Before his untimely death, Heath Ledger put together an amazing performance as the Joker. He played a psychopath intent on creating mayhem as a part of his personal agenda in his warped sense of reality. We have developed a fascination with psychopathic behavior. Some of the most popular films and shows are focused on psychopathy: CSI, Criminal Minds, Silence of the Lambs, Friday the 13th, etc. We seem obsessed with it.

When this psychopathy leaves the large or small screen and enters our reality, we are appalled by it and can’t imagine how an individual could perpetrate such heinous acts. We become confused why someone would do this in such an arbitrary manner. There is one area in our society where this psychopathic behavior seems to have its place; not by acceptance per se but rather by proxy. Many organizations are the prototypical psychopath.

What makes a psychopath?

  • Callous unconcern for the feelings of others
  • Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships
  • Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit
  • Incapacity to experience guilt
  • Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors.

Think back about the antics of Charles Manson and read each one of these from that context. Makes sense, right? Now think of a company like Enron or Lehman Brothers and read each one of these from that context. Equally accurate, right? Focus on how your company operates and carries out its day-to-day business and read each one of these from that context. How does your organization fair?

How many of these symptoms does your organization have? How does that make you feel in your gut? Don’t misread this as a fire and brimstone judgment, but rather a way to re-contextualize your perception of your own organization. For example, the “incapacity to maintain enduring relationships” could easily reference your turnover rate. Under the guise and practical application of “It’s just business“, does your organization line up with the “callous unconcern for the feelings of other” in how it expresses this sentiment?

If the dominant institution of the past 100 years eerily resembles the characteristics of a psychopath, who bears the moral responsibility to effect change? An organization isn’t this inanimate entity that has no recourse to change. It’s so much more than walls, office equipment and spreadsheets. It’s a collective representation of the people who make the existence of the organization possible.

The real hope and power rests in the fact that there is always a choice to align with psychopathic symptoms or create a more positive alternative. Re-visit your values and how you choose to express those values. How do the priorities of your organization (based on actual behavior, not intent) perpetuate psychopathic symptoms? What can you do to make any adjustments that would distance your organization from these symptoms?

Profits are great. Growth is nothing short of delicious. Looking like some maniacal tyrant in the process is unacceptable.

  • Damon

    I have seen this occur within a few organizations I have consulted. It has truly demoralizing effect on office morale. The sad part is that administrators are unaware that they have created such an environment. The best way I’ve found is to create an environment that encourages open dialogue.

  • Absolutely Damon. The lack of awareness among leadership is what brought about this post. Thanks for contributing!

  • Hi William,

    Great post! The psychopathic or sociopathic organization is a disturbing yet great analogy. It underscores my firm belief that companies must create genuine values and hire accordingly. Two issues spring to mind:

    1. Why do generally good citizens do things they may not otherwise do when hiding behind company policy or politics? There is a fascinating sociological study regarding how/why people are willing to allow suffering or even inflict pain when authority rewards it.

    3. Further with regard to hiding behind…why do some people behave differently when on the road? Everything from nose picking to the mild mannered person who becomes psycho behind the wheel. Is it the barrier of the vehicles that literally separates us and creates a disconnect in decorum and empathy?

    When we look at “what’s behind the behaviors and what’s behind that” it always boils down to the individual’s values. The problem is that the organization’s values must be genuine (not fabricated) and the individual’s values must be clear and their sense of self must be healthy.

    Glad I found your site – great content!
    @JeanneMale

  • Brilliant points Jeanne! There is a sense of doing something different based on rewards and/or how public things are presented. In my estimation, that just underscores the need for quality leadership and a solid accountability structure. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  • For those who want to dig a bit deeper on that topic, read this book : « The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power », The New York Press, 2004. Their psychiatric conclusion was the same as the one suggested here. Of course, this is the result of observation and I would go even further by saying that “incorporations” have become anti-social. I wrote a post (in French) with another perspective, see here: http://www.walababoard.com/1/post/2010/12/lentreprise-un-psychopathe.html; My main point is that one has lost the real thrust behind the necessity to “incorporate” and that the behaviors of the companies (including its human components) are now mainly driven by phobia rather than genuine moral objectives.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Phil. Glad to see you’re addressing this issue as well!

  • Great article thank you. I see that there are two main combined factors contributing to the creation of psychopathic organisations: –

    1 The legal structure of companies encourages them behave like psychopaths as the question of ethics and morals becomes a matter of cold ‘risk vs. return’ logic in persuit of shareholder value.

    2 As companies have psychompathic tendies the employes who have similar psychological tendencies e.g. narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths are often identified as having the required attributes to get to the top and lead the company to success.

    These 2 factors combine until the company its does something so appauling that it loses it’s informal licence to operate in the eyes of the public and it collaspes.

  • srikar

    Great post! But what is the solution? I alone as a catalyst..what can I do? How much can I influence? The “others” should be open to feedback and change as well..

  • Excellent article! Two great books related to toxic workplaces:

    Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

    And

    The Cost of Bad Behavior by Christine Pearson

  • Interesting title for sure. Thanks for adding some potential resources to the post!

  • Pingback: Buscando verdaderos líderes | POIETICS JOSU UZTARROZ'S BLOG()

  • John Tapscott

    “When we look at “what’s behind the behaviours and what’s behind that” it always boils down to the individual’s values.”
    I once worked as a teacher specialising in behaviour disorders. The client school was always focussed on the behaviour and to them my brief was: Fix that kid. I’m know some were frustrated when I looked beyond the “problem” behaviour. The behaviour was rarely the problem. It was a symptom of a problem. When I taught a child and improved his reading skills the “problem” behaviour often diminished or disappeared. If I taught a child to make and throw a boomerang or some basic pottery or woodwork, likewise, the “problem” behaviour faded. People with psychopathic tendencies failed to see the value of my work: “What you are doing with those naughty children is rewarding their bad behaviour.” This is a fair indication of the moral level at which such people operate.