Wolves in HR clothing
I don’t ever go to pubs. I never eavesdrop. I lie. I was eavesdropping in a pub while waiting for a friend to turn up. As I was nursing my glass of RO water and pretending to read the wine list while listening to a group of youngsters at the next table sharing their work woes. They were from a range of companies and each outdid the other in their fulminations about how perfectly horrid their HR department was. They shared lurid examples of the deception, heartlessness, and trickery they had experienced at HR hands. My friend arrived at the agreed time and I lost track of the griping at the next table. By the next morning, the stories I had clandestinely heard were all a blur (as was the conversation I had with my friend – a phenomenon known as the Maltese memory eraser). Strangely though, the pejorative descriptors the youngsters had used for HR kept surfacing in my mind as if I had come across just those terms in another context recently. Then the ten-paise coin dropped: the déjà vu was triggered because those words had stayed in my mind from a book I had read recently. Unfortunately, the book was called 'Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us'1 and (after washing out the expletives and the derogatory nick-names) the adjectives the people at the neighboring table had been using for HR were Hare’s terms for (you guessed it) Psychopaths. Words like callous, manipulative, shallow, and egotistical kept recurring in both narratives. Could this be sheer coincidence or do some HR departments really display some Psychopathic traits (at least metaphorically)? This column attempts to answer that question.
Psychopaths in Corporates
Before reviewing the extent to which some HR set-ups display Psychopathic symptoms, we need to be clear about what these are. While Psychopath (frequently abbreviated to 'psycho') is colloquially used to describe anyone who appears mentally unbalanced, which is far from how psychologists employ the term. Let’s take Hare’s help in defining the term: "Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way… Their hallmark is a stunning lack of conscience; their game is self-gratification at the other person’s expense… A self-centered, callous, and remorseless person profoundly lacking in empathy…" Hare goes to give the key symptoms of Psychopathy in two categories:
- Glib and superficial
- Egocentric and grandiose
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Lack of empathy
- Deceitful and manipulative
- Shallow emotions
- Poor behavior controls
- Need for excitement
- Lack of responsibility
- Early behavior problems
- Adult anti-social behavior
From the above it should be very clear that Psychopaths are very different from Psychotics (though the words sound confusingly similar) who usually have sensory experiences or beliefs with no basis in reality. While Psychopaths have glaring gaps or abnormalities in their emotional responses, many of them are well able to cope with the demands of organizations and can play astute, if ultimately damaging political games. "Corporate Psychopaths are characteristically insincere, arrogant, untrustworthy and manipulative in their personal style; insensitive, remorseless, shallow and blaming in their interpersonal relationships; impatient, erratic, unreliable, unfocused and parasitic in their organizational maturity; and dramatic, unethical and bullying in their social tendencies."2 Despite these obvious handicaps, it speaks volumes for our selection and promotion criteria that our topmost corporate echelons are revealed to have a higher proportion of psychopaths in their midst than exist in the general population.3 Manfred Kets de Vries explains why people with Psychopathic tendencies (who he calls SOBs, for Seductive Operational Bullies) make it to the C Suite: "SOBs thrive on political sabotage, power play and turf wars. Ironically, many of the qualities that indicate mental problems in other contexts may appear appropriate in senior executive positions, particularly in organizations that appreciate impression management, corporate gamesmanship, risk-taking, coolness under pressure, domination, competitiveness, and assertiveness. Even those traits that reflect a severe lack of human feeling or emotional poverty (lack of remorse, guilt, and empathy) can be put into service by SOBs in situations where being 'tough' or 'strong' (making hard, unpopular decisions) and emotional slickness work in their favor. Their innate charm, their deceitfulness, their need for thrills and regressions', can turn into a very heady effective package. Their destructive backstabbing behavior, and ruthlessness toward their adversaries, can be highly effective."5
Psychopathic HR Organizations
Hopefully what I have written so far will be endorsed by anyone conversant with the behavioral sciences in general and Abnormal Psychology specifically. Now it’s time to walk on a more interesting pathway by comparing certain organizations to Psychopathic individuals, if only metaphorically. Not that we are in totally uncharted territory. Gareth Morgan identified eight perspectives from which organizations could be viewed.4 One of them (that of organizations becoming psychic prisons in which people are trapped by their mindsets) seems intriguingly close to the destination where we are headed but, at best, takes us only a part of the way there. We shall focus only on the cell occupied by Psychopaths in the prison and in the wing dedicated to HR organizations.
