How Corporate Sociopaths Affect IT Productivity

By Frank Wander  |  Posted 07-10-2013

How Corporate Sociopaths Affect IT Productivity

By Frank Wander

Sociopaths exist in all walks of life. At the most basic level, they are individuals devoid of empathy and compassion, prone to antisocial behaviors and desperately in need of control. Yet, many people work with them, or under them, in corporations.

Since sociopaths are seldom aware of other people’s needs, they tend to manipulate colleagues, especially those above them, to achieve selfish goals. They are capable of both kissing up, and kicking down. They can lie without wincing. They are capable of turning their charm on and off to get what they want. They can be confrontational, and use bullying tactics to control those around them, since collaboration and sharing are foreign to them. They are socially corrosive—and cruelly destructive.

Their colleagues often understand exactly who the sociopaths are, because their self-serving behavior generates a constant stream of human interest stories carried in whispers across the organization. Their bullying tactics are most forcefully directed at their subordinates, with dire consequences to the productivity of knowledge workers, who must be mentally and emotionally engaged in their work. Because sociopaths’ behavior may produce short-term personal gains, they may initially be held in high regard by management, but ultimately move from job to job.  

If a sociopathic executive entered the data center and turned off the main power switch, he or she would be immediately fired for cause. People would be shocked and angry at such damaging behavior, which causes online systems to go dark, data processing to stop and business to grind to an abrupt halt.

Yet, sociopathic leaders do something similar every day: They shut down the “human infrastructure.” Not unlike a data center, the human infrastructure is prewired with sensors. From neuroscience we’ve learned that every individual has a threat sensor, a feature of the limbic system (the emotional brain) called the amygdala. This is a product of our evolution, during which humans became experts at detecting physical threats to stay alive.

Today, in a business setting, the dangers aren’t physical, but are those that threaten your job:   hidden agendas, ostracism, blame, public embarrassment, bullying, humiliation and betrayal. These can be especially menacing when initiated by a superior who has direct control over your survival at work. As you focus on the threat, your mind prepares your body for flight, so your pulse increases, muscles tighten, perspiration starts to form, your heart rate increases, and the mental focus shifts to the person who is threatening you. Protective behaviors take over, reallocating energy from productive activities to defensive ones. You are now in a totally unproductive state of mind, focused on your survival rather than on your work. 

These effects can be long lasting, as neurotransmitters in the bloodstream take time to dissipate. And, the mere presence of the threat (the manager) may be all that’s needed to reactivate this sequence, which is called fear conditioning. Simply passing the corporate sociopath in the hall will reignite it. Such conditioning is highly damaging in a corporate setting, because the sociopathic leader comes into contact with subordinates every day. The daily, ongoing destruction of productive capacity is real and does not end until the threat is removed. 

Unfortunately, the effects of antisocial behavior manifest themselves internally and are therefore invisible to corporate executives who build cultures in which workers are interchangeable parts, mere “human resources.” Managers are neither trained to create an emotionally productive social climate nor socially tuned to the workplace. We have tools to manage and monitor everything—except the people.

Consequently, corporate sociopaths can disengage large portions of the human infrastructure and remain undetected. If one of the “machines” is not working, just get another one; the current one is obviously defective. Paradoxically, although these sociopaths can be highly damaging to the workforce, they are often highly valued by executive management for being “tough but effective.”

How Corporate Sociopaths Affect IT Productivity

The antisocial behavior used by corporate sociopaths is particularly destructive to large IT initiatives that are a product of many minds and emotions. These Initiatives sometimes require hundreds of hyperspecialized workers, across business and IT, to co-create a solution. To be successful, these coworkers must form a collaborative social system powered by emotional energy, deep institutional knowledge, meaningful relationships, creativity and trust-based collaboration. Large social structures like these are highly fragile and tend to break when helping behaviors are replaced by protective responses. This is analogous to shutting down the network; it just happens to be a social one. 

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered many corporate sociopaths over the years, and found that unproductive antisocial behaviors are widespread and tolerated. Traditional corporations tend to cling to the industrial model of management, which focuses on process and technology rather than people. I’ve also witnessed what follows in the wake of toxic leaders and their socially corrosive leadership practices, helping me understand just how damaging antisocial behavior is to knowledge workers’ productivity. Yes, caring about others is highly productive, and antisocial behavior is highly destructive because “human infrastructure” can be shut down just like a data center.

Corporate sociopaths—and antisocial behavior—need to be seen for what they are: highly damaging to the productive and innovative capacity of any organization, destroying the return on human capital. CEOs must understand that if their knowledge workers are not flourishing, their companies won’t either. Knowledge workers are assets, not expenses. Like all assets, they must be nurtured and allowed to grow.  

About the Author 

Frank Wander, a former CIO, is founder and CEO of the IT Excellence Institute, and author of Transforming IT Culture, How to Use Social Intelligence, Human Factors and Collaboration to Create an IT Department That Outperforms (Wily, 2013). For his previous CIO Insight article, “IT Failure and the Dehumanization of the Workforce,” click here