Beware of the deceitful impression manager
I knew a Jackson once and I was scared of him. Jackson could change colours like a chameleon. At one moment he could be the most charming person around and, literally without batting an eyelid, turn and torture his prey with a tirade from his vicious tongue. Like the Jackson chameleon, he was also slow in his movements and ruthless in his behaviour with competitors. 1His dazzle and dashing actions were reserved for the people that counted – till they counted.
Jacksons are not a rare species in the corporate world. But those who cannot see through how Jacksons package their pasts, pretend in performing and present themselves to the public, are destined to join the extinct species list themselves. This column is intended to prevent that from happening.
I shall not pretend the rest of us don’t manage impressions. What is different about Fake Impression Builders (FIBs), are the deceit they use in doing so and the consequential harm they can cause to trusting individuals and enterprises. They are the frightening realizations of what happens when the lily and the rose accede to the tiger and the viper:
Said the tiger to the lily,
Said the viper to the rose:
Let us marry so our children
May attain the double pose.
With a feline half a flower –
With the attar in the asp,
We could institute a slaughter
That would make a planet gasp. 2
Selection is meant to segregate movers from fakers but FIBs are masters at scripting fictitiously puffed-up bio-data, acting them out in 'gamed' interviews and using both to make off with prize positions that their capabilities do not merit. The incidence of faking in interviews is fairly common and, even if we confine ourselves to 'Extensive Image Creation', (i.e. when candidates lie), the proportion of people faking rarely falls below 60%. 3 Cross-cultural studies show both power distance and in-group collectivism positively correlated with attitudes toward faking.4 Hence there is little reason to believe India is free from this malaise.
Unfortunately, our battalions of experienced interviewers, whose Emotional Intelligence has been honed to the nth degree, also cannot protect us from these deceivers. Several studies have shown that "experience does not improve IM [Impression Management] detection. …[P]rofessional interviewers did not outperform novice interviewers at detecting IM."5 As for Emotional Intelligence (a much-overused construct),6 it can be a positive handicap in closing the doors to tricksters. 7
While structured CV examinations and thorough reference checks can limit the impact of fudging, there are no such impediments in an interview. An astute FIB, facing an unknown interviewer, uses three methods, often simultaneously. The first is the embellishment or erasure of parts of the past track record as well as the higher-risk, higher-return creation of non-existent achievement and recognition. The second method is to lay flattery on with a trowel – without appearing to do so. Getting the interviewer to talk about the firm’s victories (often the same as the interviewing CEO’s), presents an endless stream of toast for buttering. The last method requires both pre-work with considerable presence of mind and involves giving the interviewer the answers s/he wishes to hear. This is the way to go when speaking of values, principles and preferences – which do not have a single correct answer. The problem for the selector is that s/he is in an echo chamber, rejoicing in finding such a great cultural fit while being ignorant of the candidate’s true character and likely conduct.
Some interviewers try to brazen out the ignominy of being deceived by pretending that’s the kind of person they wanted to select. After all, wouldn’t such a smart operator be an asset in convincing people internally and even more so in persuading clients? But this is dangerous thinking. The kind of personalities that excel in interview deception can play havoc with office politics and outside relationships. "Indeed, many of the antecedents of deceptive IM, such as … high scores on the dark triad are also associated with lower work performance or increased likelihood of engaging in counterproductive work behaviours."8
There are ways in which recruiters can minimize (though not eliminate) the possibility of getting taken in by con-artists with dark triadic leanings. An entire column has been devoted to avoiding such traps in CHRO selections and those ideas on interviewer choice, interview structure and 360º reference checks could all be helpful here. 9 Additionally, it could be useful to supplement the job specs with a clear set of 'select-out' criteria.10 Needless to say, preference for an internal talent pipeline can pre-empt some of the risks high-level external selections invariably entail.11 That pre-supposes, of course, those internal assessment processes to avoid the traps and tricks posed by dark triaders who have already slipped in. Let’s examine these more closely.
