Friday, 9 September 2011

Psychopaths in the boardroom

A recent Horizon television programme for the BBC discussed the physical differences of psychopaths, whether noticeably different brain functions or differences in key genes. One of the principal researchers in this field, who appeared on the programme, reported that he found no less than sixteen murders committed by members of one branch of his family, over several generations. He also found that he himself had the gene that predisposes its carrier to this condition, attributing his lack of symptoms to a happy childhood and proposing that the gene on its own does not cause the condition but needs to be triggered by stressful influences such as childhood abuse.

Towards the end of the programme a New York psychologist, Paul Babiak, recounted his research that shows psychopathic characteristics are found disproportionately amongst top executives. Why should this be found amongst the most successful? Because the characteristics of the psychopath revolve around a lack of empathy for others and a need to take big risk. So the psychopath can be ambitious, manipulative and ruthless, without qualms and they will be attracted to jobs that give high adrenaline surges. Of particular note is another aspect of Babiak's research that shows these people may get to the top but that , once there, they perform noticeably less well than their peers. This should not be surprising - business is a collective activity that calls for social skills far beyond a mere ability to manipulate others.

Perhaps none of this should be too much a of a surprise. Many of us will have come across such people; manipulative, bullying charmers who, you feel, would sacrifice anyone to their ambition, whether friend or foe. And yes, I have felt they talked the talk but actually lacked the substance to perform in that top job.

What implications for corporate governance? I think this raises serious questions for those people who believe that rules and codes, or even laws, will control corporate governance on their own. If one or more senior people in a corporation is driven to take risks and seek thrills whilst having no moral scruples about harming others then will they not simply ignore those rules if they can? And the more precise you make the rules, to strengthen them, the more chinks appear, through which the determined can wriggle. You have to have the rules, but more important, you have to have the collective ethos that, like a net, holds the errant individual tightly in its strands. To continue the analogy, if the individual can cut one of the strands of the net then the net is weakened but it will still hold him unless he can cut many strands. So the real constraint comes from shared values across the organisation, where people will not be bullied into doing things that are patently contrary to those well-communicated values and the constraint comes from individual ethical behaviour - which is shared values at a society level.

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