Me First!

  • Derek Roger

There have been many references over the past few years to managers being narcissistic or even psychopathic. Unfortunately there's been no clear definition of these terms, and since we have established conditioned responses to these words they end causing a great deal of confusion.

The best way to think about any kind of mental disorder is to place it on a continuum.  One of the worst consequences of thinking that there are discrete, separate 'conditions' is that the world gets divided up into people who have it and people who don't. The DSM system of diagnostic descriptions has become a tyranny of narrow thinking, which is why it keeps getting elaborated to try to account for what doesn't quite fit.  

Instead, we need to place things on continua, and to think about them as distributed right across any random sample as bell-curves.  In the context of schizophrenia, for example, this meant introducing the concept of schizotypy.  At one end of the distribution there are people with no trace of schizophrenic behaviour, and at the other end are people with the full complement and who can reasonably be thought of as schizophrenic.  In between, where most people are, someone might well exhibit some behaviours that are similar to those found at the schizophrenic end of the continuum.  If you think in a narrow way they would have to go into one of two categories or 'types', normal or schizophrenic.  

To take another example, there is a popular belief that people can be placed in one of two categories – they're either extravert or introvert. This simply isn't true. Most people are in the middle of a bell-curve reflecting basal or resting level of arousal in their brains; they're best described as 'ambiverts'. Extraverts (relatively low levels of basal arousal) and introverts (relative high levels) are found only at the ends of the distribution.  Fortunately there is powerful evidence to support the bell-curve, using anaesthetics: if extraverts have lower levels of basal arousal they ought to require less anaesthetic to reach the sedation threshold than introverts, and the effects should be reflected across the bell curve with progressively more drug being require as you move from extravert to extravert, which is exactly what happens.

The theme of this blog is managers behaving 'psychopathically', and using a bell-curve again helps to explain.  One of the key features of psychopathy is self-serving behaviour, looking after Number 1 even at the expense of others.  While I was at the University of York my team developed an interest in this, and developed a scale to measure self-serving behaviour.  Given to random samples of people, the responses were bell-curve distributed.  Psychopathy as a clinical problem appears only at end of the bell-curve, and these are people where the behaviour is so extreme they'll commit murder if it suits them.  At the other end of the distribution are people who are genuinely and systematically altruistic – their actions will always take account of the effect they might have on others, and they don't do things just to suit themselves.  In the middle, where most people are, there are degrees of self-centredness, and it is hardly surprising that at least some of them end up in senior management positions.  

The effects that these people have on organisations are disastrous.  They're in it for themselves, and they'll divide and rule, getting people on their side and using those people against others in the team.  And they can be very popular – they're often extremely skilled manipulators.  In the Challenge of Change resilience programme, this kind of behaviour is measured by one of the scales on the pre-training Challenge of Change Profile that participants complete beforehand.  The scale is called Toxic Achieving.  High scores do achieve goals, but in a poisonous way.  If you score low it isn't that you're not motivated to achieve, you just don't do it poisonously.  To turn the motive to achieve into something toxic, you add in time pressure (as in, 'everything yesterday, sunshine!'), the ends justifying the means ('just get a result, I don't care how'), and anger if the result isn't achieved.

Sound familiar?  When we illustrate Toxic Achieving we ask people to bring to mind the manager from hell, and no-one has any difficulty doing so.  That's certainly our experience in training: you can go into any organisation and there'll be two teams with the same workload, one team happy and the other miserable.  The cause is almost always management behaviour, or rather the behaviour of managers rather than leaders.  Any idiot can manage; leadership is a different matter.  Cynthia's work on business acumen has shown clearly that it is only partly to do with having financial literacy – being able to work with people is equally important, and this is described by a concern for helping their direct reports to develop their careers and putting time and effort into cultivating strong relationships with the team.  In other words, not behaving in a self-serving way.  The other feature of psychopathic behaviour that has been highlighted is narcissism, and narcissism and self-serving behaviour go hand-in hand, two sides of the same coin.

What's to be done about it?  Unfortunately, probably not a lot.  Psychopathy as a clinical problem that puts people behind bars has been shown to be remarkably resistant to change, which isn't too surprising – if I think I'm so wonderful and the centre of the Universe, why would I need to change?  People have to want to change, and even broaching the way a toxic manager behaves is likely to provoke justification for the behaviour with little commitment to making any changes, despite the misery suffered by their reports, and they can also often point to the fact that they do get results.

Unfortunately these results are obtained at great cost to others, and what's needed is the boldness to confront self-serving behaviour head-on.  Since toxic managers are also inevitably bullies there is a lever available for working on them – most organisations have quite explicit strategies for tackling bullying.  If a team is unhappy, endlessly complaining about the team leader, make sure first that it isn't just whingeing.  If what lies behind it is a toxic manager, get them in front of a management panel and challenge their behaviour directly, with the condition that if it doesn't change they no longer have a role in the organisation.  Unfortunately self-serving behaviour is justified and portable – they'll simple take it into their next role, so make sure that even if the manager has actually produced results, make their behaviour and the reasons they're moving on explicit in references – don't shy away from using words like selfish, self-centred and narcissistic.  Most of all start to build all of this systematically into management training, so that we can produce more leaders and fewer managers.

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