by Bob Lewis

The pitfalls of gauging craziness

Aug 16, 20114 mins
Business IT AlignmentIT LeadershipRelationship Building

Are your office crazies really psychopaths, or do you only notice them when they're acting like one ... and not notice some others because you like them better?

Do you work for a psychopath? Someone who’s just plain nuts? One of the crazies mentioned last week?

Nuance is an overused word and underused way of looking at the world. Our thinking about mental illness could, for example, use much more of it. There are those who think we create syndromes for every idiosyncrasy that’s a decimal point away from some mythical state of normalcy – that we use syndromes as excuses so nobody is responsible for anything they do. It’s the syndrome’s fault, and there must be a medication to take care of it.

There are also those who consider the increased diagnosis of mental illnesses to be progress … a way to understand people who do suffer from very real medical and psychological challenges and need help, not criticism or opprobrium.

Then there’s Jon Ronson and his book The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2011). Ronson manages to avoid, not only both extremes, but the “fairness trap” as well. He doesn’t take a middle ground. He takes a nuanced ground, where the conditions and syndromes we all know about are both real and tragic when they happen, and over-diagnosed and often over-medicated as well.

It’s a world where attention deficit disorder can be both a real problem for real human beings, and a convenient excuse for not paying attention for others who are perfectly capable of paying attention if they didn’t have ADD to fall back on.

It’s a world where criminal profiling yields both startling successes and alarming miscarriages of justice.

And, it’s a world where Robert Hare’s PCL-R checklist provides both real and useful help in recognizing seriously dangerous individuals, and is also over-used by armchair experts who cheerfully label as psychopaths anyone who isn’t as sympathetic as we might prefer, including not a few business executives, and the crazies described in last week’s column.

The PCL-R checklist, in case you’ve never heard of it, is the gold standard diagnostic for sociopathy (or psychopathy … the terms are interchangeable). It lists symptoms like impulsiveness, lack of empathy or remorse, and pathological lying as key indicators of the syndrome.

Oddly enough, it appears true psychopaths are not “bad people” in any meaningful use of the word “bad.” Psychopathy apparently has a physiological cause – an under-active amygdala compared to “normal” human beings, which very likely is why their ability to feel and respond to emotion is so limited. It’s a real and thus-far untreatable condition.

This makes them no less dangerous, of course. If you work for or with someone who has these tendencies, the only trust you can put in them is your trust in the predictability of their behavior … namely, that they’ll do whatever they feel like doing without compunction, scruples, or concern over the possible consequences.

And it’s worse, because true psychopaths are superb manipulators. They’re charming, glib, and excellent at figuring out the levers and buttons they can pull and push to get people to do as they’d like.

Including you, unless and until you catch on. And when you do, there will be nothing you can do about it as you watch executives, managers and employees all around the company fall for it. And if you raise a red flag, they’ll brand you as a backstabber.

Office psychopaths are better at manipulating than you are at persuading. As playing someone else’s game is for chumps, you’re better off not trying.

If you take the time to learn the PCL-R checklist you’ll be surprised at how many of the top people in your company score high. It’s a scary thing.

But if you take the time to read The Psychopath Test you’ll realize something else as well: If you apply the checklist to someone you dislike, you’ll focus on those behaviors that match up to it, while ignoring the ones that don’t, just as, applying that same checklist to someone you like, you’ll do the exact opposite.

It’s something we humans do all the time – latch on to whatever evidence supports our preconceived notions while filtering out or finding reasons to wave off whatever doesn’t.

So the next time the company crazy does something that … well, that drives you crazy, try to consciously reverse your filters. See the world through the crazy’s eyes. Empathize.

You might find they aren’t horrible psychopaths after all. They might just be doing what they have to do to deal with the pressures some other psychopath puts them under.


For this week’s ManagementSpeak, click here.