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Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

Odds are you've run across one of these characters in your career. They're glib, charming, manipulative, deceitful, ruthless — and very, very destructive. And there may be lots of them in America's corner offices.

One of the most provocative ideas about business in this decade so far surfaced in a most unlikely place. The forum wasn't the Harvard Business School or one of those $4,000-a-head conferences where Silicon Valley's venture capitalists search for the next big thing. It was a convention of Canadian cops in the far-flung province of Newfoundland. The speaker, a 71-year-old professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia, remains virtually unknown in the business realm. But he's renowned in his own field: criminal psychology. Robert Hare is the creator of the Psychopathy Checklist. The 20-item personality evaluation has exerted enormous influence in its quarter-century history. It's the standard tool for making clinical diagnoses of psychopaths — the 1% of the general population that isn't burdened by conscience. Psychopaths have a profound lack of empathy. They use other people callously and remorselessly for their own ends. They seduce victims with a hypnotic charm that masks their true nature as pathological liars, master con artists, and heartless manipulators. Easily bored, they crave constant stimulation, so they seek thrills from real-life "games" they can win — and take pleasure from their power over other people.

On that August day in 2002, Hare gave a talk on psychopathy to about 150 police and law-enforcement officials. He was a legendary figure to that crowd. The FBI and the British justice system have long relied on his advice. He created the P-Scan, a test widely used by police departments to screen new recruits for psychopathy, and his ideas have inspired the testing of firefighters, teachers, and operators of nuclear power plants.

According to the Canadian Press and Toronto Sun reporters who rescued the moment from obscurity, Hare began by talking about Mafia hit men and sex offenders, whose photos were projected on a large screen behind him. But then those images were replaced by pictures of top executives from WorldCom, which had just declared bankruptcy, and Enron, which imploded only months earlier. The securities frauds would eventually lead to long prison sentences for WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers and Enron CFO Andrew Fastow.

"These are callous, cold-blooded individuals," Hare said.

"They don't care that you have thoughts and feelings. They have no sense of guilt or remorse." He talked about the pain and suffering the corporate rogues had inflicted on thousands of people who had lost their jobs, or their life's savings. Some of those victims would succumb to heart attacks or commit suicide, he said.

Then Hare came out with a startling proposal. He said that the recent corporate scandals could have been prevented if CEOs were screened for psychopathic behavior. "Why wouldn't we want to screen them?" he asked. "We screen police officers, teachers. Why not people who are going to handle billions of dollars?"

It's Hare's latest contribution to the public awareness of "corporate psychopathy." He appeared in the 2003 documentary The Corporation, giving authority to the film's premise that corporations are "sociopathic" (a synonym for "psychopathic") because they ruthlessly seek their own selfish interests — "shareholder value" — without regard for the harms they cause to others, such as environmental damage.

Is Hare right? Are corporations fundamentally psychopathic organizations that attract similarly disposed people? It's a compelling idea, especially given the recent evidence. Such scandals as Enron and WorldCom aren't just aberrations; they represent what can happen when some basic currents in our business culture turn malignant. We're worshipful of top executives who seem charismatic, visionary, and tough. So long as they're lifting profits and stock prices, we're willing to overlook that they can also be callous, conning, manipulative, deceitful, verbally and psychologically abusive, remorseless, exploitative, self-delusional, irresponsible, and megalomaniacal. So we collude in the elevation of leaders who are sadly insensitive to hurting others and society at large.

But wait, you say: Don't bona fide psychopaths become serial killers or other kinds of violent criminals, rather than the guys in the next cubicle or the corner office? That was the conventional wisdom. Indeed, Hare began his work by studying men in prison. Granted, that's still an unusually good place to look for the conscience-impaired. The average Psychopathy Checklist score for incarcerated male offenders in North America is 23.3, out of a possible 40. A score of around 20 qualifies as "moderately psychopathic." Only 1% of the general population would score 30 or above, which is "highly psychopathic," the range for the most violent offenders. Hare has said that the typical citizen would score a 3 or 4, while anything below that is "sliding into sainthood."

