UPFRONT Hunting snakes in suits

Is economic pressure on modern-day workplaces and corporate culture creating world where psychopathic behaviour flourishes and is even rewarded?
That was the question posed in recent Background Briefing programme aired on Australia’s ABC radio, complete with sound clips from the Enron tapes and recently screened Canadian documentary The Corporation.
Along with comment from an Australian management professor, Amanda Sinclair, it featured the authors of soon-to-be-published book entitled Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work.
Paul Babiak is an industrial psychologist who consults to major corporates and has become expert at sniffing out “corporate psychopaths”; Robert Hare is Vancouver-based professor of psychology and expert on psychopathy.
According to Hare, one in 100 members of the general population meet the criteria for psychopathy and that proportion could be higher in the business world. It depends to some extent on the organisation, with those of the fast-moving, opportunistic kind like Enron, ideal breeding grounds.
These organisations go for high-energy, fast-moving people who ooze charm and charisma and, says Babiak, psychopaths can look that way.
“We sometimes mistake [these qualities] for leadership, especially if we believe their stories,” he says. “They can tell good story, be very entertaining and weave lot of facts, which really are disjointed, into powerful yarn, almost looking like vision.”
Psychopaths tend to be impulsive and manipulative, view personal interactions as game, and are immune to the damage they do. The problem, says Hare, is that only one or two of these people can do enormous damage to an organisation, particularly if they occupy senior roles.
They have identified three main archetypes; the “con” tends to practise small-scale, individual deceits; the “bully” uses intimidation to influence others; the “puppet master” is an arch-manipulator who uses others to further his/her own game and has the potential to cause most damage.
A real-life example from Babiak’s work was man picked by top executives as future leader who was able to charm his patrons and talk key co-workers into covering up his inadequacies while manipulating events so that mounting criticism from others failed to stick. He earned promotion while his main critic was moved sideways.
But how to spot the “snake in suit”? Hare and Babiak’s solution is questionnaire or “business scan” that is completed by those working both above and below problem employee. It helps pinpoint personality traits/behaviours that could be destructive.
Not that all craziness is destructive. Another interviewee on the programme was leadership development expert Manfred Ket de Vries who reckons entrepreneurs need to be little crazy.
“You need lot of craziness to be creative. I make strong plea for certain amount of craziness in the world.”
(Background Briefing transcripts can be found at www.abc.net.au)

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