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.”