Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why (Some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs

British journalist Jon Ronson immersed himself in the world of mental health diagnosis and criminal profiling to understand what makes some people psychopaths — dangerous predators who lack the behavioral controls and tender feelings the rest of us take for granted. Among the things he learned while researching his new book, "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry": the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is about 4 percent, four times what it is in the population at large. I spoke with him recently about what that means and its implications for the business world and wider society.

Are we really to understand that there's some connection between what makes people psychopaths and what makes them CEO material?

At first I was really skeptical because it seemed like an easy thing to say, almost like a conspiracy theorist's type of thing to say. I remember years and years ago a conspiracy theorist telling me the world was ruled by blood-drinking, baby-sacrificing lizards. These psychologists were essentially saying the same thing. Basically, when you get them talking, these people [ie. psychopaths] are different than human beings. They lack the things that make you human: empathy, remorse, loving kindness.

So at first I thought this might just be psychologists feeling full of themselves with their big ideological notions. But then I met Al Dunlap. [That would be "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, former CEO of Sunbeam and notorious downsizer.] He effortlessly turns the psychopath checklist into "Who Moved My Cheese?" Many items on the checklist he redefines into a manual of how to do well in capitalism.

There was his reputation that he was a man who seemed to enjoy firing people, not to mention the stories from his first marriage — telling his first wife he wanted to know what human flesh tastes like, not going to his parents' funerals. Then your realize that because of this dysfunctional capitalistic society we live in those things were positives. He was hailed and given high-powered jobs, and the more ruthlessly his administration behaved, the more his share price shot up.

So you can just go down the list of Fortune 500 CEOs and say, "psychopath, psychopath, psychopath…"

Well, no. Dunlap was an exceptional figure, wasn't he? An extreme figure.

I think my book offers really good evidence that the way that capitalism is structured really is a physical manifestation of the brain anomaly known as psychopathy. However, I woudn't say every Fortune 500 chief is a psychopath. That would turn me into an ideologue and I abhor ideologues.

Is it an either/or thing? It seems to me, thinking about it, that a lot of the traits on the checklist would be be useful in a corporate ladder-climbing situation. So maybe there are a lot of CEOs who simply have some psychopathic tendencies.

It is a spectrum, but there's a cutoff point. If you're going by the Hare checklist [the standard inventory used in law enforcement, devised by leading researcher Robert Hare], where the top score is 40, the average anxiety-ridden business failure like me — although the fact that my book just made the Times best sellers list makes it difficult to call myself that — would score a 4 or 5. Somebody you have to be wary of would be in early 20s and a really hard core damaged person, a really dangerous psychopath, would score around a 30. In law the cutoff is 29.

There are absolutes in psychopathy and the main absolute is a literal absence of empathy. It's just not there. In higher-scoring psychopaths, what grows in the vacant field where that empathy should be is a joy in manipulating people, a lack of remorse, a lack of guilt. If you've got a little bit of empathy, you're kind of not a psychopath.

So maybe there's a sweet spot? A point on the spectrum somewhere short of full-blown psychopathy that's most conducive to success in business.

That's possible. Obviously there are items on the checklist you don't want to have if you're a boss. You don't want poor behavioral controls. It'd be better if you don't have promiscuous behavior. It'd be better if you don't have serious behavioral problems in childhood, because that will eventually come out. But you do want lack of empathy, lack of remorse, glibness, superficial charm, manipulativeness. I think the other positive traits for psychopaths in business is need for stimulation, proneness to boredom. You want somebody who can't sit still, who's constantly thinking about how to better things.

A really interesting question is whether psychopathy can be a positive thing. Some psychologists would say yes, that there are certain attributes like coolness under pressure, which is sort of a fundamental positive. But Robert Hare would always say no, that in the absence of empathy, which is the definition in psychology of a psychopath, you will always get malevolence.

Basically, high-scoring psychopaths can be brilliant bosses but only ever for short term. Just like Al Dunlap, they always want to make a killing and move on.

And then you've got this question of what came first? Is society getting more and more psychopathic in its kind of desire for short-term killings? Is that because we kind of admire psychopaths in all their glib, superficial charm and ruthlessness?

There's a certain sour grapes aspect to accusing CEOs of being psychopaths. It's very tempting to look at anyone more successful than you are and say, "It must be because he's a monster."

There's a terribly seductive power in becoming a psychopath stalker. It can really dehumanize you. I can look at, say, Dominique Strauss Kahn, who, if one assumes that what one is hearing about him is true, certainly he hits a huge amount of items on the checklist — the $30,000 suits, the poor behavioral controls, the impulsivity, the promiscuous sexual behavior. But of course when you say this you're in terrible danger of being seduced by the checklist, which I really like to add as a caveat.  It kind of turns you into a bit of a psychopath yourself in that that you start to shove people into that box. It robs you of empathy and your connection to human beings.

Which is why people like Robert Hare are kind of useful. I'm against the way that people like me can be seduced into misusing the checklist, but I'm not against the checklist.

Thanks to Jeff Bercovici / Blogs Forbes
http://blogs.forbes.com/jeffbercovici/2011/06/14/why-some-psychopaths-make-great-ceos/

 

No comments: