Professional Snakes: The Neuroscience Behind the Psychopath at Work

Posted on February 8, 2013. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

 Adair Jones, a Neuroscience of Leadership studentshares her thoughts on the prevalence of psychopaths in the workplace. Psychopaths are good at what they do. We are all susceptible and need to protect both ourselves and our organisations from falling prey.


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While true psychopaths are rare, comprising about 1% of the population, new research shows they are flourishing at the top of the corporate ladder at a rate four times higher than the normal population. One of the reasons for this is that psychopaths tend to be charming, manipulative, ruthless, and risk-taking–qualities that easily pass for leadership in the corporate world.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, argues that this kind of behaviour can only occur in empathy’s absence. It follows then, that by fostering empathy within an organisation can alleviate much of the damage high-functioning psychopaths unleash.

Still, it pays to know something about how psychopaths operate and what you can do as a leader to minimise their impact.

A true story

Jay was the first CEO of a new research organisation. He was young for this position, with only a few years of managerial experience, but had worked hard to establish the new company and impressed the board with his dedication and promise. One of his first objectives as CEO was to put together a stellar team. After some months, he had filled most of the positions and the organisation was running smoothly. He had recruited a number of top managers, each of whom put together excellent departments.

The final appointment was that of the CFO. During the first round of interviews, no candidate appeared that was exactly right. Jay went back to the recruitment agency for a second round. In the meantime, a week later, Bob called Jay. He had interviewed for the position in the first round and, while Jay thought his experience was strong, his gut feeling told him that there was something a little ‘off’ about Bob. Bob was a good talker, however, and in the brief phone telephone call, he disarmed Jay with his openness. Bob said he thought he was the right person for the job and asked for another chance. There was something fresh and brash about this approach, and Jay found himself agreeing to a second interview. During the follow up meeting, Bob impressed Jay in a way that he hadn’t during the first.

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 3.05.39 PMLong story short, Jay hired Bob. At first, everything was great. Bob hit the ground running, offered Jay a lot of good advice, helped shape the organisational vision. Before long, Jay and Bob were having long lunches on a daily basis. They talked strategy and devised a plan to commercialise the new research coming out of the organisation. To Jay, everything seemed rosy. What he didn’t see, however, was that, among the administrative staff, morale had dropped. The managers were concerned, too, feeling that they were cut off from Jay, when in the months before Bob’s arrival, there had been open communication and excellent collaboration within the organisation.

Over time, Bob solidified this division. His influence over Jay increased, and it wasn’t long before Bob was able to convince Jay to fire certain employees. Jay didn’t know this, but these people had seen through Bob’s ‘mask’. In Bob’s eyes, they had to go. Unfortunately, after that, the morale of the entire staff plummeted. No one knew if his job was safe. Bob also ingratiated himself with the board. He set up a plan to create a spin off company and proposed himself as the CEO. The board was impressed with Bob’s initiative and appointed him.

By this time, however, the board as well as the staff had lost confidence in Jay. Jay was depressed, demoralised, and managing ineffectively. It wasn’t long before Jay was asked to resign.

It took several years before Jay understood that Bob was a psychopath and that he’d been his victim. With new insight, Jay saw he’d been systematically targeted and manipulated. He recalled that, from the beginning, Bob had played on his vulnerabilities, exploited his insecurities, flattered him, divided him from trusted staff, interfered with professional alliances, manipulated the board, and exploited opportunities to his personal advantage.

The pattern

This patternfits what psychologists Robert Hare and Paul Babiak identify as the five stages the organisational psychopath undertakes in his climb to the top:

First psychopath is the entry phase, in which the psychopath charms the hiring team into selecting him or her for the job. Then comes the assessment phase. Here, the psychopathic employee identifies the potential support network of Patrons (those who will protect and defend the psychopath), Pawns (those who can be unwittingly manipulated into using their power in service of the psychopath’s aims), and Organisational Police (staff in such control such functions as audit, security, human resources who might get in the way). Stage three is manipulation: the psychopath works the patrons and pawns, building the influence network through close and intense one-on-one relationships and, at the same time, moving up the organisation. The next stage is confrontation. Individuals no longer deemed useful discover they’ve been wiped, relegated from close friend to Patsy. Two factions start forming: influential supporters (Pawns and Patrons); and powerless detractors (Patsies and Police). Finally, there’s ascension. That’s when all that planning and manipulation pays offthe Patrons are betrayed, the boss is shoved aside, and the psychopath moves in.

But how?

Jay is smart, energetic, ambitious and switched-on. How could he have been so vulnerable? The sad truth is that we all are. Organisational psychopaths are very good at what they do.

What we know about neuroscience explains quite a bit about what happens when a psychopath enters our midst. For example, at the first meeting, Jay had a “gut feeling” that something was “off” about Bob.  This response is commonly reported when people initially encounter a psychopath. In all likelihood, Jay’s limbic system was engaged and his intuition was on high alert.

Bob fared better during the second interview. He had had an opportunity to use his own intuition to size up the company and Jay in order to make a better impression. As a psychopath, Bob has an intuitive understanding about how to find common ground with Jay.

Since our brains are programmed to view new people and situations as a threat, Jay was on guard during the first interview.  When Bob returned, he quickly established rapport. Using charm, flattery, and verbal fluency, Bob stroked the egos of the selection committee. This time around, Jay felt they had goals and styles in common and responded to Bob more positively. With this new commonality established, ocytocin began to flow, the bond between the two men grew and a feeling of trust emerged. As long as Bob tended this trust, Jay was unlikely to alter his opinion of Bob and his capabilities.

snake copyAs the working relationship developed, this positive impression further solidified. It served as the screen behind which Bob manipulated others in the organization. He played on Jay’s biases, insecurities, fears, and ambitions the more he learned about them. Those Bob viewed as rivals, he worked to do away with or neutralise. Those who could serve his rise, he flattered and charmed.

Honesty is one of the most important traits in any organisation. Unfortunately, pathological lying is a hallmark of psychopaths. Studies have shown that the brains of psychopaths are strikingly different to those of the rest of us. On fMRIs of psychopaths, the same part of the brain light up for emotional words like “hate” and neutral words like “table”. Scans of normal brains show different parts of the brain lighting up. Researchers also attribute this capacity for lying to the lack of guilt psychopaths feel when they lie. And why they do it so well.

Is collaboration possible?

Because the human brain is a social organ, we seek connection, something that facilitates collaboration and teamwork. Problems arise, however, when a psychopath joins a team. Since psychopaths are highly egocentric, believing the world revolves around them, they are not team players. The big danger is that because they tend to be excessively charming and agreeable, they appear to be cooperative. In truth, however, they will say and do anything to get their way, feel no guilt about their actions, take excessive risks, blame others when things go wrong, and deny there are any problems. And of course, they stab anyone they believe is in their way or deemed unnecessary.

According to Australian psychotherapist Dr John Clarke, the workplace psychopath can isolate and mentally destroy the staff around them. “The workplace psychopath is somebody who psychologically destroys the people they work with to feed their need for a sense of power and control and domination over other human beings. They don’t suffer any guilt or remorse for their behaviour, in fact they enjoy the suffering of other people,” Dr Clarke told ABC radio.

Dr Andrea Quinn, at the University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Organisational Psychology, says the presence of organisational psychopaths in the workplace is a worrying issue.”Managers need to see past the charm and focus on objective indicators. For example, a team or section led by an organisational psychopath is likely to have low morale, high absenteeism, and higher than average resignations.” She also warns to look out for an observable change in behaviour of the team members when the organisational psychopath is absent–such as more joking and improved mood.

