the conversations with them were recounted.
- On several instances the president initiated personnel actions against staff that were on Family Medical Leave Act causing an on-going battle with the HR director.
- Nobel economics prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman tracked the achievements of 25 wealth advisers over eight years and found that that their success was a total illusion (The Guardian).
- Contrary to the advisers’ belief in their superior talents, the study showed that luck had the biggest impact on their financial successes, not skill.
- When this was pointed out to them, the facts fell on deaf ears — the financial advisers simply could not believe success was not because of their skill.
- The new leader viewed himself as the savior of the organization. This was in spite of the fact that the leader had no leadership or management experience leading large organizations. (He once held an elected position in a small city government. The rest of his career he was in staff positions). He had initiated a whispering campaign designed to undermine the previous leader’s credibility with those above him (before being appointed president he had been a staff person in that organization). There is some question as to whether he was placed in the organization by the board chair for the purpose of undermining the previous president. The new president believed that his one primary mission was to implement the board chair’s vision. There was never any push back on what the chair wanted. Because he wanted to be the sole conduit of communication to and from the chair, the president guarded zealously his relationship with the board chair. Anyone else going to the board chair was viewed with suspicion.
- The leader categorized everyone on staff into two groups: those who were with him and those who were not. This categorization was not based on any specific data but rather on the leader’s perception of the staff member’s devotion to the previous leader (a negative) and to agreement with his ideas (a positive). Excitement about the leader’s ideas was viewed as competence.
- Eventually this leader received personal feedback from a senior direct report on the destructiveness of his behavior and what it was doing to the organization. His response? He ostracized that leader by removing authority, work assignments, and a position on the senior leadership team as one of the president’s direct reports.
- The human resources director was instructed that HR policies and procedures did not apply to the senior leadership team. HR was to carry out the president’s wishes in terms of new hires, pay and promotions without HR guidelines interfering. Any push back against management prerogative was viewed as bureaucratic behavior. The policies did apply to those below the senior leadership level.
- Early in his tenure the president learned about several good leadership practices that the organization had been in the process of implementing. He indicated that those practices were academic, theoretical and would not work in the real world. (What he meant, of course, was that rules did not apply to him and he did not want to be held to those standards).
- Superficial Charm
- A study tested the psychological traits of senior leaders from leading British businesses and compared those results to convicted criminals. (Psychology, Crime and Law)
- Psychopathic managers actually scored higher for several characteristics that companies value and reward: skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people, a strong sense of entitlement, a willingness to exploit others, and a lack of conscience.
- The new leader was charming when he wanted to be. He often bypassed his managers and went to their direct reports seeking information to support his views and to obtain staff criticism of their leaders. His charisma caused many employees to open up to him, usually to their regret. He was also charming with customers and the public although a few of the more astute would explain that they felt something was missing although they were not able to put their finger on their uneasiness.
- Other staff members were called upon to do his dirty work. Since he wanted to be liked and revered, he directed his newly hired staff (the supporters) to carry out his directions, especially when those actions had adverse impact on other staff members. If the impacted staff asked to speak with him about these actions, the president would feign surprise that these actions occurred; obviously, the subordinate manager had acted without his direction!
- While he was uncomfortable giving negative feedback to an individual, he was skilled at chastising large staff groups (in his mind this showed his toughness). For example, on one staff call he told the entire organization that if anyone was not supportive of him or his direction, he could easily find someone who was.
- Lack of Remorse
- Psychopaths are usually very charming and charismatic, but show little remorse when their actions harm others.
- A psychopath often blames others for the things he does, or the negative outcomes of his behavior.
- Among higher-scoring psychopaths, there was even a joy in manipulating others, actions for which a typical person would feel remorse or guilt.
- Mistakes or failures were met with blame, never learning or owning responsibility. This was especially true when mistakes rose to the level of the board chair. In those cases the new president consistently placed blame on specific people. (A single mistake, especially if noticed by the chair was a quick way to be placed on his incompetent list). This created a destructive cycle in two ways. First, initiative in the organization ground to a halt, as many staff members feared that if actions were not completely successful they would face the wrath and public blame of the leader. (One person was publically chastised because chairs were not arranged correctly at the opening of an event). Later staff was blamed for no initiative. Second, staff grew skilled at pointing out the problems with what others were doing. Criticism rather than collaboration became a characteristic of the culture.
