Posts Tagged ‘risk management’

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

‘One out of every 25 business leaders could be psychopathic* ‘

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Is your Boss a psychopath?
Is your Boss a psychopath?

What a great headline and timely – we’ve all worked with bosses from hell, and at times of turbulence when people are very stressed, these stories have a particular resonance. But the headline is a gross simplification.  **1 in 25 out of small sample of 200 individuals – that’s 4% of a really small population. 

Many of the skills sets required to be a good boss could easily be confused with those described as psychopathic traits.  Doing business means that we are not always authentic in our emotional response to situations.  Appropriate senior management behaviours include:

·         Always outgoing and charming in public, (even if you’ve just lost a major contract).

·         Knowing when not to engage at an emotional level, and even when to ignore individuals (and how not to give offense when you do not).

·         Staying adult, (whatever the provocation), with staff, and customers.

·         Maximising time to useful contacts; minimising time given to those who are not useful – and making assessments about the ‘usefulness’ of the people concerned.

·         Firing people  – even if they have families to support and there is no other employment for them.

·         Making political accommodations and contracts with people and companies you do not ‘admire’.   

Consider also entrepreneurs?  Individuals who succeed against the odds – be it in commercial or not for profit sectors tend to have different psychological traits to those of the general population.  Some of these traits are not very attractive.

Here is how to protect your organisation from psychopaths:

1                    Know your business – it’s hard to fake when managers are knowledgeable about their business. 

2                    Manage performance – manage performance against objective criteria and agreed timelines.  To underline the point, business plans usually come with numbers and dates. 

3                    Have robust hiring systems.

4                    Inform everyone one of and apply relevant processes (including informal networks) to stamp out bullying.

5                    Ensure the Organisational Values are alive, not just written on a piece of paper – which means including them in performance management.


 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, rather than disrupt the business.

*The Guardian newspaper and other media sources.

**The study was conducted by Dr. Paul Babiak, you will find more – including a (n interesting) check list of psychopathic traits at

Revenge of the Organic Carbon Units?

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Robosigner sued!

Emerging news that the US Federal Housing Finance Agency is suing various banks caught our eye.  The cases allege that the banks systematically failed to follow both market regulations and their own procedures in approving mortgages in the run up to the credit crunch.  The resulting ‘bad’ loans were then guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, quasi-government agencies, and the FHFA is seeking to recover the billions the US tax payer lost.

The case has been rumbling for a while, with attention initially on how the banks foreclosed using the same inadequate approach, which we mentioned back in October 2010.   At that time we asked what was the purpose of management in such organisations?  Machines would be simpler to employ, less troublesome to manage. 

Now it would seem that the malaise was deeper, perhaps revealing a cynical disregard for the customer in the chase for short term advantage? If so the cynicism would seem to have been less than smart on the part of the banks’ Boards, as one of the customers they ‘turned over’ was a powerful government agency.  Such customers, backed with legal as well as market power, tend to hit back hard.   

Our premise still stands – management matters, and it is the Board that ultimately sets the standard.  Was this a sin of commission rather than omission?  It will be interesting to see the resolution of these cases, and the resulting impact on the regulation of financial markets and the banks.  

 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, rather than disrupt the business.

 (from October 2010) So, why use people?

The news that Wells Fargo management used ‘robo’ signers to approve mortgage foreclosures caught our eye*.  Also in the frame for similar practices are JP Morgan Chase and GMAC Mortgage (Ally Bank).  The Wells Fargo VP of Loan Documentation giving evidence in a Florida lawsuit said she only checked if her name and title were correct on the documents.  She also signed affadavits stating she had “personal knowledge of the facts regarding the sums of money which are due and owing to Wells Fargo”.  These were used in foreclosure proceeding.  This is gold for the lawyers who are challenging the bank foreclosures.

This information raises intriguing questions, not least what is the purpose of managers in such institutions? Does the process manage the manager or does the manager add some value by managing?  And even if the (automated?) process worked as designed (aka those affavdavits), then the fact that the lawyers are able to make hay with it, shows a management failure.  Was the organisational effort to deal with the historically challenging volume of foreclosures such that sight was lost of treating customers (and thus the market) with proper respect?  Where were the supervisory and audit functions in the organisations?

