red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work

Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.
New York: ReganBooks/HarperCollins Publishers ©2006

The techno-savvy, lean, mean, perpetually changing workplace of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has brought with it something a bit unexpected. If you've been working during these last twenty-some years, you know the environment of your company has changed and so has the nature of some of the people in it. Whether you occupy a spot in the cube farms that dominate corporate culture or you interact with a business as a consultant, sales rep, product vendor, or other service provider, you recognize that things don't function the way they used to. That can be good or bad, but, no matter what, it's different, and it takes a shift in strategy and tactics to cope with it.

Whoever described change as the only constant captured the sense of uncertainty, confusion, and outright anxiety alive in the people who work for the businesses that have been trying to survive in the United States since the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Paul Babiak and Robert Hare describe in Snakes in Suits, the 1950s' bureaucratic structure and relative economic predictability of that period have given way to a more dynamic economy and its transitional organizations, ones that can reconfigure more quickly, adapt to new market realities, and deal with unexpected but fierce and global competitors. We can argue whether such developments are good for business and/or good for workers, but we can't escape this prevalent workplace environment and current reality. We need to face the fact that at least some of the activities that may have brought workers and businesses success in the past are no longer appropriate. And we need to be on the lookout for shifts in the human behaviors these organizational changes can bring.

Early in his career as an industrial-organizational psychologist, author Babiak met what he considered his "first psychopath" and contacted Robert Hare for help. Hare is emeritus professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, author of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, and creator of the standard tools for diagnosing psychopathy (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised or PCL-R and Psychopathy Checklist: Screening Version or PCL: SV). As Hare applied his knowledge to scientific research, mental health, and the criminal justice system, he also realized that "the general public must learn as much as it can about psychopathy" because more people with attributes resembling psychopathy are attracted to and being hired by the emerging transitional organizations.

The authors are careful to caution throughout the book that the 'psychopathic' label should not be applied to anyone without a proper diagnosis; it's a personality disorder, not a mental illness. Even so, their information can raise our awareness about the kinds of dysfunctional behaviors appearing in leaders, managers, and workers that can resemble psychopathy. Because transitional organizations have become attractive to these personality types, more of us need to appreciate the significant harm they can do not only their co-workers but to the business itself. Of course, we all have quixotic tendencies that can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on many factors. The issue is one of intent — both nature and nurture contribute to our ultimate personality.

We often think of psychopathic behavior as something so outrageous we'd be certain to spot it — and run. But the personality disorder that is psychopathy can be very disarming. It's "rooted in lying, manipulation, deceit, egocentricity, callousness, and other destructive traits." And while portrayals of psychopaths in movies and on television have led us to think first of Hannibal Lecter, Ted Bundy, or the BTK Killer, someone with psychopathic traits may also commit white-collar crimes like embezzlement, fraud, or stock manipulation.

In fact, the authors contend, the new transitional organization has become an attractive target for those with characteristics we might consider psychopathic. "Many psychopaths just want money, or power, or fame, or simply a nice car." And, the authors found that "it's exactly the modern, open, more flexible corporate world, in which high risks can equal high profits, that attracts psychopaths. They may enter as rising stars and corporate saviors, but all too soon they're abusing the trust of colleagues, manipulating supervisors, and leaving the workplace in shambles." They can be charming at first, long enough to disarm unskilled interviewers, but after that, watch out!

The new, flatter, relatively chaotic organizations are more psychopath-friendly for several reasons, including the thrill-ride of rapid change, the ability to break rules as freedom to act independently increases, the opportunity to "take advantage of others in ways that are not always obvious," such as the leader who can "exert power and control over people and resources," while not being required to get involved with the details, and commanding a "larger-than-average" salary.

"Because a leader's ability to get people to do things is often of more importance than his or her technical capabilities to perform work tasks, pretenders lacking in real work expertise are not disadvantaged; their talents are assumed and their phony or exaggerated backgrounds are often accepted at face value." [Emphasis added.] The "constantly changing state of the business works in their favor, clouding the difference between 'good' and 'bad' leadership."

Strikingly, the authors found "in our original research working with almost 200 high-potential executives" that "about 3.5 percent ... fit the profile of the psychopath as measured on the PCL: SV .... While this may not seem like a large percentage, it is considerably higher than that found in the general population (1 percent) ...."

What Snakes in Suits offers is a lucid and chilling portrait of the human predator currently stalking the transitional business organization. In addition, the authors share several strategies for handling the interloper — and protecting one's own career — in this chaotic atmosphere. Take heed.


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