What can be done?

stackPapersSmlQuinn’s advice: “If you want to get the best out of your senior staff, consider what you do want in a leader of people, such as empathy and authentic communication. Build it into your strategy as a condition of career advancement, and ensure the processes are objective and defensible. Remember, an organisational psychopath may also be a masterful sycophant!”

Consider the advice and guidance of an organisational psychologist to complement your HR practices. The only way to manage an organisational psychopath is to use solid evidence. If a manager suspects the presence of such a person, they need to “triangulate the data”, according to Quinn. This means gathering evidence from a range of sources: quality performance appraisal processes against well-formulated KPIs; using HR information to identify areas with high staff turnover; and 360-degree feedback so that good people management is seen to matter.

Quinn adds, “An organisational psychopath often ‘kisses up and kicks down’ so information needs to be gathered about the way in which the manager treats their staff and colleagues.”

Perhaps most important, however, is to build empathy into all aspects of your organisational processes. And don’t forget to trust your instincts. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Gardiner Morse notes that organisational psychopaths are surprisingly difficult to spot. Your instincts, however, will tell you straight away that you are in danger. That uneasy feeling you have when the person is around is your body’s way of telling you to beware.


Adair Jones is a writer and editor with a fascination for the human brain in all its manifold aspects.

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The Neuroscience of Effective Collaboration: What the Best Leaders Know about Team Building

Posted on November 26, 2012. Filed under: Our Leaders Say | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Joining a new team can be daunting. Cindy Thomas draws on her studies in neuroscience to explore brain friendly ways to make the transition, build relationships, and foster effective collaboration.


Recently, I accepted a challenging new position, something that created as much apprehension as it did excitement.  I had the luxury of having a couple of weeks leave prior to starting, which allowed me to take my time and plan my strategy using what I’ve learned in my studies for the Diploma in the Neuroscience of Leadership.  Understanding that our brains are geared towards a threat or reward response provided me with an excellent place to begin. In order to build a healthy group dynamic, I knew I needed to start off on the right foot. Therefore, I took time to research aspects of team building and collaboration.

Know your team members

If possible, it’s helpful to have an informal introduction to the team prior to starting. I was fortunate to have a few open conversations with the previous manager on the performance, strengths, and areas for development for each team member. I then made it a priority to chat informally with each member as a way of breaking the ice in a non-threatening way.  My goal was to look for common ground and to get a sense of the various personality styles at play.  I wanted to know who was introverted and who was extroverted, what values we might share as a team, how I might create a sense of relatedness between and among us. From the outset, I hoped to encourage a willingness to accept differences.

Managers often mistakenly believe that it’s good to mix it up, that new members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team and that, without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members’ misbehavior.

Actually, according to J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, the longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As counter-intuitive as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it’s a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.

The mere presence of others can make us perform better. Social psychology pioneer Norman Triplett noticed that racing cyclists with a pacemaker covered each mile about five seconds quicker than those without. Later research found this wasn’t all about the effects of competition. The presence of other people seems to facilitate our own performance, but more so when the task is relatively separate to others and can be judged on its own merits.

In other circumstances, though, people in groups demonstrate a tremendous capacity for inefficiency. Another social psychology pioneer, Max Ringelmann, found that participants in a tug ‘o war only put in half as much effort when they were in a team of eight than when they were on their own. People can be tempted to slack off when they are able to hide in a group–when tasks are additive, for example, and each person’s contribution is difficult to judge.

Gaining trust: ‘First conform, then lead’

In many contexts, leaders are appointed or imposed from the outside, as in my case; in other situations, leaders emerge slowly and subtly from the ranks.  A study from 60 years ago has a lot to say about joining a team. In 1949, Ference Merei observed children at a Hungarian nursery school. He noticed that successful leaders were those who initially fitted in with the group then slowly began to suggest new activities adapted from the old. Children didn’t follow potential leaders who jumped straight in with new ideas. Leaders first conform, then only later, when trust has been gained, can they be confident that others will follow. This has been confirmed in later studies with adults and, not surprisingly, applies as much today as when the original research was undertaken.

