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Snakes in Suits - When Psychopaths Go to Work 3/x
Paul Babiak, Robert Hare
MK: It takes longer to work on book summaries due to my current workload, but I don’t give up :)
5/ Roles in the Psychopath’s Drama
Starting a new job usually involves lots of uncertainty, but also excitement and happiness for new employees; it’s also the time when psychopaths can strive.
Existing employees logically believe that the new staff has been screened not only for the skills, but also for the values, attitude, and honesty – something that psychopaths are very well mimicking. The same is true for the ability to get along with colleagues for the sake of everyone rowing the boat in one direction.
There’s also a well-founded assumption that people go to work for an exchange of their goal-oriented efforts for fair pay (the amount of both varies, but that’s the logic nonetheless); psychopaths are focused on getting the highest reward for the minimum amount of work or poor performance, as well as on maintaining a favourable appearance.
They are doing it through the psychopathic fiction: a fictional story about themselves that makes them look like a good employee who delivers as well as a good peer. Once this fiction is established, it’s easy to hide the negative traits (including underperformance). Companies are quite open about the standards they want to encourage and the role models for the employees to follow; the job of a psychopath then becomes effectively mimicking – not becoming! - such people to tick all the desired boxes in the fake persona.
The first step is establishing 1:1 relationships with the key people who will ultimately provide protection and cover. And then the typical “assessment – manipulation – abandonment” cycle gets in full swing again.
Meet as many people to create a generally good first impression. Collect as much info on the company, strategy and the short-term and long-term usefulness of the person they’re meeting. It’s helpful to know the interactions and communication patterns between the employees.
There are lots of sources of power in the organisation, but the most important one is the informal power; informal leaders have the management’s ear – and they are precisely the people the psychopath must befriend first to his/her advantage.
Getting to the people with the positional power is usually hard as they’re busy, but in the beginning (the “honeymoon period”), when a person just learns the ropes, both formal and informal leaders are more accessible to them. Breaking the chain of command in the beginning is not a corporate crime, so a corporate fraudster (who may or may not be a psychopath, though) has a period of time to establish themselves as an ambitious and enthusiastic player. Peers may not fully like the narcissistic part of the persona, but being friendly and open helps a lot to establish a person as a likeable one.
The dark triad of dangerous personalities: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Narcissists, as we know, are arrogant, self-centred, and consistently self-enhancing. High in Machiavellianism means being cynical and manipulative for self-interested goals. Subclinical psychopathy is characterised by cold emotions, thrill-seeking, anti-social behaviour.
Psychopaths create their networks of “pawns” – people within the organisation possessing access to information, resources, contacts, etc. – for further calling on services. These “pawns” are charmed by them to an extent that any negative information about psychopaths is treated as “jealousy”. Pawns do change over time, but psychopaths find it easy to charm the new ones.
Not everyone is charmed, though. Especially the people who psychopaths don’t spend much time on are the ones who can see through the wolves in the sheep skin, but it takes time and effort.
The end game is the increased pay / bonus / promotion / derailment of a career of others or a mix of the above. This is achieved via most of the time spent on the manipulation of peers and the management to the point of even having them do the majority of the psychopath’s job or sharing their achievements with him/her.
The manipulation involves two factors: a) the extensive use of clever impression management techniques, and b) the use of secrecy.
Impression management involves manipulating communication networks to enhance reputation and create conflicts and rivalries. Misinformation is a big part of the con job.
Secrecy can be used strategically: communicating information in confidence (even knowing that this information will spread) increases trust. Running personal errands without others knowing also creates an opportunity for manipulation.
The strongest challenges for manipulation are the people with such traits as narcissism, assertiveness, and dominance; unsurprisingly, they tend to be found at the highest ranks in organisations. They also tend to believe they can’t be conned, that they’re smarter and stronger than others. Top ranks of firms are full of narcissistic people who fail to seek assistance and advice until it’s too late.
Chatting with informal leaders and volunteering gossip often leads to gossip in return, and this gossip can be used strategically to pretend one is in the inside circle of knowledge leading to even more useful info and gossip.
The “extras” – those not being actively manipulated – are able to see the inconsistencies, lies and distortions. They just prefer to “mind their own business” to interfere or raise alarm, or don’t want to risk their position if the psychopath in a higher-up.
It’s not uncommon for detractors to initially like the con person, only to get disillusioned about the person’s behaviour or reliability at some point.
Organisations also have “policing” roles, which include internal audit and other roles looking for an independent assessment of people’s performance and their use of company funds. Corporate cons avoid this organisational police or counter it by doubling down on manipulating the top managers, leading to the complaints and red flags being swept under the carpet.
MK: Large corporate fraud is perpetrated by the people who are in a position to handle large sums, i.e., top managers. It’s the HR’s and the Board’s role to ensure top managers display and act with integrity and make decisions in line with the Board-established risk tolerance and appetite.
MK: it was said before that 1/3 of people tend to like the psychopath’s façade, 1/3 are indifferent and 1/3 are in the detractors’ camp. The winning strategy for the psychopath is to keep being likeable: this indoctrinates the people in the “allies” camp even further and seeds doubts in the people from the “detractors” camp.
Abandonment and Confrontation
Many people don’t believe they’ve been conned even after they’ve been abandoned. [MK: look no further than stablecoins.] When in the workplace environment someone gets abandoned, they’re still around the psychopath who’s turned cold on them. The natural response of a normal person is “what did I do?”. And the most common victim response is silence for the shame at being conned. Sometimes people even regretted losing attention by the psychopath.
Over time, psychopaths increasingly need to manage the growing discrepancy in the views by them by fellow employees. Experienced psychopaths have countermoves ready to discredit their attackers in front of the higher-ups. If done successfully, this discourages others from launching their offensives – a learned helplessness. As a second-order effect, the visibly immunity of a psychopath puts a severe dent in the credibility of the management.
Over time a psychopath can ascend into a higher role (CEO-1 or CEO-2), and the organisational power structure gets modified to support their claim to power. [MK: I’ve been in such situation once and witnessed it happening in front of my eyes. It ended up being incredibly hard and expensive to depose the person in question.]