On the broad continuum between the ethical everyman and the predatory killer, there's plenty of room for people who are ruthless but not violent. This is where you're likely to find such people as Ebbers, Fastow, ImClone CEO Sam Waksal, and hotelier Leona Helmsley. We put several big-name CEOs through the checklist, and they scored as "moderately psychopathic"; our quiz on page 48 lets you try a similar exercise with your favorite boss. And this summer, together with New York industrial psychologist Paul Babiak, Hare begins marketing the B-Scan, a personality test that companies can use to spot job candidates who may have an MBA but lack a conscience. "I always said that if I wasn't studying psychopaths in prison, I'd do it at the stock exchange," Hare told Fast Company. "There are certainly more people in the business world who would score high in the psychopathic dimension than in the general population. You'll find them in any organization where, by the nature of one's position, you have power and control over other people and the opportunity to get something."

There's evidence that the business climate has become even more hospitable to psychopaths in recent years. In pioneering long-term studies of psychopaths in the workplace, Babiak focused on a half-dozen unnamed companies: One was a fast-growing high-tech firm, and the others were large multinationals undergoing dramatic organizational changes — severe downsizing, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and joint ventures. That's just the sort of corporate tumult that has increasingly characterized the U.S. business landscape in the last couple of decades. And just as wars can produce exciting opportunities for murderous psychopaths to shine (think of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic), Babiak found that these organizational shake-ups created a welcoming environment for the corporate killer. "The psychopath has no difficulty dealing with the consequences of rapid change; in fact, he or she thrives on it," Babiak claims. "Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior."

And you can make a compelling case that the New Economy, with its rule-breaking and roller-coaster results, is just dandy for folks with psychopathic traits too. A slow-moving old-economy corporation would be too boring for a psychopath, who needs constant stimulation. Its rigid structures and processes and predictable ways might stymie his unethical scheming. But a charge-ahead New Economy maverick — an Enron, for instance — would seem the ideal place for this kind of operator.

But how can we recognize psychopathic types? Hare has revised his Psychopathy Checklist (known as the PCL-R, or simply "the Hare") to make it easier to identify so-called subcriminal or corporate psychopaths. He has broken down the 20 personality characteristics into two subsets, or "factors." Corporate psychopaths score high on Factor 1, the "selfish, callous, and remorseless use of others" category. It includes eight traits: glibness and superficial charm; grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; conning and manipulativeness; lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect (i.e., a coldness covered up by dramatic emotional displays that are actually playacting); callousness and lack of empathy; and the failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions. Sound like anyone you know? (Corporate psychopaths score only low to moderate on Factor 2, which pinpoints "chronically unstable, antisocial, and socially deviant lifestyle," the hallmarks of people who wind up in jail for rougher crimes than creative accounting.)

This view is supported by research by psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon at the University of Surrey, who interviewed and gave personality tests to 39 high-level British executives and compared their profiles with those of criminals and psychiatric patients. The executives were even more likely to be superficially charming, egocentric, insincere, and manipulative, and just as likely to be grandiose, exploitative, and lacking in empathy. Board and Fritzon concluded that the businesspeople they studied might be called "successful psychopaths." In contrast, the criminals — the "unsuccessful psychopaths" — were more impulsive and physically aggressive.

The Factor 1 psychopathic traits seem like the playbook of many corporate power brokers through the decades. Manipulative? Louis B. Mayer was said to be a better actor than any of the stars he employed at MGM, able to turn on the tears at will to evoke sympathy during salary negotiations with his actors. Callous? Henry Ford hired thugs to crush union organizers, deployed machine guns at his plants, and stockpiled tear gas. He cheated on his wife with his teenage personal assistant and then had the younger woman marry his chauffeur as a cover. Lacking empathy? Hotel magnate Leona Helmsley shouted profanities at and summarily fired hundreds of employees allegedly for trivialities, like a maid missing a piece of lint. Remorseless? Soon after Martin Davis ascended to the top position at Gulf & Western, a visitor asked why half the offices were empty on the top floor of the company's Manhattan skyscraper. "Those were my enemies," Davis said. "I got rid of them." Deceitful? Oil baron Armand Hammer laundered money to pay for Soviet espionage. Grandiosity? Thy name is Trump.

In the most recent wave of scandals, Enron's Fastow displayed many of the corporate psychopath's traits. He pressured his bosses for a promotion to CFO even though he had a shaky grasp of the position's basic responsibilities, such as accounting and treasury operations. Suffering delusions of grandeur after just a little time on the job, Fastow ordered Enron's PR people to lobby CFO magazine to make him its CFO of the Year. But Fastow's master manipulation was a scheme to loot Enron. He set up separate partnerships, secretly run by himself, to engage in deals with Enron. The deals quickly made tens of millions of dollars for Fastow — and prettified Enron's financials in the short run by taking unwanted assets off its books. But they left Enron with time bombs that would ultimately cause the company's total implosion — and lose shareholders billions. When Enron's scandals were exposed, Fastow pleaded guilty to securities fraud and agreed to pay back nearly $24 million and serve 10 years in prison.

