CORPORATE BEHAVIOUR Snakes in Suits – Fear and loathing in corporate clothing

Paul felt like pulling his hair out. In 20 years in the import-export business he’d never felt so bad. The merger between Johnston Trading and Tiepin Trading was proving very stressful, mainly because his new boss, Jack was total bully. At one level Jack was clever trader who had an instinctive feel for the market – and he certainly had bundle of energy for someone in his late 50s. On another level everyone tiptoed around him, fearful that at any moment he would fly off the handle. What’s worse is that Paul could often detect half-hidden smirk come over Jack’s face few seconds after he had roared at someone. “What drives this guy?” wondered Paul.

Revelations of Machiavellian behaviour emerging from corporate basketcases such as Enron have helped fuel growing interest in how bullies and psychopaths influence work environments.
How they behave and the damage they cause was last year detailed by occupational psychologist Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, Canadian professor and recognised expert in psychopathy, in book called Snakes in Suits: When psychopaths go to work.
Yet the topic isn’t new. As far back as 1941, four psychopathic subtypes were outlined by H Cleckley in Mask of Sanity.
‘Angry psychopaths’ fly into frequent rages; are typically male and obsessed by strong sexual urges. ‘Charismatic psychopaths’ are often charming and attractive liars who are articulate, persuasive and skilfully manipulate others. ‘Primary psychopaths’ can largely inhibit their anti-social impulses – out of self-interest not conscience, are unresponsive to punishment, anxiety or disapproval and appear incapable of experiencing any genuine emotion. ‘Secondary psychopaths’ are risk-takers who seek out stress but can be anxious and guilt-prone. Bold, audacious and unconventional, they are strongly driven by desire to escape or avoid pain, but are unable to resist temptation.
Similar traits are identified by Hare and Babiak who have designed “B-scan” test to help identify psychopathic personalities in the workplace. Given they’re estimated to make up roughly one percent of the population, there’s fair chance you have one as workmate – or worse yet, boss.

How to spot them
Popular conception may see them as merciless killers but psychopaths appear ‘normal’ and even charming as they destroy the lives of those around them and harm the companies they work for. Even in less severe forms, psychopathic personalities can prove to be very destructive to any organisation.
It can be useful to check their personality off along dimensions such as emotional stability, interpersonal style, openness, agreeableness and work ethic. Typically, they tend to be highly impulsive, angry or hostile, behave in an extroverted manner but have very low trust and consideration for others and are not exactly conscientious.
These are people who tend to be manipulative, irresponsible and deceitful; they crave power and prestige, schmooze to bosses, lie easily and take the credit for other people’s work. They lack empathy and remorse but are often cool under pressure.
Unlike narcissistic individual whose competence seldom matches their own grandiose notions of it, the typical psychopath is often highly competent but has low self-esteem. This competence, combined with defensive reactions – such as talking themselves up – is used to cover up the low self-esteem and can lead to major challenges for organisations.
Unfortunately, the polish, charm and cool decisiveness of the psychopath can easily be mistaken for leadership. Thus psychopaths are often picked for fast track promotion. Yet they are also cunning, untrustworthy, unethical, and often utterly remorseless – going to great lengths to get what they want.
A psychopathic executive wanting promotion can falsify financial results, spread rumours, and generate great hostility among co-workers to get ahead – all without the boss knowing.
It appears that the speed and unpredictability of today’s highly competitive workplaces makes the business environment one in which psychopathic personalities can thrive – possibly (and frighteningly) because companies unwittingly promote them.
So what can companies do to mitigate their impact?

Recruitment and selection
Once hired, psychopathic individuals can be tad hard to get rid of, as they’re likely to become manipulative and abusive when threatened with job termination. Clearly care in recruitment is essential.
Educate: Recruiters need to be aware of the concept of psychopathology and the need to be careful despite the individual’s apparent competence in prior employment.
Check references carefully: Recruiters need to be suspicious of glowing or even exaggerated references. These may not indicate highly effective executive but rather the desire by the current organisation to transfer troublesome employee somewhere, anywhere else.
Use personality profiling: Routine use of the NEO or other Five Factor Model personality measures in selection can be useful because psychopathy can be suggested from the profile. Profiles that should be considered carefully are:
• very low on agreeableness and conscientiousness
• high on extroversion
• high or low scores on neuroticism (high impulsive and angry hostility, low anxiety, depression, self-consciousness and vulnerability – Miller & Lynam, 2003).

The superficial charm and apparent decisiveness of the psychopath can be mistaken for leadership unless careful selection procedures are used.
Check track record: Make good use of cross checks with individuals who know the candidate well and have real working experience with them over prolonged period.
Use 360 degree feedback: Multi-rater feedback that is completely anonymous is useful way to evaluate important dimensions such as impulsivity, recklessness and lack of responsibility. Another tag is major differences between manager’s positive perception of the individual and subordinates’ negative one. Also be aware that large ranges in subordinates’ ratings may mean that the psychopathic individual is being predatory or parasitic with one or two individuals.
Use internal and external customer satisfaction surveys: When repeated over time such surveys can indicate that the individual has superficial charm but is unable to sustain customer satisfaction in the longer term.
Encourage openness with all levels of employees: Organisations with suspected problem can support individuals who want to talk to an outside coach or to their manager about manipulative individuals. It is often junior employees who first notice the manipulation because they are less useful to psychopath than leaders so can identify the psychopath’s game before management does.

What can individuals do?
Understand what you are dealing with: If organisations become aware of the possible presence of psychopath, they should take steps to help any potential or actual victims understand the nature of the troublesome disorder.
Get help: Have an outside coach, psychologist or confidant talk to affected individuals about their own weaknesses and areas of vulnerability. An employee’s fear of conflict and an unwillingness to confront can be ruthlessly exploited by the psychopath. Coaching helps people overcome such fears and confront opposition in an open but non-aggressive manner.
Do not try reason: Logic and rationality don’t work on psychopath and can be turned against the unsuspecting individual who is trying to resolve situation.
Do not plead: If reasoning with psychopath is useless then pleading is downright foolish as it’s likely to be exploited as sign of weakness.
Establish power base: The best advice in dealing with psychopath is to understand that power is likely to be the only language they’ll respond to. Have quiet word with the individual’s manager about the troublesome behaviour and request strict confidentiality. Peers or subordinates are unlikely to have much influence and serious manipulation o

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