How evil permeates the workplace

But they lack the same capacity as normal people to feel emotional experiences…Their response is more cognitive — as if they are thinking through the issue of emotions, and how to respond — rather than truly emotional. "Their callous indifference to the plight and inner pain of others is more akin to that of predator than prey," the authors stress.

The Globe and Mail
June 7, 2006

How evil permeates the workplace
Harvey Schachter

Snakes In Suits
By Paul Babiak and Robert Hare
ReganBooks, 336 pages, $34.95

Psychopaths seem rare, the grisly subjects of movies and tabloid trials. But in fact most of us encounter one every day. And in the new workplace, with its openness and invitation to be entrepreneurial, psychopaths find it easier to slither into positions of power through flattery, guile, and absence of normal human restraints in their behaviour.

"Psychopaths do work in modern organizations; they often are successful by most standard measures of career success; and their destructive personality characteristics are invisible to most of the people with whom they interact," industrial psychologist Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, the emeritus psychology professor at University of British Columbia who is a widely quoted expert on psychopaths, write in Snakes in Suits.

"They abuse co-workers and, by lowering morale and stirring up conflicts, the company itself. Some may even steal and defraud."

The authors estimate that 1 per cent of executives and managers are psychopaths; as are 3 per cent of the "high-potential" stream, which many companies dote over these days.

The checklist Prof. Hare pioneered for diagnosing psychopaths includes traits such as being superficial, grandiose, deceitful, lacking remorse and empathy, failing to take responsibility, acting impulsively and irresponsibly, and having poor behavioural controls and antisocial behaviours.

Warning signs you can look for include being low in consideration of others and weak on conscientiousness. "They are not as goal-oriented as the rest of us when it comes to actual diligence and hard work, although they will frequently tell others how ambitious they are and weave a (phony) hard-luck story about how they overcame immense odds growing up poor or underprivileged or from an abusive home," the authors write.

Indeed, they are adept at spinning stories, often stories with great emotions. But they lack the same capacity as normal people to feel emotional experiences. Brain imaging revealed that when psychopaths respond to what should be an emotional event (such as an emotional word or a gruesome picture), the part of the brain that is activated tends, oddly, to be associated with language processing. Their response is more cognitive — as if they are thinking through the issue of emotions, and how to respond — rather than truly emotional. "Their callous indifference to the plight and inner pain of others is more akin to that of predator than prey," the authors stress.

We are very vulnerable to them at work. They are master manipulators, expert at sensing what others want, so they can shine in the recruiting process. Behavioural interviewing plays to their strengths, since they are skilled at telling exquisite stories that need not have any relationship to the truth. The authors note that careful reference and résumé checking can help to catch psychopaths, but they can be so impressive in interviews that those safeguards get ignored.

Once inside the organization, they know how to rise, worming their way into the good graces of those with power. Often they ignore normal hierarchical boundaries to build attachments at levels above their current boss, finding guardians and boosters who help their careers. They have no trouble stealing colleagues' ideas and getting others to do their work for them, allowing them to sparkle in a seemingly effortless way.

In today's free-flowing workplace, they excel because they know how to negotiate ambiguity and are quite entrepreneurial, willing to take risks. They also have the charisma and charm sought in leaders. Beyond that, the authors point out, "psychopaths' emotional poverty — that is, their inability to feel normal human emotions and their lack of conscience — can be mistaken for three other executive skills, specifically the ability to make hard decisions, to keep their emotions in check, and to remain cool under fire."

The book offers some fascinating accounts of how psychopaths act in organizations — fictional story-telling based on fact — and a more academic explanation of their behaviours, as well as advice on how an organizations can minimize its exposure. But I found the book jumpy and repetitive, with a tendency to stray from its workplace focus, and often felt lost in what seemed a jumbled structure.

In Addition: Waterloo, Ont.-based consultant Jill Malleck offers a practical, eclectic look at issues that managers face — with some provocative insights — in her independently published Epiphanies At Work (90 pages, $14.95, available at moc.krow|ynahpipe.www#moc.krow|ynahpipe.www). She covers issues such as having a smooth start in a new job, increasing your common sense capability, carrying out effective employee surveys and delivering tough messages, always with an in-the-trenches perspective.

Just In: In You're Too Smart For This (Sourcebooks, 342 pages, $20.95), Michael Ball examines 100 big lies that greet you in your first job, such as "if they hired you it means they trust you," "work is going to challenge you like your classes did," and "you can at least bitch about the grunt work."

David Carter offers designers a source for inspiration in his collection of dazzling logos in the fourth volume of The Big Book of Logos series (Collins, 400 pages, $46.95).

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