"Chainsaw" Al Dunlap might score impressively on the corporate Psychopathy Checklist too. What do you say about a guy who didn't attend his own parents' funerals? He allegedly threatened his first wife with guns and knives. She charged that he left her with no food and no access to their money while he was away for days. His divorce was granted on grounds of "extreme cruelty." That's the characteristic that endeared him to Wall Street, which applauded when he fired 11,000 workers at Scott Paper, then another 6,000 (half the labor force) at Sunbeam. Chainsaw hurled a chair at his human-resources chief, the very man who approved the handgun and bulletproof vest on his expense report. Dunlap needed the protection because so many people despised him. His plant closings kept up his reputation for ruthlessness but made no sense economically, and Sunbeam's financial gains were really the result of Dunlap's alleged book cooking. When he was finally exposed and booted, Dunlap had the nerve to demand severance pay and insist that the board reprice his stock options. Talk about failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions.

While knaves such as Fastow and Dunlap make the headlines, most horror stories of workplace psychopathy remain the stuff of frightened whispers. Insiders in the New York media business say the publisher of one of the nation's most famous magazines broke the nose of one of his female sales reps in the 1990s. But he was considered so valuable to the organization that the incident didn't impede his career.

Most criminals — whether psychopathic or not — are shaped by poverty and often childhood abuse as well. In contrast, corporate psychopaths typically grew up in stable, loving families that were middle class or affluent. But because they're pathological liars, they tell romanticized tales of rising from tough, impoverished backgrounds. Dunlap pretended that he grew up as the son of a laid-off dockworker; in truth, his father worked steadily and raised his family in suburban comfort. The corporate psychopaths whom Babiak studied all went to college, and a couple even had PhDs. Their ruthless pursuit of self-interest was more easily accomplished in the white-collar realm, which their backgrounds had groomed them for, rather than the criminal one, which comes with much lousier odds.

Psychopaths succeed in conventional society in large measure because few of us grasp that they are fundamentally different from ourselves. We assume that they, too, care about other people's feelings. This makes it easier for them to "play" us. Although they lack empathy, they develop an actor's expertise in evoking ours. While they don't care about us, "they have an element of emotional intelligence, of being able to see our emotions very clearly and manipulate them," says Michael Maccoby, a psychotherapist who has consulted for major corporations.

Psychopaths are typically very likable. They make us believe that they reciprocate our loyalty and friendship. When we realize that they were conning us all along, we feel betrayed and foolish. "People see sociopathy in their personal lives, and they don't have a clue that it has a label or that others have encountered it," says Martha Stout, a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School and the author of the recent best-seller The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us (Broadway Books, 2005). "It makes them feel crazy or alone. It goes against our intuition that a small percentage of people can be so different from the rest of us — and so evil. Good people don't want to believe it."

Of course, cynics might say that it can be an advantage to lack a conscience. That's probably why major investors installed Dunlap as the CEO of Sunbeam: He had no qualms about decimating the workforce to impress Wall Street. One reason outside executives get brought into troubled companies is that they lack the emotional stake in either the enterprise or its people. It's easier for them to act callously and remorselessly, which is exactly what their backers want. The obvious danger of the new B-Scan test for psychopathic tendencies is that companies will hire or promote people with high scores rather than screen them out. Even Babiak, the test's codeveloper, says that while "a high score is a red flag, sometimes middle scores are okay. Perhaps you don't want the most honest and upfront salesman."

Indeed, not every aberrant boss is necessarily a corporate psychopath. There's another personality that's often found in the executive suite: the narcissist. While many psychologists would call narcissism a disorder, this trait can be quite beneficial for top bosses, and it's certainly less pathological than psychopathy. Maccoby's book The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Perils of Visionary Leadership (Broadway Books, 2003) portrays the narcissistic CEO as a grandiose egotist who is on a mission to help humanity in the abstract even though he's often insensitive to the real people around him. Maccoby counts Apple's Steve Jobs, General Electric's Jack Welch, Intel's Andy Grove, Microsoft's Bill Gates, and Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher as "productive narcissists," or PNs. Narcissists are visionaries who attract hordes of followers, which can make them excel as innovators, but they're poor listeners and they can be awfully touchy about criticism. "These people don't have much empathy," Maccoby says. "When Bill Gates tells someone, 'That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,' or Steve Jobs calls someone a bozo, they're not concerned about people's feelings. They see other people as a means toward their ends. But they do have a sense of changing the world — in their eyes, improving the world. They build their own view of what the world should be and get others recruited to their vision. Psychopaths, in contrast, are only interested in self."