What we find most confusing of all is that if all that was required from management was a signature, why didn’t they use an automatic signature machine?  After all why pay people, and put up with all that unpredictability and emotion?

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, rather than disrupt the business.

* See 14/10/10


‘The Great Leader’ theory of Management?

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Illustration: Truth and Lie

When very able, driven entrepreneurs succeed in establishing businesses, a management structure develops over time that supports their strengths and covers their weaknesses.   The employed individuals who succeed in these unusual management structures are, by definition, comfortable within the culture, however autocratic it may be.  Employees who challenge will be eased out more or less subtly, or leave.  

Given market stability, an autocratic structure often works very well – organisational success shows that it is adaptive for the particular market.  Command and control has the virtue of a defined hierarchy which enables quick decisions, and the ability to apply resources quickly.  However, in changing markets it is less suited.  The weaknesses are that same hierarchical decision tree, the lack of internal challenge and loss of touch with reality, and the consequent stifling of innovation.  Most entrepreneurial organisations reach their ‘natural’ limit when they are successful enough to require formal capital.  This usually occasions the provision of more ‘professional’ management by the funders, with skill sets suited to growing a larger organisation, with the founder retained on some form of earn out.

What happens when an organisation manages to grow beyond this ‘natural’ limit with the founder and team intact? Without innovation and consequent long term competitive advantage it is difficult to see how it could avoid a crisis. 

News Corps’ problems seem both significant and multiplying at an alarming rate.  A management culture is being exposed where competitive advantage seems to have been based on short term (criminal?) ruthless  behaviour.  Was the nadir of this in the UK the exposure of Fraser Brown’s illness?  Compare this with the treatment of Ivan Cameron.  Or are there still more depths to plumb?

The Fourth Estate now takes delight in exposing stories long held back by fear of retribution.  And as New Corps are discovering, thanks to the internet, what would in the recent past have stayed as a regional issue is impacting their global business.  In the US shareholders are reacting to the evident weaknesses in management and worry about the delivery of promised benefits from the promised takeover of BSkyB.  Whilst this story appears to have resonance with Maxwell and even Trollop’s Melmotte,  there is little doubt that the ‘The Great Leader’ theory of management is being cruelly exposed.

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, rather than disrupt the business.


Hard Wired to Fail?

Friday, May 6th, 2011


The connections between the physical form and functioning of the brain and behaviour continue to be revealed. Professor James Fallon,  a true believer in genetic determinism ( i.e. that behaviour is driven by the brain’s biology), makes an interesting appearance on the BBC’s All in the Mind. He reveals his own personal journey to understanding the importance of environment and nurture, recounting his discovery that he had the brain structures of a psychopath, and comes from a long line of convicted murderers. Yet in his case he has ‘turned out well’. What made the difference was nurture and environment.

At the time of writing the interview is still available on the BBC at

It was Alice Miller, back in the 1950s, who pinpointed nurture and the wider environment as key protective factors in child development. Her work was an investigation into how Hitler became such a monster. This work highlighted that most of the children she studied, who were brought up in unacceptable circumstances, went on to be useful members of society, rather than psycho or socio paths. As Fallon demonstrates by his own life– genetics and biology do not inevitably determine behaviour.

It is not necessary to scan the brains of your employees to identify and exclude the undesirable. Some of those problematic brain structures probably explain success – engineers/quantitative people with autistic tendencies for example. But the science does have useful lessons. Environment may switch certain tendencies ‘on’. We see this particularly in organisational cultures which admire strong leadership. ‘Strong’ leadership may just be sociopathic tendencies playing out – RBS and Fred Goodwin and his apparently bullying sales culture being an example.

Just as for the young, environment (culture) is protective for the organisation. Setting expectations and limits, defining and rewarding appropriate behaviour etc. All make a difference.

Good management skills are not a nice to have, they are a requirement for success.

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, rather than disrupt the business.


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