"Only the paranoid survive." It's not just the title of Intel chairman Andy Grove's best-selling book — it's also one of the most often-repeated credos in the consulting world. Who has signed on in support of Grove's psycho-sentiment? Uberguru Tom Peters, for one. Edward Lawler, a founder of USC's Center for Effective Organizations and a professor of management at USC's business school, for another. Then there's David Teece, director of the Institute of Management, Innovation & Organization at UC Berkeley; former Bain consultant Kevin Rollins, now vice chairman of Dell Computer; and David Bohnett, founder of GeoCities.
Grove's paranoid management philosophy has spread like, well, paranoia. Which is why the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) launched an investigation. We began with the core text: "When it comes to business, I believe in the value of paranoia," Grove wrote on the first page of Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company (Currency/Doubleday, 1996). Grove continues, "I believe that the prime responsibility of a manager is to guard constantly against other people's attacks and to inculcate this guardian attitude in the people under his or her management." So, in other words, people should work in a state of self-inflicted fear, trust no one, and spread that sense of insecurity to every employee. Pretty spooky stuff! But is it even right? Is paranoia the key to survival?
To find out, the CDU traveled up Silicon Valley from Intel's headquarters in Santa Clara to neighboring Stanford University, where many of Intel's pre-paranoids are schooled. Sneaking onto the campus, the CDU spoke with paranoid-schizophrenia authority and psychiatry professor Ira Glick. The question: Paranoia — good survival technique or bad survival technique? "Bad survival technique," Glick replied. "Other people get scared of you if you're paranoid — they can't have a normal give-and-take with you. A degree of wariness is healthy, but once you cross a certain line, paranoia is self-defeating."
Where, the CDU pondered, have we seen paranoia and survival linked most recently? What about in the greatest survivalist scam of the millennium: the millennium. As the clock ticked toward Y2K, paranoids across the country stockpiled everything from cash to kerosene. Donald MacGregor, a research psychologist with the Eugene, Oregon-based Decision Science Research Institute, studied the millennial phenomenon and concluded that preparation for real or imagined threats can be as hazardous as the threats themselves. So where did MacGregor come down on the link between paranoia and survival?
"Paranoia is a mental illness, not a survival technique," MacGregor told the CDU. "I'd never use that word to describe people who are hyperaware in business. Paranoid people have a mental disorder." Time to rename Grove's book: Only the Seriously Mentally Ill Survive. Could this really be good business?
To find out about paranoia in the workplace, the CDU traveled across the country to speak with psychiatrist and Weill Medical College of Cornell University faculty member Jeffrey Kahn, author of Mental Health in the Workplace: A Practical Psychiatric Guide (John Wiley & Sons, 1993). Before commenting, Kahn struck a cautious note, warning, "Nothing I say should be construed as an indirect or direct comment about Andy Grove or any other individual." Whoa, there, Jeffrey! The CDU quickly backed off and asked a neutral question: Paranoia in the workplace — good idea or bad idea?
"There's a big downside to paranoia," Kahn said. "If you're paranoid, you're preoccupied with imaginary threats. You create the seeds of your own self-destruction by projecting your fears onto your surroundings. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy." The CDU now had another possible title change: Only the Paranoid Self-Destruct.
The CDU could not close the case without putting paranoia to the ultimate test: a visit to McLean, Virginia to talk with Central Intelligence Agency spokesperson Tom Crispell. "Paranoia," the CDU asked Crispell. "Good or bad survival strategy?"
"Why do you want to know?" Crispell asked, sounding suspicious.
The CDU explained the purpose of its investigation. "I'm not sure it's appropriate for the CIA to comment on paranoia," Crispell said. "We're not a paranoid institution, if that's what you mean."
What would make Crispell think that?
"The way we're portrayed publicly, in magazines, books, and movies, is entirely off the mark," he said.
Perhaps people are always blaming the CIA? Unfairly? With no reason?
"There's just a general misconception about the CIA that's the direct result of how the CIA is portrayed by the media," Crispell continued. "So I'm afraid we have no comment." The final word on paranoia: We know — but we can't tell you.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.