The Deadly Game of Impression Manipulation
The stakes are much higher once the FIB is within the organization. The risks become particularly severe when entrants score high on the 'psychopath' component of the Dark Triad.12 This personality disposition is capable of causing tremendous harm to results and relationships while being least susceptible to blockage by the normal promotion filters of the organisation. "[B]ehavioral tendencies that are viewed as relationally deviant when displayed by a coworker or subordinate may be considered appropriate or even admirable when enacted by someone in a position of authority. Specifically, many of the qualities of Machiavellianism and psychopathy are consistent with the role demands of leadership or management: "13 As a result, "the higher up an organisation one goes the more likely one is to find corporate psychopaths."14 Dutton found CEOs to be the U.K.’s most psychopathic profession15 and Steve Taylor wrote that "modern psychopaths generally don’t become [political] leaders in affluent countries (where they are perhaps more likely to join multinational corporations)". 16
We all resort to a degree of Impression Management. What distinguishes FIBs is the sheer ruthlessness with which they operate. As Babiak and Hare put it, "The goal of their game is to set up a scam within the organisation’s structure that can fulfil their need for excitement, advancement, and power – all without concern about harmful outcomes to others."17 The same authors set out the methodology that characterizes FIBs:
- Assessing the terrain, identifying the powerful as well as the not-so-obvious power brokers, who can be potential patrons, supporters and (others who are just) pawns.
- Manipulating the powerful to enter their Most-Favoured-Persons lists and bullying the weak to cow them. Then going on to "enhance their reputation, to disparage others, and to create conflicts and rivalries among organisation members…"18 to garner the material, reputational and psychological rewards such 'politicking' yields.
- Abandoning the people (often including the patrons who protected and promoted them) and, ultimately, the organizations that have been sufficiently parasitized and have no more pickings worth the FIB’s efforts. They almost invariably move on before their gamesmanship and sham are discovered.
The collateral damage caused by FIBs also comes from the hunting packs they create for the sake of maximizing reach and plausible deniability while minimizing risk.19 These are perfect breeding grounds for future FIBs.
There are three ways to make early identification of FIBs:
- Listening to complaints from employees who have been hurt or are simply observant.
- HR keeping its ears to the ground20 and commanding influence enough to veto the progression of powerful FIBs.
- A robust 360º process with tell-tale indicators of FIB characteristics (the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is a useful guide). 21
Once FIBs are entrenched, however, cures are painful and prolonged. Some of these have been elaborated on in an earlier column in the context of psychopaths in HR.22 Part of the problem is the FIB’s patrons, who have staked so much of their assessing reputations on the line for years. Exorcism is unavoidable if the evil spirit doesn’t flee when behaviour alibis start getting exposed but damage to the victim organization can be severe, particularly if a senior FIB was in play.
Purchasing Public Personas
To recapitulate, limited Image Management is perfectly acceptable while facing selection and in one’s work career but there is a point below which it descends to deceit. Similarly, all senior executives are conscious of their public images and nudge them in favourable directions. Here too a 'Lakshman Rekha is crossed when people pay under the radar to breast the public image tape.
Is paid personal publicity so unfair? Buying guidance and platforms for self-promotion are not as damaging (to corporates, at least) as psychopathically disposed FIBs devouring the innards of enterprises. For cohorts, it is more serious. Perhaps the best analogy is performance-enhancing drugs ingested surreptitiously by sportspersons. They don’t diminish the performance of competitors but they do give an unjustified advantage to a few, of which the judges and spectators are unaware, and which would lead to their disqualification if they were. Most of us (myself included) have only a vague idea of the fast-growing size and sophistication of the personal branding service business. An increasing number of 'frogsecutives' are willing to spend money on advisors who can strategize, guide and, if necessary, 'ghost' their transition into tall, dark and handsome princes and make them prominently visible in seemingly impartial media and communication platforms, so that their worth becomes apparent even to those who have closed their ears to direct suasion.
Herein lies the link with our opening section on selection. People who obtain high corporate positions through fakery, foul their corporate nests and get found out are yet able to repeat the same cycle time after time after time. A significant part of the answer lies in the (paid) management of the public personas, with glories amplified and blunders suppressed. Brave would be the executive selector or board appointer who found such a paragon unsuitable. The same goes for award jurors, conference speaker selectors and 'top-ten' list compilers. Ultimately, the debasement of the credibility commons affects all professionals who have built reputations the hard way and relied on word-of-mouth for them to spread. Not only are they at a disadvantage compared to those who have hired hidden loudspeakers but their brands stand discounted when people assume all medalists are on steroids.
Containing public FIB is no easy task. Matters could be helped if image seekers, image providers and image judges followed some basic rules. Prospective image burnishers (potentially all of us) should strictly eschew forums (e.g. award events,23 conferences, webinars, publications, e-platforms) that charge nominees, speakers or writers. On the other side, event organizers, publishers and platform hosts should not charge fees of any kind to those for whom they provide airtime or solicit advertisements and sponsorships from their organizations. Where this is not possible the payment for the performance should be prominently declared. Similarly, personal branding service providers should make their client listings as well as the individual services provided, publicly accessible. The last (and most fail-safe) protection we have, as the reading, watching or hearing public, is to keep our sceptical guards up. 24 It is finally up to us to distinguish between true thought leadership and attractively coloured dishwater which is the third-wash residue of someone else’s vessel that once contained grains of originality.
