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Emulating psychopaths for fun and profit

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Empathy is widely misunderstood.

We’re told, for example, that psychopaths lack it. And yet we’re also told they’re able to figure out their victims’ emotional buttons and levers, exploiting them to achieve their nefarious goals.

Accurately figuring out someone’s emotional buttons and levers sure sounds like empathy to me.

I’m just messin’ with you. True empathy means vicariously feeling what someone else feels. Psychopaths don’t experience the feeling. They infer it.

If you want to be a mensch, true empathy is pretty useful. But if you want to be an effective leader, psychopathic empathy is the way to go.

Oh, now, don’t look so horrified. I’m not suggesting you become an out-and-out psychopath. Just to emulate this one ability.

See, something leaders have to accomplish from time to time is organizational change, “time to time” meaning every single day. Sometimes we’re talking about the micro level of getting a bit more out of an employee whose performance is currently just an increment better than adequate. Other times the change might be a complete transformation of how an organization gets its work done.

Inept leaders, of the when-I-say-frog-you-jump variety, rely on their authority to make change happen.

Inevitably, they fail … not in making any change happen, but in making the intended change happen. Put leaders like this in charge of some dog sleds and they’ll end up pulling not only the sleds themselves, but also dragging their huskies behind them as they complain to each other about how lazy their dogs are.

Effective leaders, in contrast, don’t only get their huskies to pull the sleds. Their canine followers think pulling the sled is their idea, and an excellent idea it is, too.

But enough. If I keep this up the metaphor police will hunt me down like a dog. And so …

Effective leaders of organizations don’t say “frog” expecting their minions to immediately jump. Effective leaders rely on persuasion. They do everything they can to encourage the men and women who do the work of their organization to understand the intended change and why it’s a good idea. More than that they encourage them to participate in figuring out what the change should look like.

Much of which requires empathy. Not empathy of the I-feel-your-pain variety. I-feel-your-pain empathy might, in fact, lead to unproductive management hand-wringing — regret over the pain the change will inflict on members of the workforce.

Nope. Effective leaders have developed their inner psychopath — their ability to analytically figure out how different individuals and groups are likely to respond to what they have in mind, and why. It’s this insight that lets them adjust their plans and their communications so as to minimize resistance and maximize active participation.

Example: Quite a few years back I facilitated a discussion about resistance to the implementation of electronic medical records (EMR) systems. One participant vented his frustration that of all people, it was the doctors who were most actively resisting this obviously important change in how hospitals and clinics do their work. He just couldn’t understand how the best-educated members of his workforce could be such Luddites.

And so, we applied some psychopathic empathy to the situation.

What, I asked, motivates doctors? Why did they choose their profession? Answer: They want to cure patients of what ails them.

And were doctors (I asked) likely to consider the planned EMR system something that helps them cure patients, or a distraction when compared to clipboards at the foot of the bed?

This having happened in the pre-tablet era, the new EMR system meant walking over to a new and unfamiliar application running on a PC that wasn’t as conveniently located as a clipboard at the foot of the bed. Distraction it was.

Second example: Back in the day, when IT leaders were trying to pry their batch COBOL programmers loose from their old habits to embrace object-oriented programming and on-line, real-time systems, many refused to be pried. Why might that be? Shouldn’t a bunch of techies love new and shiny tech?

Well … no. The combination of OO and designing and programming on-line systems was a change that invalided the COBOLites’ hard-won expertise and turned them back into novices. Why would they like that?

We’re talking about a clear-eyed thought process, not a complicated one. Just look at the change you have in mind through the eyes of different stakeholders and stakeholder groups and figure out how it will affect them.

Psychopaths use their ability to infer motivation to manipulate people. You could use the same ability to persuade them to follow your lead.

What’s the difference? Good question, for which I’m not sure there’s a good answer.

Comments (9)

  • Well, maybe. This might be good advice, but it sure isn’t your most inspiring piece of work.

