June 26, 2007

Identifying the work place psychopath

One of the anachronisms of the 21st century is that although we pride ourselves on our modern institutions, in many Australian workplaces the Dickensian bully still strides the corridors of power.

Workplace bullies are not an isolated phenomenon. When John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation was introduced into parliament in 2005, the Prime Minister suggested there was one in every office.

“If you’re living in a small business environment, you’ve got, say, five or eight people in an office or a workshop, and one of them is a pain in the neck and is making life difficult for everybody else, it’s workers in many cases more than the boss that would like to see the back of him,” Prime Minister Howard said.

This article goes further than the “pain in the neck" definition of the workplace bully. It examines the bully as psychopath with their extraordinary ability to adapt to change. It is an irony that the complex psychological profiles of these individuals share many of the traits of the corporate “go-getters“ who the media glorifies.

There have been many typologies of the workplace psychopath but most include these features:

* authoritative, aggressive and dominating;
* fearless and shameless;
* devoid of empathy or remorse;
* manipulative and deceptive;
* impulsive, chaotic or stimulus seeking; and
* a master of imitation and mimicry.

One key criterion that needs to be included in any typology is that they lack self knowledge. In short, and to paraphrase the Bible, “they know not what they do". This doesn’t mean that they are ignorant. Far from it. Their actions are often highly adaptive, self serving and intelligent. For them, the means justify the ends and those means include isolation, humiliation and psychological torture of their staff.

I am not suggesting that these work place "aliens" are a new species. I am suggesting that they are coming in to their own as our public and private institutions, both great and small, are buffeted by the new IR legislation.

The rise of casual or temporary work, the declining power of unions and a more deregulated workforce have helped create an environment where these individuals are less constrained by the demonstrated ethical behaviour of their more senior peers.

Many years ago I worked in an advertising agency that had appointed an accountant (Dr X) as the new managing director. In his previous job he had five staff and 10 clients. Now, working with us, he had 120 staff and 30 major clients. Still though, as any one who has worked in advertising knows, expect the unexpected. It’s a robust and competitive environment.

Dr X seemed like a nice bloke and his ideas on revamping the agency, while frowned upon by some of the creatives and the catering staff, made sense. Marketing needed a major boost and some of the staff thought (wrongly) that working in an advertising agency was one long lunch and putting in four-day weeks. Alas, no.

Dr X took six months before he made his first move. He terminated all of the catering staff (mainly female and over 55) in one swoop. There was hue and cry but no one had the courage to do much about it.

Dr X then started isolating and picking on the older female staff who worked in administration. It was subtle and sly. One by one they’d be called in to his office and told they were “under-performing" or asked “had they thought about leaving?" He’d wait a fortnight and then corner one of them when no one was around and suggest that they’d be better off taking a severance package.

But they were feisty, articulate women. They called in the union, mediators from human resources (a waste of time) and there was even a local newspaper story written about the “Head rolling heads".

Just before Christmas he produced a survey (that was new!) from our clients (later proved false) that one of the major drawbacks to our productivity was that our reception staff took too long to answer the telephones. No one mentioned that they were now also the defacto catering staff. So he sacked the receptionists and hired casuals.

To cut a long story short, Dr X got his way and in the end, he went on to sack one third of the agency (including me).

I never felt any personal malice towards Dr X. He was older than me and prided himself on his physique (he lifted weights). His CV was outstanding. He was a brilliant financial analyst and researcher who had first started publishing academic papers in his early 20s. In another life, he could have been a mentor.

Yet there was something about Dr X’s CV that seemed odd. It was bloodless. It made no mention of human contact at all; of leading staff; of being a member of a team. There was no mention of negotiation or arbitration skills. He had listed no hobbies or community memberships, nothing which suggested that there was a life going on outside of the agency. His address was a post office box.

Dr X had found his niche in organisational life. While he craved status, power and control, he could not make the staff respect him. Younger staff left in droves. He wielded power with cunning and precision, excising all those who stood in his way, until he left a rump of staff who were so compliant they offered no resistance.

Why don’t people in organisations stand up to workplace maniacs? The communications theorist Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann, who had lived through the Nazis in Europe, understood why. Her “Spiral of Silence" theory states that most people have a fear of isolation and they therefore try to follow the majority opinion. The more dominant the fear of persecution, the more each person “colludes" in silence forming a majority of silent witnesses.

The criminal actions of the workplace terrorist creates ethical and moral problems for the staff. They are thrown back on to their mettle and are forced to consider what actions, if any, they will take to stop the terror.

