Do you have a ‘corporate psychopath’ in your midst?

Like 100 other people, I attended a talk yesterday evening by Prof Clive Boddy from Middlesex University.  He shared his research into who can be considered a ‘corporate psychopath’ (CP) and why they can do serious damage to an organisation – destroying customer, employee and community relations – whilst senior managers may be none-the-wiser about the impact they are having.  At the same time, they can appear charming, results driven and have seemingly successful careers.

As Prof Boddy was talking, I couldn’t get the character Catbert (from the Dilbert cartoon strips) out of my head.  These individuals account for around 3.5% of senior managers, 2% of other managers and 1% of the general population. So what can you do to spot them? And is it possible to bring out their good qualities at work and limit the risk of damage?

How to spot a CP? They tend to be very charismatic, confident people with clear goals.  It is likely that more senior people will see them as ‘star players’ in the organisation. The CP will charm their superiors whilst using colleagues and ‘walking on’ junior workers.  They are brilliant at self-promotion and don’t get flustered under pressure – a seemingly great person in a crisis. They are also very impressive at interview.

However, they can be ruthless in pursuit of their goals, lack empathy and do not process other people’s emotions.   They evaluate everyone in terms of who is a threat to them and who they can use to help them achieve their goals.  They see no problem with taking the credit for other people’s work, lying, passing on blame or treating people unfairly.  Their modus operandi is to ‘divide and conquer’ so creating chaos in their teams. They avoid senior Finance or HR colleagues as these people may pose a threat by checking on their activities.

What impact can they have? Prof Boddy’s research found that the presence of a CP in a senior position can lead to employees being seen as a cost/resource to use, poorer internal communication and lower interest paid towards customers’ needs or the community. He also found increased stress, lower wellbeing, disengagement and turnover of workers.  In one organisation there had been a 120% turnover in two years under the CP’s leadership.  Such organisations become less market-centric, behaviour becomes more counter-productive and more political as workers are forced to defend themselves. This impact on culture can take a matter of weeks. Yet, the CP will invariably blame others for the failure.

What can you do about them? So having reflected on Prof Boddy’s talk, I started to think more about what could be done practically to bring out a CP’s good qualities at work and limit the risk of damage:

  1. Evaluate people’s risk of psychopathic tendencies during recruitment or promotion. There are psychiatric tools that can be used to specifically assess someone’s psychopathic tendencies; however, the use of them doesn’t necessarily give a great message to potential candidates during the recruitment process.  Fortunately, there are psychometric tools on the market that can give some indication of risk whilst also giving lots of other valuable information about your candidates.  Hogan’s Development Survey (aka Hogan’s Dark Side tool) can be used in recruitment and development contexts to understand what is likely to happen to someone’s personality when the are under stress.  This tool can identify 11 different tendencies and one of these might be to become manipulative under pressure (a clinical risk indicator of narcissism or psychopathy).  Each tendency is evaluated on a scale and every person will have some risk score.
  2. Find a suitable job-fit.  These people can make great sales people, performers and influencers. and they work well in a crisis. If you are going to recruit them, just make sure you pop them in the right kind of role in the organisation.  They may be good managers for any groups of people that are very autonomous and do not require their own recognition or direction.  Sales managers perhaps – as long as individuals under their leadership can be clearly recognised for their efforts. Don’t rely on the CP’s report of how other people have contributed to the overall sales targets as you may find yourself believing that the CP has delivered it all themselves!
  3. Help to develop their understanding of how people differ. It is uncommon to have an extreme CP (along the lines that Prof Boddy described), many more people show some tendencies to be manipulative. These individual can learn to manage this side of their personality and to manage their stress levels – which can increase the risk of destructive behaviour. It may be helpful to encourage them to think more deeply about other people and what their needs might be.  Challenge them to observe other people and report back on what they see – their manner, emotions, body language, the message they are trying to get across etc.
  4. Make time to give them feedback and attention. A CP doesn’t like to be criticised or judged. They may intellectually analyse your feedback but will struggle to understand the impact that their behaviour has on others. With coaching, they may start to develop better ‘models’ for dealing with other people – some intellectual processes that they can follow (in replacement of the natural empathy that others may use).
  5. Ensure there are clear lines of communication between senior managers and front line workers.  The CP will limit the voice of their subordinates and even their peers.  Therefore, ensure that performance is evaluated through a triangulation of sources and you do not just rely on managers reports.  Also keep track of reasons for turnover, poor wellbeing and pockets of dissatisfaction amongst workers.

Do get in touch if you want to know more about how we can help you if you suspect you might have a corporate psychopath in your midst.

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