Does it Take a Psychopath to Make a Good CIO?

By Elizabeth Millard  |  Posted 09-28-2005

Does it Take a Psychopath to Make a Good CIO?

Any CIO needs a certain number of job characteristics to survive; intelligence, experience and business savvy, for example. But thanks to a recent study, there's one more attribute that could be thrown into that mix: psychopathic tendencies.

At least, within limits, according to a study published two weeks ago by a team of researchers from Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Iowa.

Researchers were primarily trying to find out what personality traits are markers for success in high-stress, high-stakes jobs like financial brokers; they discovered that the best market traders often showed an almost pathological emotional impairment that made them comfortable gambling for high stakes.

Based on previous research, the team speculated that people with lesions on the area of the brain that affect emotions would perform better on investment tasks than those without brain damage.

And, indeed, the study found that patients labeled "functional psychopaths" consistently outperformed those who had no emotional impairment. Because emotions play such a critical adaptive role in decision making, the lack of fear would naturally give traders whose emotional centers are damaged an advantage over those that are emotionally healthier.

Translating the results to the larger business world is a bit tricky, admitted study co-author Antione Bechara, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Iowa. But, he noted, there are some lessons to be learned about how emotions affect executive performance.

"Lack of emotion can be helpful in corporate decision-making," said Bechara. "With some people, emotion plays a negative role. It can cause fear or anxiety, and prevent them from reacting in a way that's effective."

In some cases, executives might be giving themselves the characteristics of functional psychopaths without realizing how detached they're becoming.

"Our speculation is that individuals who constantly face emotion-triggering events--like people in finance dealing with the uncertainties of the market--learn over time to suppress their emotions," said another of the researchers, Baba Shiv of Stanford Graduate School of Business. "This, in turn, helps them to make better decisions in their tasks."

Psycho CIO?

Psycho CIO?

So, would CIOs be better off creating in themselves a degree of emotional detachment, basically making them into functional psychopaths? Or, intriguingly, do many of them already fit that description?

Despite the high-stakes decisions CIOs have to make about headcount and layoffs, multi-year commitments to technology that changes by the month, and dependence on software so complex even its creators often don't understand all its permutations, the answer to both questions, say researchers and industry experts, is most likely no.

In fact, most CIOs display nowhere near the kind of non-emotional responses typical of near-psychopaths, said Doug Berg, founder of techies.com, and now chief executive of HotGigs, a contract talent firm that specializes in IT staffing.

"Over the past decade, the role of the CIO has changed tremendously, and that's driven change in what type of person is chosen to take on that job," said Berg. "The good ones have a balanced view of people, process and technology. They care about how the company meets its goals while embracing technology. They have to be emotionally invested to do that."

However, all is not chummy and emotionally homogeneous within the IT department. CIOs, as well as CTOs, share more personality traits with their fellow executives than with the rest of the IT department, according Gretchen Cook, spokesperson for IT industry association CompTIA.

"I think I've met a few psychopaths, but they weren't CIOs," she laughed. "Today's CIO has to have good, healthy social skills because they have to convince people that they need things. Like CFOs or other chief executives, they have to be able to present a case for why their department matters and what it needs in the future."

To create that kind of continual justification, a CIO has to be extroverted, flexible, and creative, Cook said.

Although technical savvy is appreciated in a CIO, companies have started to realize that finding an executive with technical insight and experience is not the same as hiring someone with a more technology-focused personality type.

"CIOs tend to love technology," said Berg. "But not in the same way as programmers or system administrators, who gravitate toward technology because they think it's cool. CIOs are much more interested in what technology can do for a company than simply what it can do, period. That's an important distinction in terms of personality."

Personality Parade

Personality Parade

While most other IT staffers tend to fall within the ranks of those made most happy while exploring the technology itself, rather than its business function, there are distinct differences among various specialties with IT as well.

Personality researchers have noted that many IT job functions like programming and network administration require a certain introverted perspective, which allows them to focus on difficult, complex tasks without the need for abundant social action.

"If anyone has a propensity toward being a functional psychopath, it could be the network admin who's in the data center all day," said Berg. "Some of them are tempted to pull the plug on the whole thing, just to get people to affirm that they matter."

Another job role that benefits from emotional detachment tends to be database administration, Berg has observed. "DBAs go job shopping when they don't feel appreciated for their contributions," he said. "But they're so introverted that the company will never realize they want to be appreciated until they're gone."

The Myers-Briggs personality test, designed to match individuals with careers based on their preferences and inclinations, pegs most computer programmers and system analysts as ISTJ (introverted, sensing, thinking, judging)-- meaning they have a talent for detail and memorization, but prefer to work behind the scenes, shaping something with their own hands, rather than in a leadership role. Other career types that fit the ISTJ mold include mechanical engineers, auditors, electricians and, somewhat curiously, dentists and militia members.

Those job functions that do require some interaction, such as technical support, are notoriously high in turnover because they combine seemingly conflicting personality types, said Adrian Furnham, a professor in the department of psychology at University College London, and a researcher on personality issues.

"Technical support is a highly unusual beast," he noted. "The person has to be very skilled technically, but to succeed in the job, they have to be sociable as well. As many companies have found, this is a somewhat rare combination."

In response to the turnover rate, many companies have shipped their tech support overseas, but Berg has said the challenge of finding that mix of skills is not a uniquely U.S. phenomenon.

"Companies are finding that they're spending about 75 percent of training time with offshore workers in helping them to deal with irate customers," he said. "And despite the claims of an eager workforce in other countries, the turnover rates there are surprisingly high. But it makes sense. Why would the personality of a tech support employee in India be significantly different than that of one in Indiana?"

Another challenge for companies that want to match the personality type to the job is the potential for promotion. Since IT has become so integrated with larger business goals, boosting a programmer into a management role can become a lesson in personality and job mismatch.

When the company asks a technical type to take on a CIO role--which has a much larger social component as well as a need to navigate among different departments--other executives might be surprised by how quickly those technology-leaning personality traits present themselves.

"Many organizations will tell you that it's very problematic to promote IT experts into management," said Furnham. "It's a dilemma, because you can't change someone's personality. You can't ask them to be an extrovert if they're an introvert, just because they're next in line for a management job. Sometimes you have to tailor the position to the individual, not the other way around."

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