Posts Tagged ‘Bad Science’

Enterprise Risk and Psychopathic Employees

Saturday, October 1st, 2011


Star employee or Psychopath?

Star employee or Psychopath?




A  German[1] study has highlighted similarities in brain function between convicted and certified psychopaths, and traders.   Interestingly the traders were more concerned with reward and, “spent a lot of energy trying to damage their opponents”, compared to the prisoners.  Whilst the study was relatively small (27 traders and 24 psychopaths),[2] it would seem to be backed up by anecdotal evidence from, and recent events in, the banking sector.[1] 

We understand the attraction of trading to those who may show psychopathic tendencies.  It is an impersonal activity – a matter of spread sheets and automatic execution into anonymous markets.  It offers all the excitement of gambling and computer gaming, with the real risks of the gamble being taken by the employer and apparently mediated by risk management software.   It doesn’t require EQ skills.

However, we don’t agree that every trader fits this profile[3].  People who are extremely numerate may not have good EQ.  Corporate cultures may reward and encourage what could be described as selfish behaviour[4].  Similarly the effort that went into destroying internal competitors may be the consequence of a failure of performance management.  The real risk management issue is not purely individuals (or trading teams).  It is both how the organisation assesses and manages performance, and the impact of the prevailing organisational culture on the development and display of these traits.   

Psychopathic behaviour damages organisations.   Sabotaging colleagues destroys team working, creating a hostile environment with an internal rather than market focus.  The consequences include increased churn, with the real talent leaving.  Once the realities of working in the organisation are known, attracting good candidates for employment becomes difficult.   Promoted into management the damage is worse.  Productivity of other teams will plummet as internal competition ‘hots up’, more talent will leave and actions for bullying and harassment will eventually surface.  The inevitable resulting internal focus compromises competitive advantage and the organisation’s future.   

Fortunately, the psychopath’s ability to blag and charm does not stand scrutiny from effective performance review.  A key part of this is the review and feedback process itself. Ironically those who are best qualified to deal with the technical competencies in this population are unlikely to have the interpersonal skill sets to do so, and will feel most challenged by it.  Given the risks, it is important that your managers are competent in their interpersonal performance management skills.  Talk to us now about how to ensure your managers have the essential interpersonal skill sets to thrive at this challenging task.


[1] University of St Gallen: authors Pascal Scherrer and Thomas Noll

[2]The brain chemistry/mechanism that could be at play has been evidenced by  research published by the University of Vanderbilt

[3] Psychopathic tendencies do not automatically mean that an individual becomes a psychopath.  The difficulty is semantic, the association with criminality.  As we have noted elsewhere, psychology and neurobiology are useful sciences to inform our interaction in the real world which is where organisations operate. 

[4] See our ‘Hard Wired to Fail?’ May 2011

Change Lessons from Psychopathic Toddlers?

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Proto-psychopath or normally developing brain?Two leading criminologists (see below) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington have presented studies that they suggest show that violent tendencies may have a biological basis. They believe brain scans on children as young as 3 could identify the future violent and criminal.

What a marvellous idea – that through the marvels of science (rather than messy interaction and assessment), we may identify those who do not conform to our community norms and that we may do so when they are still small enough not to be really dangerous. Even better and very comfortingly, if behaviour is an inevitable result of biology (rather than nurture or environment), then surely nothing may be done to change it. The attraction of the thesis is obvious.

Of course, there is one glaringly obvious flaw. Ask any parent; small kids daily demonstrate psychopathic and anti social tendencies in their almost complete disregard for the wishes and concerns of others. Then they grow up.

Caution is always needed with these discourses – remember phrenology, eugenics and genetic predetermination? They pander to our understandable reluctance to manage difference. Perhaps relevant for a governmental department which is able to make people do things, and a prison service that acts as a final destination storage facility for those who will not or cannot conform. They are particularly damaging when it comes to creating and changing high performing organisations. Building an organisation of ‘People Like Us’ (homogeneity), is not great for success in the fast moving complex markets of the global economy.

The comfort in sameness is understandable. Managing people from very different backgrounds is difficult as it requires the manager to stay adult. It usually challenges the manager’s assumptions about behaviour which will have been built up since childhood – be it how stress (emotion) should be expressed, how women should behave, or the place of people of different sexuality. For high IQ managers, who have often had the personal advantage of a relatively stable upbringing and education, it may be particularly onerous.

With change destroying networks, fracturing teams and making new demands upon existing staff, (never mind the incomers), even once apparently staid ‘people like us’ can suddenly become fractious and difficult. With the pressures of revenue and profit delivery, it is easier to not even try – just buy the myth, the software that promises automated work processes and oust those who complain. Yet the rewards for just a little effort are immense; re-invigorated individuals, engaged and high performing teams, continuity of knowledge and external relationships.

The challenge for senior teams and CEOs is to find of way of helping their managers improve their skills without it feeling too personally risky and distracting from business.

Talk to us, in confidence and without obligation about helping your managers develop the competence and confidence to manage effectively. Solutions that engage, motivate and fit around the business

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