How do such perverse HR set-ups, that contradict all that we have been taught (and which we preach ourselves) originate? One obvious answer is that the HR department is embedded within an organization that has Psychopathic characteristics and, even if HR hasn’t imbibed them from the start, it is only a matter of time before it does so. We have already reviewed these traits but Dr. Tarja Ketola matches the personality characteristics of Psychopaths with examples of organizational (mis)behavior.6
The more relevant sequence (from our point of view) is when the Psychopathic rot starts from HR and then spreads to – or is rejected by – the rest of the enterprise. There are three major ways in which HR becomes the first bearer of a Psychopathic culture. The first is when an SOB (in de Vries’ sense) is appointed to the CEO’s role and needs the HR function to operate in a consonantly vicious mode (much as a Hitler needed a Himmler). If the CHRO does not conform s/he is replaced until there is one who does. Similar pressure (followed by replacement, if necessary) is brought to bear on the CHRO when the organization is acquired by another that already carries the Psychopathic virus. In these cases, the point of origin for the malaise is either the global/regional business or functional leadership. Carrying tales about and ultimately 'hatcheting' the local CEO is frequently the proof of loyalty the CHRO has to provide for survival in such cases. Finally, there is the newly chosen CHRO who is the prime carrier of the deviant culture. S/he may, of course, be chosen for precisely this reason as the replacement for a more value-driven CHRO (as in the two situations just considered) or because the prime job spec is a tough character who can be cool under pressure. The SOB CHRO may also have crept in because the enterprise has superficial or warped criteria for judging internal HR leaders or when naïve CEOs try managing CHRO selections on their own.7
Let me emphasize here that it is certainly not the majority of HR organizations that can be described using the Psychopathic metaphor, nor is it even a significant minority. At the same time and for the same reasons as for CEOs, the incidence is not as low as the 1% Psychopaths amount to in the general population. However low the actual number of vitiated HR departments maybe, they harm the image of the profession that is disproportionately high. The pub story with which this column opened did not contain a single positive episode of HR going out of the way to help someone in the group though I am sure there must have been plenty of such occasions. Just as good roads, crime-free neighborhoods, and honest politicians don’t make the front page, super-helpful HR just isn’t a juicy story to laugh at (or curse) over drinks. Unless the number of Psychopathic HR departments approaches zero, we shall all suffer from the angry tarring and feathering their behavior elicits as a reaction from the general employee population.
The damage Psychopathic HR departments do to the standing of the profession is only collateral damage. The primary casualties are inflicted within the organizations housing such departments.
Apart from the HR team itself, the first to spot the flaky fakery and ruthless self-aggrandizement of Psychopathic HR are employees themselves, starting with those who are in the way of or instrumental to the HR-serving schemes that start ricocheting around the firm. The impact on them is threefold. Worst of all is the erosion in the trust that ought to be HR’s most prized asset. A classic symptom indicating this is that employees with problems, instead of turning to HR for solutions, avoid it desperately for fear that HR will only exploit the situation or the employee’s vulnerability while betraying confidences. Not all employees can react immediately to the treatment meted out by Psychopathic HR by lifting their voices in protest or their feet to exit. That doesn’t, of course, mean they forget the mistreatment or manipulation to which they have been subject and they store up the resentment till they can give it form that can maximally hurt or embarrass the company and its HR. Lastly, the steadily increasing population of such employees provides ready recruits to the ranks of the disengaged – that fearsome category of people who dilute the claims for positive actions taken by the company and amplify all its slips with unvarying cynicism.
Peers are a bit slower to realize that (to paraphrase Donalbain8), "There are daggers in HR's smiles". Once they do, however, they tend to form coalitions against HR which put paid to any grandiose schemes of improvement and change championed by HR, most of which then wither on the vine without linebacking. It is only a matter of time before the team spirit of the entire company is torn to tatters by cliques, cabals, and conflicts. As an active game-player, HR is obviously unable to play the role of honest broker or mediator and, what could have been a minor hiccup becomes a paroxysm of progressively escalating tits for tats that severely impede organizational performance. People say a company is known by the kind of people it has. It’s perhaps even truer to say a company is known by the kind of people it loses. When there is a whole stream of otherwise highly competent and professionally esteemed people flowing out, it is symptomatic of a Psychopath in the system – usually the CEO.9 When the flow becomes a flood, it’s indicative that the CEO is supported by a Psychopathic HR department.
