Wednesday, April 25, 2020

The Psychopathic Organization

Part 2 of a series on the illnesses of today’s organizational cultures

A psychopath is a person suffering with a personality disorder resulting in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse. A psychopathic organization is one where aggressive, cruel, dishonest, or twisted behavior is allowed without any concern about the consequences or impact on others. Being psychopathic means, essentially, having no discernible sense of morality or ethics. It’s the most common kind of organizational sickness today.
If you encountered a person who displayed overt aggression, treated others with callousness, manipulated them for his or her own profit without any sign of remorse, and practiced daily amounts of dishonesty without any feelings of guilt or anxiety—save for the concern not to be caught—what would you think? Would you praise their behavior as displaying sound values? Would you hold them up as a positive example to others?

I doubt it very much. People like this are typically diagnosed with a psychopathic personality disorder and treated, sometimes under compulsion. Most mass murderers are psychopaths. They are often charming, cunning, arrogant, manipulative, and extremely hard to catch. Even when apprehended, most show no sign whatsoever of remorse or even recognition that what they have done is wrong.

Sadly, very similar behavior is common in organizations today. Not so extreme, of course. Organizations don’t commit murder (usually). But many do display no discernible sense that manipulating others, exploiting the weak, increasing profits by various forms of unethical behavior, or even some levels of dishonesty (providing you don’t get caught), are wrong in any way. Worse, some of these psychopathic organizations become the darlings of Wall Street and the financial press, simply based on the vast profits that they generate for their shareholders and managers.

How do you recognize a psychopathic organization?
  • There is no interest in anything other than making profits and winning out over the competition. Just about anything that achieves this end counts as “fair,” regardless of its effect on others. Anyone who shows scruples is dismissed as “weak” or a “pinko.”
  • Cunning, devious, and manipulative behavior is seen as “clever,” so long as it leads to benefits for the organization. Rules are there to be circumvented. Laws are more often evaded than honored. The only “sin” is being caught.
  • “Spin” is important; the truth is not. Fine sounding statements are made with a nudge and a wink to insiders. Lying in the “good cause” of corporate profits is treated as normal. There is little or no sense of remorse about virtually any behavior that improves the bottom line, however unpleasant, callous, unethical, or borderline dishonest.
  • The organization is run by a clique who play by unwritten rules. Offending against those rules is unacceptable. Making the true motives and methods of the organization public—being a whistle-blower—will get you fired right away.
  • The organization protects those who serve it best. You can get away with almost any behavior, just as long as you continue to turn in the results expected. Any investigation of such favored individuals will be suppressed. Those who don’t meet their targets receive no protection or help.
  • There is a pervasive atmosphere of “us against the world.” Insiders can earn enormous sums of money. Progress and promotion depends on being seen as “the right sort:” someone who will play the approved games and close ranks against nosey outsiders—especially the authorities or any pressure groups that appear hostile to the organization’s single-minded pursuit of what it sees as its interests.
Spending any time within a psychopathic organization is extremely risky for your ethical and moral well-being. The only safe course of action is to get out as fast as you can. Extreme examples of organizational psychopathic behavior—Enron was the poster-child for this—lead to a very high risk of crashing and burning in spectacular fashion. You definitely don’t want to be around when this happens. But even less extreme versions of corporate psychopathology will put you under to constant pressure to fit in and accept that kind of behavior as normal.

Can these corporate psychopaths be cured? I think that they can, but only as a result of massive external pressure, and usually only after almost all the existing top management has been replaced. Leadership habits formed in a psychopathic atmosphere can be very hard to shake off, especially since the typical psychopath’s charm and cunning is deployed to make everything seem fine on the outside. Wall Street typically isn’t too particular about how profits are made, so long as no one gets caught out and the money keeps rolling in. That’s why organizations like this survive and seem to prosper.

The Roman emperor Vespasian was the first to raise money by putting a charge on public urinals. When some senators protested, he took a coin and waved it under their noses, saying: “It doesn’t smell, does it?” Today, quite a lot of corporate profit stinks to high heaven—but almost no one is out there sniffing.

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