Since I was an ‘appointed’ leader, I knew I needed to move slowly if I wanted to be successful. I made a plan to start off as a listener, letting the team members speak first. I encouraged them to offer their opinions, ideas and perspectives, while I remained quiet. All too often, new leaders enter a team full of energy without understanding the subtleties of the group’s dynamics, hoping to make a big splash and impress others with critical perspectives and new ideas. While this isn’t always a bad thing, group members may initially feel threatened or alienated, so it’s worth taking time to (at least) appear to be a team member first before assuming the role of team leader.

A recent study by Matthew Hornsey of the University of Queensland supports this. He found that groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it—unless the new leader has proven loyalty first. Consequently, newcomers to a group who want to gain influence and promote change should tread very carefully until they are well-established. Also, it’s critical to remember that adapting new processes from old familiar processes will often be more successful and less threatening than throwing out what everyone’s been used to and replacing it with the new.

This is because we are neurologically designed to respond to new people and new situations as potentially threatening. There is a hormone—oxytocin—that readily occurs in breastfeeding women helping them to bond with their infants. This hormone is also present in couples and other well-bonded groups, including work groups. It is only after recurring positive experiences that oxytocin begins to flow and trust is gained. Leaders joining a new team do well to enter quietly and remain patient. Also, once trust has been gained, it should be considered to be more valuable than gold and protected at all costs.

Collaboration fundamentals

In research since 1993, Katzenbach and Smith have identified six fundamentals of collaboration that are necessary for high performing groups.

Many managers assume bigger is better, thinking larger groups have more resources to apply to the work. They also tend to think that including representatives of all relevant constituencies increases the chances that whatever is produced will be accepted and used. In reality, excessive size is one of the most common—and also one of the worst—impediments to effective collaboration. The larger the group, the higher the likelihood of social loafing and the more effort it takes to keep members’ activities coordinated. Small teams are more efficient—and far less frustrating.

While powerful electronic technologies do make remote communication easier, face-to-face interaction is still essential. In fact, teams working remotely are at a considerable disadvantage. A number of organizations that rely heavily on distributed teams have found that it is well worth the time and expense to get members together when the team is launched, again around the midpoint of the team’s work, and yet again when the work has been completed.

According to Hackman, the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. The second most powerful thing is to launch the team well. And third is the hands-on teaching and coaching that leaders do after the work is underway. Each of these is something new research in neuroscience supports.

New leaders often mistakenly believe that teamwork is magical. They think that to harvest its many benefits, all one has to do is gather up some really talented people and tell them in general terms what’s needed—the team will then work out the details. Actually, it takes careful thought and enormous preparation to stack the deck for success. The best leaders provide a clear statement of just what the team is to accomplish, and then make sure that the team has all the resources and supports it will need to succeed.

Finally, don’t be afraid of conflict. Hackman’s research confirms that when conflict is well managed and focused on a team’s objectives, it can generate more creative solutions than those in conflict-free groups. In fact, disagreements can be good for a team as long as it’s about the work itself. Hackman found in earlier research on symphony orchestras that slightly grumpy orchestras played a little better as ensembles than those whose members worked together especially harmoniously.

Armed with this information, I felt better prepared and more confident in joining my new team. So far, we’ve developed a sense of relatedness and are on the road to building trust—the first and most important steps in collaborating effectively. Based on that, I have great hopes for what’s to come.

See our tip sheet of Muneera Spence’s rules for successful collaboration.


.Cindy Thomas has spent the past six years in site-based Community Stakeholder roles helping construction teams create positive delivery environments for complex and challenging transport infrastructure projects. Through her strategic leadership, Cindy is also able to effectively manage and direct the activities of a large community and stakeholder team while co-ordinating multiple tasks within a constantly changing environment. She has also been inspired to continue her studies in the area of neuroscience and behavioural change.

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