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The subject of corporate psychopaths or snakes-in-suits is increasingly getting wide attention.
What really piqued my interest in the “corporate psychopath” was a seminar I attended last year run by Dr. John Clarke, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sydney, consultant to the NSW police force and widely regarded as Australia's expert on corporate psychopaths. I can highly recommend his book Working with Monsters: How to Identify and Protect Yourself from the Workplace Psychopath.
Among the characteristics of the corporate psychopaths are their charm and ability to deceive and their view that life is a game with winners and losers and they are winners. Typically they are manipulative, lack ethics, desire power and are very active players in corporate politics. In particular they are very good at claiming credit for other people's ideas and blaming others for their own mistakes. The problem is that all these behaviours take time to recognise and often it is too late.
How do you recognise a corporate psychopath in five minutes? Here are some simple guidelines:
Talk: Corporate psychopaths are charming, but two things give them away. After asking what you do for a living and finding out where you work, they will soon drop names by asking if you know some important person and implicitly showing they associate with winners.
Also, corporate psychopaths are driven by the desire for material success so they will talk about recent gambling wins or money made in on the stock market. In social gatherings they will first spend their initial conversation looking intently at you, but if they decide they should be spending time with someone more important will start looking around the room trying to see if such a person exists. Their interests outside of work either include gambling interests such as horse racing or expensive “winner” sports like sailing or skiing.
Organisation and position: Corporate psychopaths are found everywhere and one major clue is frequent career changes. However, they are happiest in sales and middlemen roles where they act between buyers and sellers and the result of their work is high commissions or bonuses. Many of them are agents.
Indeed Ari Gold of Entourage is a wonderful portrayal of a corporate psychopath. Of course corporate psychopaths are very common in business. Enron was full of them. One side effect of the decline of investment banking industry will be many more psychopaths working in other business areas. What differentiates psychopath from the successful businessperson is the sense of ethics. They both play golf but the psychopath will cheat, while the true golfer will call the penalty against himself.
In my next blog I will cover some other major clues.