Jackson continued to prosper since "those around the 'emperor' lacked courage."25 I had long since left the firm and was working abroad when an even more devious FIB got through the swollen samrat-head that Jackson was bad medicine. As Dostoevsky wrote: "Viper will eat viper, and it would serve them both right!" Before Jackson got booted out, however, many valuable future leaders had left in disgust and the firm’s reputation for probity, managerial sophistication and the financial results themselves had all taken a hit from which recovery proved extraordinarily difficult. The lesson is clear: FIBs who have made a top connect and purchased a public persona are like brain tumours: removing them can be near-fatal. Far better to eliminate them during selection or as soon as possible after they enter the corporate body.
1) David Badger, Lizards: A Natural History of Some Uncommon Creatures - Extraordinary Chameleons, Iguanas, Geckos and More, Motorbooks International, 2006.
2) Nathalia Crane, The Proposals, Venus Invisible: and Other Poems, Coward-McCann, 1928.
3) J Levashina and M A Campion, Measuring faking in the employment interview: Development and validation of an interview faking behavior scale. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 2007.
4) Clemens Fell, Cornelius König and Jana Kammerhoff, Cross-Cultural Differences in the Attitude Toward Applicants’ Faking in Job Interviews, Journal of Business and Psychology volume 31, pages65–85, 2016.
5) Nicolas Roulin, Adrian Bangerter and Julia Levashina, Honest and Deceptive Impression Management in The Employment Interview: Can It be Detected and How Does It Impact Evaluations?, Personnel Psychology, 68(2), 2015.
6) Visty Banaji, Old MacHR has a farm(ula), E-I - E-I - O!, People Matters, 14 May 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/old-machr-has-a-farmula-e-i-e-i-o-29326).
7) Nicolas Roulin and Marguerite Ternes, Is It Time to Kill the Detection Wizard? Emotional Intelligence Does Not Facilitate Deception Detection, Personality and Individual Differences, 137:131-138, January 2019.
8) Nicolas Roulin and Joshua Bourdage, Once an impression manager, always an impression manager? Antecedents of honest and deceptive impression management use and variability across multiple job interviews, Frontiers in Psychology, 8(29), 2017.
9) Visty Banaji, Help! The CHRO I picked is a lemon - How CEOs can choose better HR heads, 14 March 2019, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/life-at-work/help-the-chro-i-picked-is-a-lemon-how-ceos-can-choose-better-hr-heads-21120).
10) Adrian Furnham, The Elephant In the Boardroom: The Causes of Leadership Derailment, Palgrave Macmillan; 2010.
11) Visty Banaji, Why great business leaders are rare, 1 May 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/leadership/why-great-business-leaders-are-rare-25508).
12) D L Paulhus and K M Williams, The Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy, Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 2002.
13) Ernest O'Boyle Jr., Donelson Forsyth, George Banks and Michael McDaniel, A meta-analysis of the Dark Triad and work behavior: A social exchange perspective, Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(3), 2012.
14) C R Boddy, The implications of corporate psychopaths for business and society: An initial examination and a call to arms, Australasian Journal of Business and Behavioural Science, 2005.
15) Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
16) Steve Taylor, Narcissists and psychopaths: how some societies ensure these dangerous people never wield power, The Conversation, 19 June 2019.
17) Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Harper Business; 2007.
18) Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Harper Business; 2007.
19) Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, People Matters, 25 February 2022, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/the-road-less-travelled-32878).
20) Visty Banaji, HR is a contact sport, 7 April 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/hr-is-a-contact-sport-25244).
21) Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Guilford Press, 1999.
22) Visty Banaji, Wolves in HR clothing, 24 June 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/employee-relations/wolves-in-hr-clothing-26102).
23) Visty Banaji, The (funny) business of HR awards, 18 February 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/strategic-hr/the-funny-business-of-hr-awards-24718).
24) Visty Banaji, Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR, 23 March 2017, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/pyrrho-please-pay-another-visit-a-diy-kit-for-sniffing-out-bs-in-hr-15175).
25) Christopher Rate and Robert Sternberg, When good people do nothing, in Janice Langan-Fox, Cary Cooper and Richard Klimoski (eds), Research Companion to the Dysfunctional Workplace, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007.