First we shape our structures, and then the sociopaths take over

We will create the future organization by bringing democracy to the workplace, I wrote last week in How we will manage. The essential factors, in my opinion, for an effective networked workplace (Enterprise 2.0, Social Business, etc.) are not what we have seen in many industrial style companies:

  1. Shared power: necessary in a networked economy.
  2. Autonomy: essential for an engaged workforce.
  3. Finally, the social contract for work needs to change.

In one of the best blog posts I have ever read, Venkat Rao discusses The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”. The initial premise is Hugh Macleod’s cartoon on the company hierarchy, which often elicits a chuckle when I show it to others [especially since I have it on my business cards]. The entire article is well worth reading.

I recently listened to a programme on CBC Radio’s Maritime Magazine on work bullies and it only reinforces the premise that sociopaths run too many organizations. “So why do so many bullies rise to a position of power?” asks Jerry West, the radio host. Here is a reference to the answer given:

In 2005, British psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon at the University of Surrey interviewed and gave personality tests to a number of high-level executives. They then compared their profiles with those of criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor, the all-male high-security hospital, home to some of England’s most notorious murderers. The researchers found that three out of eleven personality disorders were actually more common in managers than in the disturbed criminals:

  • histrionic personality disorder
  • narcissistic personality disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive personality disorder

This has led researchers to describe such disturbed executives as “successful psychopaths” and similarly disturbed criminals as “unsuccessful psychopaths”.

And you wonder why I rage against the machine when it comes to hierarchies and institutions? In the CBC programme, a Dalhousie University professor states that in job interviews, no one bothers to look at deviant or counter-productive behaviours. Hiring those who are prone to bullying then leads to a hostile or toxic work environment.  As Jerry West says, “It’s not difficult to find hierarchical work environments that are toxic” and organizations that exhibit this behaviour include Canada’s RCMP.

So what are the options? The programme suggests:

  • Conduct interviews that might determine bullying behaviours [easy, but not always effective].
  • Leadership & management must stay vigilant and engaged [not often the norm].
  • Legislation to protect the bullied in the workplace [will only happen in the long term].

But even these recommendations seem almost futile in many organizations today. While people may be talking about it now, the real challenge is to change our work structures so that it is much more difficult for bullies (sociopaths) to succeed. We need to understand and talk about how our structures shape us.

As Jerry West concludes, “Doing nothing is a choice, too.”

14 Responses to “First we shape our structures, and then the sociopaths take over”

  1. JB

    I wound up on a plane with a professional business shrink who worked in Austria, where many companies are family-owned & particularly nasty things happened. She said actually most situations were quite amenable to treatment and the bullies often lacked self awareness and changed when they learned perspective, and their co-workers learned to change the context. I’m sure that’s not true in all cases, but it may be that most cases would improve if we just increased the percentage of people educated to the problem and its solutions (including training for the executives.)

  2. Jamie Billingham

    Interesting post that twigs a memory about a study done years ago involving politicians and the Hare’s psychopathy checklist (which i always had a real issue with as it confuses psychopathic behaviours with behaviours that stem from complex trauma, but thats a different issue).

    In First Nations communities, and I suspect many organizations, one of the biggest challenges is lateral violence. Funny, I just Google for a reference or two and because I’m currently trying to hire an LPN I am getting lots of search results that relate to nursing… or lateral violence in nursing is a HUGE issue.

    Anyway, if it is true that bullying and lateral violence stem from fear, insecurity and in some cases inherent psychopathy then attempts to address it using traditional methods may be counterproductive. So, as you have suggested, changing the environment that sustains the behaviour may be a better course of action that trying to pull the weeds.

  3. Tim Wright

    I would contend that this is a function of our industrial, economic and cultural models, models we seem to go to extraordinary lengths to prop up despite their being shown to be desperately flawed and prone to periodic potentially catastrophic crises.

    Vested interests and fear will always tend towards maintaining a model that endorses and rewards this situation so, sadly, whilst I agree entirely Harold, I believe that the model organisations those reading your blog hope we can move to wards will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.

  4. Pete Laberge

    Perhaps the very traits that drive and enable a person to climb to the top, in terms of personality … are the ones that give this same person a need to be powerful, to stand out, to have the lectern, etc….

    And … power can easily corrupt a person, or give them illusions and delusions. Power is addictive. So then, the person, is an ever increasing need to maintain and expand his/her power, fears any competition. And of course, he/she also needs to demonstrate and use that power.

    And thus you get warping of the personality, and the person falls into the trap of being a bully…. Unless, the bully was inside all the time, and climbed due to traits in the bully personality, and now, having reached power, oh boy! Sort of “Apres moi le deluge!” And the bully rules.

    Too bad for those “underneath” the bully. For… They will pay the price.

  5. Martin King

    Can structures really biasshape behaviour – maybe the answer is in the title.

    Is it possible for sociopaths to appropriate and exploit any structure to their own advantage? I guess we’ll have to see if networks can be more robust to sociopaths but lets bear in mind that sociopaths operate by manipulating social psychology.

  6. Robert Pye

    Thanks for this Harold,

    I know that @hjarche is a friend of @Jonhusband who is the chap who came up with the expression Wirerarchy in 1999. A term used to conjure up what happens after hierarchies.

    Command and control (what happens what you implement hierarchy) is being increasingly understood for what it is. What it says on the packet. This management technique is essential however in the industrial economy when divide and conquer and mass production (model-T-Ford) are the order of the day. When your problem suits it.

    It’s not surprising that command and control has become so pervasive and the cornerstone for how we organize our business and societies (Nation States being no exception). Primarily due to the unintended consequences of of the economics of free markets. One such example had (until a few years ago) had been that the transaction cost of purchasing a capability far exceeded the cost of having your own in-house department to perform the task. At scale. Now all of that is turning on its head – for the past 10 years, at least. The cost/quality of in-house production rarely beats external options. What’s scarce is trust. How to scale trust.

    Command and control is creating many problems in our societies and businesses. Not least challenging the very existence and sustainability of them. However they are not obsolete and a world without them (many of them anyway!) would be a far worse reality than the (sometimes) positive mediating effect that they produce. Institutions must adapt or die, for sure.

    There’s an organisation called Worldblu that is a membership club for democratic workplaces.

    My organization (Ethos) is trying to organise and work without traditional command and control hierarchies but it is not easy. There are no easy answers. Clay Shirky rather quaintly points to Github as having some hope of cooperation without coordination. But we are still early days. My ten cents!

    • Harold Jarche

      Here is a good example, of Automattic (makers of WordPress) via Hans de Zwart

      “In Automattic’s company creed it says: “I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.”.

      They would say that their productivity as a company is dependent on how well they communicate. There is also the aspect of personal productivity: there are many examples of how liberating it can be to be able to really make your own schedule and be flexible. It can also be challenging to get to focus sometimes. In their employee-edited employee fieldbook they have collated a set of advice on how find focus for your work. The best way to help people focus is to have them work on something that is challenging and meaningful.”

  7. Steve

    The stereotyped traits of sociopaths are their incapability to identify wrong and right and their manipulativeness. They lack empathy, particularly an inability to feel remorse for their actions, and because of this, people would tag them as dangerous. If you confront them about their actions, don’t expect them to show remorse and change their ways. They also might give someone bad advice, use misinformation, and blackmail to get what they want.
    The statements, although literally true, are nevertheless misleading. Sociopaths are not all violent criminals, nor are they emotionless people. They just happen to be different in their way of thinking, feeling, and living.
    You may also check my blog about What You Don't Know About Sociopaths



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