King of the World – Why is Sociopathy and Psychopathy so prevalent ‘at the top’?
Latest Guest Post By Robert Sams from www.dolphinsafetysolutions.com.au
Psychopaths will thrive in an organisation that is seeking to control their people. Where the culture of a workplace, or group, allow psychopaths to manipulate and denigrate others without consequence, they will succeed in achieving their own needs and goals without care at all for others involved.
The following story is taken from the book, Snakes in Suits:
Helen was the perfect candidate for the job. She had a reputation for making things happen. Admittedly, some collateral damage occurred along the way, but that didn’t concern the management.
Gus was moved out of his position after Helen made arguments that implicated him in the original business letdown. She had clever ideas, tremendous energy, and persisted in pushing strongly for what she wanted. She constructed a plausible story about Gus’ mismanagement that solidly reinforced her business case. Helen was profoundly competitive and just loved to take center stage. Overall, she convinced them that she possessed all the leadership traits they needed.
Not everyone like Helen. She treated junior colleagues with disdain and a measure of contempt, often deriding their ideas and confidence. To those she found useful in her career, however, she was gracious, engaging and fun.
Helen insisted her direct reports follow the agreed-upon scripts. Histrionics were common during staff meetings, and participants often felt bruised, battered and humiliated at the end of meetings.
Helen hired her own group of people to replace many of her vocal opponents. She then fired most of her own appointments as she decided they were inadequate, incompetent or no longer needed. There was no concern about the harm she did to the careers and family lives of these people.
Helen seemed to get away with whatever she wanted, including the purchase of the latest extravagance; cars and corporate apartments. Questioning her behavior invoked intense reactions.
Eventually the authorities learned that Helen had siphoned off assets to her offshore account and she disappeared without a trace.
Helen demonstrates many traits of a psychopath.
To understand why psychopaths and sociopaths make it ‘at the top’ requires an understanding of what these terms mean and importantly how they relate to the idea of an Authoritarian Personality (TAP). It also requires a careful consideration of the social arrangements in which psychopaths exist and operate. Psychopaths can cause considerable devastation to both people and organisations if the social construct in place allows a psychopath to take control.
The term ‘Sociopath’ and ‘Psychopath’ are often used interchangeable (see – Definitions). What is common for both is an inability to perceive ‘other’. Psychopaths are neutral to the feelings of others, they don’t know that they don’t ‘feel’ (a-rational) and everything they do is for ‘self’.
Typically, Psychopaths will display the following traits:
· Ability to Manipulate
· Lack conscience and empathy (for ‘other’)
Psychopaths often make it ‘to the top’ by manipulating and charming their way to the position that suits their needs without a care for ‘others’ along the way. To really understand the impact psychopaths and sociopaths can have, requires us to consider and explore the social circumstances in which they best fit and prosper.
Psychopaths often adopt an authoritarian personality (TAP – see definition at http://www.simplypsychology.org/authoritarian-personality.html) style of leadership. They will focus on control, power, rules and details. They will not share, in adopting TAP they don’t need social interaction, they just need authority within their own ‘in-group’. (For further reading about this see Duckitt’s research – John Duckitt – Authoritarianism and Group Identification (1989).
Psychopaths will thrive in an organisation that is seeking to control their people. Where the culture of a workplace, or group, allow psychopaths to manipulate and denigrate others without consequence, they will succeed in achieving their own needs and goals without care at all for others involved. Couple this with an organisation that establishes a discourse of control and power through for example the goals that they set along with the language they use, and you have a recipe for the psychopath, using the idea of TAP, to flourish.
So is it any wonder, really, why there are so many Sociopaths and Psychopaths at ‘the top’, when so many organisations seek short term financial results, care less about the ‘how’ then the ‘what’ and spend so much time developing processes to ‘dehumanise’ the workforce. These are conditions where psychopaths will get straight to the top, knocking over anyone along the way.
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 Babiak, Paul. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work New York, Harper Collins, 2007