The Monster Behind the Marketer's Mask
This article originally appeared in the Texarkana Gazette on October 9, 2011
Dr. Robert S. Owen
Associate Professor of Marketing
College of Business
Texas A&M University-Texarkana
Halloween is near and I wonder what charming little monsters will show up on my doorstep this year. Even though I cannot see the true person behind the mask, this is one of those situations in which I am naturally trusting of people who are cute, charming, and funny.
But in business and even in ordinary everyday life, we have to be much more careful about throwing caution to the wind. Behind the mask of a polished, charming, charismatic, smooth talking politician, salesperson, corporate executive, or first date can be an incurable monster. There has been an emerging interest in business research about people who hide behind masks of polished charm and charisma while destroying organizations that they lead or help manage. This kind of person is called a corporate psychopath: someone who lacks conscience but is otherwise normal.
Bernie Madoff, the Wall Street investment manager, was a charismatic and seemingly "successful" financial genius. But for decades behind that appearance of business brilliance, the genius was secretly fudging numbers and swindling individuals out of their hard-earned life savings, and corporations out of their investments. The house of cards eventually tumbled, helping to throw our entire country into a financial shambles. For decades, many of us will be cleaning up a mess created by just one person.
People who consider themselves experts on psychopathy research have estimated that between one and four percent of the population exhibit characteristics that would be deemed as psychopathic. In some organization where you have worked, you have probably seen the bad versions of these people and you have felt their footprints on your back. Your first impression is that they are charming and delightful; rooms light up whenever they enter. They know the right things to say to impress you, your colleagues, and the people above you. On the bottom, you and your colleagues who work with a psychopath every day eventually compare notes to find that this colleague cannot be trusted to say or tow the same line to any two different people.
But to your bosses who don't work with this person on a daily basis, the psychopath is brilliant and gets promoted above you all. Nobody but you folks know that the psychopath has been fudging numbers, laying blame on peers, and heaping hollow praise on bosses. Now in the ranks of a higher level of the organizational chart, the psychopath is playing the same game with his or her new peers. Bosses at the next level above are impressed while the new peers get kicked in the teeth, and the psychopath keeps moving up rungs of the ladder one at a time.
On the way up, the psychopath leaves huge messes for everyone else to clean up. The books were cooked and now that the psychopath is gone, his or her successor has to figure out how to salvage the department. Managing at the next higher level in the corporate structure, the psychopath is a good "hatchet man," who, without conscience or feelings, is the hero who saves the day by laying off half the people in your failing division. The upper ranks of the corporate structure are impressed by this demonstration of decisiveness and thick skin, moving the psychopath further up the ladder.
So why do the rest of us perform so badly if we try to play that game? Science is finding that psychopaths have a brain that literally lacks the physical wiring that is necessary to feel empathy. You and I are able to anticipate the feelings of other people and to anticipate the consequences of our own actions. With conscience and soul, you and I find it difficult to tell a lie and we find ourselves compelled to voluntarily alert others to adverse conditions. Lacking these natural feelings and associated inhibitions, a psychopath finds it easy to lie and easy to hurt others for the rewards of self gain. Moreover, a psychopath cannot understand why the rest of us cannot do that, therefore believing that we are weak and vulnerable.
So what do you do with a corporate psychopath? You don't want an untruthful salesperson who is misrepresenting your company to customers, a publicist who isn't forthcoming to shareholders, or a product manager who is fudging numbers - these are the kinds of behaviors that can eventually destroy your organization. Current thinking is that having a chat about ethics and the goals of the group isn't going to work; a psychopath's fundamental behaviors cannot be changed due to brain wiring that causes the person to lack the feelings and inhibitions that most of us feel. The best thing to do is write a nice letter of reference and invite the person to move on to some other pasture that she or he perceives to be greener.