Finally, even partners and outsiders, whether vendors, union and community leaders or labor department, and other authorities realize the consequences of a Psychopathic HR function. The nature of the skin-deep blandishments and the exact form of selfishness may vary but they also spell doom to win-win, non-exploitative relationships. Vendors providing commoditized services with clear deliverables are relatively unaffected in dealing with Psychopathic HR. All they need to do is to give the HR leadership pride of place in major events and the lion’s share of credit in presentations to top management and professional bodies. Matters are not so simple for consultants dealing with issues that touch the political innards of the organization. They find it more challenging to stay on the preferred service provider list while retaining their professional integrity. Particularly in such cases, a perverse version of Gresham’s Law comes into play: advisors who are willing to aid the machinations of a Machiavellian HR, crowd out ones who tailor their advice primarily to the needs of the organization.
It is not only more manipulative and pliable consultants and other outsiders who flourish in partnership with Psychopathic HR. Even internally, such HR departments can recruit a crop of informants and disinformation planters from the general employee population. At more senior levels too, there are always a couple of peers who are happy to share in the distribution of spoils (that flow from HR sponsorship rather than performance), thus preventing the normal immunity reactions of the organization from rejecting Psychopathic HR and the infection of politicization and conflict that accompanies it.
The prognosis for Psychopaths is not a happy one. "Indeed, many writers on the subject have commented that the shortest chapter in any book on Psychopathy should be the one on treatment. A one-sentence conclusion such as, 'No effective treatment has been found,' or 'Nothing works,' is the common wrap-up to scholarly reviews of the literature."1
Organizations too, that have allowed a full-fledged Psychopathic HR department to mature, have few options other than the excision of the malignancy. The extent of removal depends on the time the Psychopathic culture has had to seep into the culture of the function. In the early stages, simply the expulsion of the CHRO and a couple of key lieutenants should suffice, and for this to happen an alert CEO and a watchful Board10 are essential.
The outcome is far grimmer if HR has turned Psychopathic in response to the CEO’s demands. There is a view that organizations that respond primarily to the dictates of shareholders display a Psychopathic streak. Joel Bakan writes: "The corporation, like the psychopathic personality it resembles, is programmed to exploit others for profit. That is its only legitimate mandate." He reports his conversation with Dr. Robert Hare, the psychologist and internationally renowned expert on psychopathy who we have quoted several times already: "A lack of empathy and asocial tendencies are also key characteristics of the corporation, says Hare – 'their behavior indicates they don’t really concern themselves with their victims', and corporations often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse… Human psychopaths are notorious for their ability to use charm as a mask to hide their dangerously self-obsessed personalities. For corporations, social responsibility may play the same role. Through it they can present themselves as compassionate and concerned about others when, in fact, they lack the ability to care about anyone or anything but themselves."11
While I will not go so far as to paint all businesses in the same scarlet color, it is a fact that there are several which follow the credo of profit maximization very closely, regardless of the attendant (non-financial) costs. In such cases no amount of surgery internal to HR can help. India is rightly proud of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code that was passed by parliament in 2016. Obviously, it deals only with the financial collapse of corporations. The kind of malfeasance we are dealing with here demands a Prevention of People Exploitation and Moral Bankruptcy Code. When should it trigger the closure of a Psychopathic organization? Watch this space after my next eavesdropping session at the pub.
- Robert D Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Guilford Press, 1999.
- Clive R Boddy, Corporate Psychopaths – Organisational Destroyers, Palgrave Macmillan 2011.
- Harriet Agerholm, One in five CEOs are psychopaths, new study finds: Proportion of psychopath corporate executives 'similar to prison population, The Independent, 13 September 2016.
- Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization, Sage Publications, 2006.
- Manfred Kets de Vries , The Psychopath in the C-Suit: Redefining the SOB, Faculty & Research Working Paper, INSEAD.
- Tarja Ketola, From CR-Psychopaths to Responsible Corporations: Waking Up the Inner Sleeping Beauty of Companies, Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, Volume 13, issue 2, 2006. As summarized in HRM Guide.
- Visty Banaji, Help! The CHRO I picked is a lemon - How CEOs can choose better HR heads, People Matters, 14th March 2019.
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, The Arden Shakespeare, 2013.
- Paul Babiak, Robert D Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, Harper Business, 2007.
- Visty Banaji, Is Your Board Bored By HR? Improving Board Oversight of HR, People Matters, 13th November 2017.
- Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, Constable & Robinson, 2005.