Maccoby concedes that productive narcissists can become "drunk with power" and turn destructive. The trick, he thinks, is to pair a productive narcissist with a "productive obsessive," or conscientious, control-minded manager. Think of Grove when he was matched with chief operating officer Craig Barrett, Gates with president Steve Ballmer, Kelleher with COO Colleen Barrett, and Oracle's Larry Ellison with COO Ray Lane and CFO Jeff Henley. In his remarkably successful second tour of duty at Apple, Jobs has been balanced by steady, competent behind-the-scenes players such as Timothy Cook, his executive vice president for sales and operations.

But our culture's embrace of narcissism as the hallmark of admired business leaders is dangerous, Babiak maintains, since "individuals who are really psychopaths are often mistaken for narcissists and chosen by the organization for leadership positions." How does he distinguish the difference between the two types? "In the case of a narcissist, everything is me, me, me," Babiak explains. "With a psychopath, it's 'Is it thrilling, is it a game I can win, and does it hurt others?' My belief is a psychopath enjoys hurting others."

Intriguingly, Babiak believes that it's extremely unlikely for an entrepreneurial founder-CEO to be a corporate psychopath because the company is an extension of his own ego — something he promotes rather than plunders. "The psychopath has no allegiance to the company at all, just to self," Babiak says. "A psychopath is playing a short-term parasitic game." That was the profile of Fastow and Dunlap — guys out to profit for themselves without any concern for the companies and lives they were wrecking. In contrast, Jobs and Ellison want their own companies to thrive forever — indeed, to dominate their industries and take over other fields as well. "An entrepreneurial founder-CEO might have a narcissistic tendency that looks like psychopathy," Babiak says. "But they have a vested interest: Their identity is wrapped up with the company's existence. They're loyal to the company." So these types are ruthless not only for themselves but also for their companies, their extensions of self.

The issue is whether we will continue to elevate, celebrate, and reward so many executives who, however charismatic, remain indifferent to hurting other people. Babiak says that while the first line of defense against psychopaths in the workplace is screening job candidates, the second line is a "culture of openness and trust, especially when the company is undergoing intense, chaotic change."

Europe is far ahead of the United States in trying to deal with psychological abuse and manipulation at work. The "antibullying" movement in Europe has produced new laws in France and Sweden. Harvard's Stout suggests that the relentlessly individualistic culture of the United States contributes a lot to our problems. She points out that psychopathy has a dramatically lower incidence in certain Asian cultures, where the heritage has emphasized community bonds rather than glorified self-interest. "If we continue to go this way in our Western culture," she says, "evolutionarily speaking, it doesn't end well."

The good news is that we can do something about corporate psychopaths. Scientific consensus says that only about 50% of personality is influenced by genetics, so psychopaths are molded by our culture just as much as they are born among us. But unless American business makes a dramatic shift, we'll get more Enrons — and deserve them.

Alan Deutschman is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco.

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  • My x husband conned me into thinking we were still married has ran me off the road beat me steals all the time has taken my money caused me to overdose has a felony record of putting a gun to his head and holding the police at bay more stuff has caused me to lose my teaching job by threatening my students... He is sitting in the city jail for that one but it is still his word against mine so he might walk .. Now that I read this I think I am crazy . He still has 30 year over his head if convicted... We had a lovely home he is a retire retired firefighter and did Vietnam..... He still scares me and will do something toe if he gets out of jail has ruined every thing I have worked ... I read about how nice they can be.... And he is ... But despite my gut instinct I let it go..... I should have ran

  • M. Zinnerman

    One of the worst unsung CEO disasters comes from Mark
    Hoffman.  First at a private company APS,
    he supervised the destruction of hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then, just before APS was forced into
    bankrupcty, he jumped to Corporate Express. 
    This second company never recovered from his "leadership" and
    was eventually sold to Staples at a discount. 
    Despite having degrees from the University of South Alabama
    (in finance) and an MBA from Harvard, Mark Hoffman's mark has been the
    destruction of shareholder value. 
    Despite his Republican leanings, Mark Hoffman is the capitalist's enemy.