  • Ironically, just finished reading Winning Arguments – What works and doesn’t work in politics, the bedroom, the courtroom, and the classroom by Stanley Fish. And for all his discussion of what works, I don’t remember his mentioning ‘behave like a psychopath’ (although he did use Satan in the Garden of Eden as an example of what works.) A lot of truth in what you said!

  • Bob

    I think you are on to something.(as usual)

    Throughout the years I have stumbled on a number of articles comparing CEO’s to psychopaths.
    In a recent CIO article for example:

    “Psychopathic traits are common in the top executive levels of the corporate world with a prevalence of three to 21 per cent
    Typically, psychopaths create a lot of chaos and generally tend to play people off against each other,he says.

    One study of 261 corporate professionals in the supply chain management industry showed extremely high prevalence rates of psychopathy with 21 per cent of participants found to have clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits – a figure clinically comparable to prison populations. ”

    Maybe not exactly scientific evidence, but certainly grist for the mill.

  • My experience was that management decided that the COBOL programmers couldn’t learn the new technologies, so they were let go. It’s purely coincidence that they were replaced by younger and cheaper labor without even being given a chance to try. That’s what passed for leadership, and suffice it to say nobody shed a tear when that circus left town.

    I’m past full retirement age, on at least the third iteration of technology in my career, and somehow able to adapt. Maybe I’m unique. Or just cynical enough to notice what passes for leadership.

  • On the doctor side, I think you missed some points. There have been some recent “Captain of the ship” comments about successful law suits against doctors where things and people they could not control failed, but as the person in charge they were legally responsible.

    Today these kinds of systems are at least fairly bullet proof. But in the period of time being talked about, there were public discussions regularly of systems like this in less safety critical areas which have failed. At that time if I was a doctor knowing that I would have to depend on these systems getting it right I would have had serious reservations about using them. Not that they have become that bullet proof. Recently I was saved from a medical records system by my pharmacist. I requested a renewed prescription for some of my medications. It seems that during a system upgrade the system had lost two years of prescription records for most of the patients. And in doing so this meant that a change in my blood pressure meds to take me off stuff which was not compatible with one of my new joint meds was lost and they sent in renewals for several drugs which if I had taken them I would have died. And doctors see this even today and I am sure have to question trusting these systems, even when they basically now have to.

    I think another missing point is that the best psychopaths don’t so much trick their “victims” as they actually find a way so that they want to do what the psychopaths wants them to do because it is on the path to their own goals. We just don’t so much notice these psychopaths and call them psychopaths. But they can equally be psychopaths. In the same way, and maybe even more more so with IT leaders than psychopaths, those (blank) who motivate people to do things thinking that it is in their best interest when it turns out not to be, end up in the end losing out. But in the case of IT leadership usually not before they are promoted well up the line, and they can fail out with a nice at least silver parachute.

  • I suspect it is quite rare for a true sociopath to be a great leader or manager because a true sociopath really doesn’t intuitively perceive what it is to be human or that other humans have a sentiency the sociopath can’t understand, or perhaps more importantly, doesn’t know that he doesn’t understand their sentiency.

    I think successful managers and leaders do have to have parts of them that can be ruthless and completely lacking in compassion, just to do their jobs. But a good manager should have more than one kind of arrow in their quiver. I think asking works best where there is mutual respect, manipulation, or coercion when mutual respect is absent.

    I suspect a caring manager may sometimes feel like a psychopath when doing a legitimate part of our their job that is painful or unfortunate, but legitimate to perform. But does successfully doing an action you know is morally untenable turn that manager into a true psychopath, creating an internal split that empowers the manager to do real harm in the world while reaping the benefits of those actions?

  • Would the difference be that if we infer the motivation of others help them see how following our lead benefits them in some way then we’re persuading through their “self-interest” rather than manipulating people through trickery solely for our own interest?

  • Bob, spotted a book by Tina Nunno that might be worth some comments: The Wolf in CIO’s Clothing: A Machiavellian Strategy for Successful IT Leadership. Might contribute to the manager zoo you were visiting a few weeks ago.

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