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Maybe we’re all nuts

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Ever wonder how they sleep at night?

Business executives sometimes have to let people go. Sometimes they have to lay off large numbers. There are occasions when companies have to push employees hard — to work long hours and extra days without any more pay.

It happens. The future being somewhat less predictable than the past, strategies don’t always turn out to be wise and tactics sometimes backfire. New leaders sometimes come in to find a predecessor has allowed a culture of mediocrity to develop, and with it the accumulation of too many employees, and too many of them with less-than-superb talent.

Business leaders sometimes do have to make hard choices. When the situations arise, the good ones do. That isn’t the question.

The question is whether they sleep well afterward; whether they accept large bonuses and option awards for doing so; whether they take joy in the exercise, as many employees suspect.

It turns out that many of them might.

KJR Club member Paul Novelli pointed me to an article by Alan Deutschman in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company recently, describing the research and conclusions of criminal psychologist Robert Hare.

Dr. Hare is widely known in his field for developing the “Psychopathy Checklist” — a twenty-item personality evaluation that’s the gold standard among law enforcement professionals for the diagnosis of criminal psychopaths. Dr. Hare has reached a disturbing conclusion: Many CEOs are borderline or more-than-borderline psychopaths. He suggests that boards of directors should screen CEO candidates for psychopathy — the absence of empathy, compassion, remorse and guilt.

I hope it never happens. In the modern world of business, if boards of directors were to apply the Psychopathy Checklist to CEO candidates, many would use it to identify those best suited for the job. They’d use it, that is, to systematically exclude candidates exhibiting capabilities for empathy, compassion, remorse and guilt. While conventionally regarded as useful personality traits, they can interfere with the successful operation of a modern publicly held business.

Enterprises compete globally. Among their competitors are companies whose strategies and tactics aren’t constrained by empathy, compassion, remorse and guilt, and which acknowledge responsibility only to shareholders — not to employees, customers, or the communities and nations within which they operate. Even their obligation to the law is limited to a comparison between the cost of compliance and the cost of the fines for noncompliance. (Don’t agree? Research Union Carbide’s track record in Bhopal.)

There have always been amoral corporations. What’s new is that behavior we’d consider psychopathic in a human being is business as usual in business. So when a company competes with psychopathic rivals and doesn’t adopt a similar stance it’s like trying to adhere to the Marquis of Queensbury rules in a knife fight.

Here’s a challenge for you, as chief information officer or as a manager who would like to become a chief information officer: According to Dr. Hare, chances are good that at some point in your career you’ll find yourself working for a borderline or more than borderline psychopath. Can you handle that kind of situation?

The easier (but still hard) version of the question is associated with those business leaders who harm shareholders — the Bernie Ebbers and Chainsaw Als of the executive suite. Harming shareholders is universally recognized to be Bad, so at least the situation is clear.

There are also many business leaders, at all levels, who exhibit more psychopathy than you might personally find comfortable but who don’t express it in ways that break laws or harm shareholders. If you report to them, you might find yourself dealing with abusive behavior, unreasonable demands on your staff, shoddy practices toward customers, assignments or explanations given to you that deliberately conflict with those given to other managers, or any of a number of other circumstances that break no laws.

The question used to be what you should do if you find yourself working for a bad boss. Dr. Hare has just raised the stakes, by letting us know some of these bad bosses are, clinically speaking, psychopaths. Bad boss or psychopathic boss, if you’re looking for the answer here, you won’t find it, because there is no “the answer” — leave, perhaps, assuming you have alternatives. In a large city you probably do. In a smaller community you might not. Not that leaving fixes anything beyond your personal circumstances. And where will you go, when managers are, in increasing proportions, required to behave psychopathically?

Businesses are, increasingly, psychopathic entities. According to Dr. Hare, many have psychopathic leaders.

One wonders which came first.