- This leader’s simultaneous but contradictory desires to be revered coupled with his lack of remorse was best seen when he fired the direct report who had the audacity to confront him about his actions. At the time of the firing of this senior leader (who the new leader had originally seen as being one of his strongest supporters), the president cried and hugged the fired employee. (The fired director recounted that when he hugged me, “I felt my skin crawl.”) The leader explained that the firing was not for incompetence or even disloyalty but because the organization was going in a “different direction.” (Many cynics observed the new direction was “downward!” Later, when this person was hired into a much better position in a different organization at higher pay, the president told his direct reports he could not understand how that person could have gotten that level of position since she was clearly not that talented. This was a common behavior of the president when people let the organization, (willingly or unwillingly).
- An experiment by Paul Piff and a Berkeley research team suggested it’s the poor, not the wealthy, who are more inclined to charitable giving (The Economist).
- The generosity of study participants increased as their economic status fell.
- Those who ranked themselves at the bottom of the ladder gave away 44% more than the participants who ranked themselves at the top.
- The final test also showed that upper-class participants had to be prompted to display compassion.
- The leader never praised individuals although he would praise a large group when in front of the full board of directors because that was the ”leadership” thing to do and, in his mind, showed humility.) When actions were successful, he took credit and his picture was prominent in publicity pieces and newspaper articles. Under his leadership, however, there was no “we” in failure, only blame and finger pointing.
- He spent much time complaining about his salary (as a new president) with the salary of the previous president (what he earned after seven successful years.) For this he blamed the HR compensation system.
- Work from home privileges for all staff was discontinued because the president did not believe people worked hard if they were not in the office. All his direct reports were required to relocate to the president’s location so they could be observed and monitored. If staff were not at their desks by 8:00 in the morning he became livid and would call HR to vent about the violator(s) and to instruct HR to write policies so this problem would not happen again. (This also happened if the president called a person and they were not at their desk). This was despite the fact that there were plenty of exceptions to the 8:00 rule for him. The president began to schedule in person early morning and late afternoon meetings to ensure people worked the entire day.
- Unethical Behavior
- People with wealth and power are more likely to behave unethically than people without wealth and power (National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
- They were more likely than poorer participants to:
- Break the law while driving
- Exhibit unethical decision-making
- Take valued goods from others
- Lie during a negotiation
- Cheat to increase their chances of winning
- Endorse unethical behavior at work
- As revenue began to decline, this leader could not accept that the performance of the organization was deteriorating. (The decline was blamed on the incompetent talent hired by the previous president). The CFO was instructed to modify the way revenue was recorded so that declines were hidden. (Revenue was also credited in such a way that the president’s initiatives were seen to be successful while the on-going efforts of the organization were seen as deteriorating.)
- Organization metrics about performance were not shared with staff; the only thing discussed was each person’s individual performance metrics.
- Reimbursements of expenses for his “favored” direct reports were approved even though they were not consistent with company policies or financial guidelines. Similar requests for reimbursements for those in the “other camp” were denied. When challenged on these actions, the president claimed he had the right to put together his “own team”.
- Promotions and pay increases were promised to people throughout the organization to curry information, favor and support. Unless a staff member was one of his “chosen few”, however, those promises never came to reality. Soon the informal organization picked up on this behavior and passed the communication that “he will promise you anything but deliver on nothing.”
How Do You Tell?
Did this leader demonstrate the characteristics of a psychopathic leader or were these the actions of a tough-minded leader doing what the situation required?
- In the president’s mind every action he took was necessary and justified in order to change the course of an organization he (and the board chair) felt was headed in the wrong direction.
- In his mind, his actions, while they may not have been the way he preferred to behave, were necessary and required to shake up the organization.
How can one tell if a leader is taking the hard actions necessary to correct a situation he or she has inherited or if the behavior is psychopathic?
- Does the true distinction between tough and psychopathic behavior occur when ego, meanness, arrogance and a need to win at all costs underlie leadership actions?
- Is the desire to elevate oneself and punish enemies the point where a leader crosses the line?
Does the behavior even matter if the results on customers, employees and the organization are the same?
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