Apropos, those who didn’t speak up, now know a little of the fear of Muslim women in Australia - the fear of being both conspicuous yet silent.

Who hasn’t had elaborate and possibly blood-thirsty revenge fantasies about their boss? But most remain fantasies. Yet Dr X was an organisational psychopath and in a 25-year career history, he’s the first and only one I’ve met but I suggest readers may have met more.

I propose that we’re creating more of these monsters, yet I cannot prove it. It’s a hunch that the current “cult of the individual" has created the stage on which he and others breed, like bacteria in the denuded rain forests of the Amazon.

Dr X even had clones from the endangered middle management species, who, like creatures out of a 1950s science fiction movie, started to act and speak like him. They exhorted us to be team players.

“There’s no ‘I’ in team", the clones would yell to which I’d reply “but there’s two ‘i’s in ‘salary differential’." No wonder I never made it in advertising.

The Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Harvard University, Chris Argyris, says that every organisation is replete with “undiscussables” - the messy stuff that people don’t want to talk about such as bullying, mental illness, sexual harassment and drug addiction.

Worse still, the undiscussability is in itself undiscussable, which creates a group mentality that ensures no one will rock the boat. Usually it takes external events such as whistle blowers, corporate collapses or litigation to bring these dirty little secrets out in to the open.

Should we not admit to a strange, perverse fascination in the Dr X’s of the world in much the same way that Shakespeare characterised Richard the Third? A character who was without any redeeming qualities and who left a trail of destruction in his wake.

It is difficult not to shake the feeling that the characteristics that comprise the organisational psychopath are not, in some form, prized in corporate boardrooms because they brook no resistance to change. Like a hound after a hare, the psychopath is single minded in his or her pursuit.

Admittedly the organisational psychopath is in the minority. Yet they are living personifications of the worst aspects of organisational life: unbridled power, toadyism, guile and malice aforethought. They are successful tyrants.

When the pursuit of power becomes the bottom line, ethics seem pale things - or are they?

The social theorist Richard Sennett said in The Corrosion of Character that “Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end ... Character concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others.”

The workplace psychopath can never share in the respect of others or naturally give esteem. It may seem old fashioned but there is still dignity in labour, in putting in a hard day’s work. For whatever reason, for whatever cause, the workplace terrorist has cut himself off from one simple aspect of work - the fraternity and collegiality of working together.

By Malcolm King - posted Tuesday, 26 June 2007. Malcolm King is director of Republic Media, an educational and public advocacy business. He was a senior media adviser to the ALP and Australian Democrats and was the writing programs leader at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.


Anonymous said...

One of the difficulties in dealing with wpb is that in order to take legal action one has to take constructive dismissal... to leave...which is just what the bullies want...

...this is an excellent way of getting rid of anyone who might cause trouble...they can leave...pay thousands of pounds to a solicitor to support them...maybe win their case...maybe not...

....but it is the bullies who remain....

...waiting for the next target...

...somehow there is something wrong here....

...shouldn't it be the bullies who leave???

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...

I believe that these psychopaths do not so much create clones as end up with only those who admire them or can stomach working for them. I was a manager in a department where somehow, though a lot of movement in the organisation, we ended up with a number of snr managers who all knew each other from way back when and who all had the same nasty temperament. I kept a low profile and they must have thought I was going along fine because I was called into my managers' office one day and told that he had two jobs for me. The first was to increase the workload on part time working women to get them to either quit or accept a permanent full-time position, the second was to regularly change the schedule of a specific worker with mental illness and then to document "evidence of his incompetence" so that he could be dismissed by these managers who felt uncomfortable working with him. They knew that this man did not deal well with changes to his routine and that this could possibly lead to him having another breakdown, but they did not care. He was a good, quiet worker, who did his job well and I had no problems with him. When I made it clear to them that I would resist any attempts by them to unlawfully dismiss this person I became an outcast myself and was mercilessly bullied. I simply refused to quit or move on (sheer bloody stubborness at their cheek to try and ruin my career) until I came back from annual leave one day to find I'd been moved to a new department during my absence under the guise of it being a "development opportunity". I'd mentioned once, somewhere in an appraisal, that I would like to spend some time in that department and this was used as a reason for moving me from my role into a secondment in a junior role. My salary was the same and although I resented it I decided to take advantage of the opportunity offered and excelled in my new role, was offered a permanent position in the new department and now, 4 years later, I am doing very well thank you, while that lot have all left for one reason or another. If your organisation is not totally rotten what goes around will come around eventually.