    His style fits the public image of CEOs -- strong, tall,
    handsome, decisive -- but completely removed from the impacts of his
    decisions.  That describes a Trojan Horse
    CEO and a disaster for shareholders and employees.  For owners and workers caught up in this
    man's cold, even sociopathic behavior that helped him appear worthwhile to
    boards of directors, also prohibited him from effectively managing the people
    in his organization due to his void of empathy and inability to sense the needs
    of customers and employees.  A true
    trainwreck waiting for the next company that is seduced by looks, patter, and a
    false sense of security.

  • Working with a Sociopathic Bos

    I have recently been hired (5 months ago) and have just realized that my boss is a Sociopath.  I have documented her abuse since Day 1 (not kidding) and the reason the girl before me left was because of her abusive behavior.  I have turned in a 20+ page log of dates, what happened, etc. to Human Resources and nothing happened to her.  Then I guess they talked to her and she retaliated by Writing ME up and twisting All the things that SHE initiated.  Giving me wrong instructions, flat out Lying about my performance, the list goes on and on.  Frequently calling me into conference rooms to slam books or even her hands on the table to make a loud noise and make me jump.  Giving out my husbands confidential medical information to my co-workers without my permission.  Constantly and Endlessly railing on me for stupid stuff ... that all stems around my trying to do the BEST job possible due to my husband being disabled and the entire thing being on my shoulders at home.  She gets some type of pleasure in upsetting me.  Telling me I'm Fat and that I'm a failure because I have worked in the same position for 20+ years (even though this is the type of work that I LOVE to do).  I Love the work, I Love the company, I am terrified and absoluted Dislike and cannot stand my boss.  I have tried everything I can think of to get her to treat me better...even going so far as trying out different personalities (I think she is making me as sick as she is because that is freaking SAD to even say)... she embarrases me in from of co-workers and yells at me often.  No one will help me.  I can't find anything is the law that will protect me.  Why doesn't she have to answer to HER boss (the CEO of the company)?  Why hasn't HR let him know what she is doing to me...and not just me, but also the girl before me?  Why?  And most importantly what can I do to stop obsessing over this FEAR??

  • Guest

    First of all, if this woman is truly a psychopath, you are never going to get her to like you or treat you better. She already sees you as a target, not a person. It's also unlikely you will be able to get HR or the CEO to "see" what this woman is like. If she's a psychopath, she's probably skilled at manipulating others in terms of how they see her. You will not be able to change her or other people's view of her. 

    What you can do is figure out your rights and start asserting them in the workplace. I would start blind copying someone you trust or a member of HR on ALL email correspondence with your boss. Keep a copy of everything. Also, I would alert HR that because there is so much tension between you and your boss, you believe it will be best for all concerned if you only meet with your boss when a witness is present. This means you can no longer respond to "impromptu" meetings in conference rooms unless someone else is available to meet with her, too. And I would state the problem as neutrally as possible. "There's some tension between Mary and I right now, I and I would feel more comfortable only meeting with her when I have someone else present." This way she can no longer simply make up your behavior. Remain calm in ALL confrontations and try to stay as neutral as possible. Remember that her behavior, though it feels personal, is not personal (if she truly is a psychopath). Trust me, psychopaths are experts at upsetting others and/or making them angry, resulting in the targeted person looking crazy as a result. And that seems to be her goal here with you. She may be targeting you because she knows you're in a tight spot and are therefore less likely to stand up to her for fear of being fired. If you start resisting her in small ways, she may decide you're not worth the effort and move on to someone else. I would also take some time to assess your marketable skills, update your resume and cover letter, and create an exit plan. If things are as bad as you say, you may have to disengage from her entirely, and the only way to do that is to leave. Creating a workable exit plan might also give you peace of mind, which may lead to your own behavior changing in a natural way, which might make you less of a target. 

    I would also check out self-help workplace books, such as NICE GIRLS DON'T GET THE CORNER OFFICE (an unfortunate title, but a great resource), which can help demystify some of the behavior you experience at work. Another one is IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING, which is a quick read and lists some of the ways those with a lack of conscience can manipulate others. WHO'S PULLING YOUR STRINGS is another good resource. 

  • clive boddy

    According to recent research Corporate Psychopaths are
    organizational destroyers from within and at many levels. They affect the moral
    and ethical climate of an organization and for example, perceptions of
    corporate social responsibility go down in the presence of psychopathic managers.
    Organizational commitment towards employee’s drops, and levels of conflict,
    bullying and unfair supervision in the workplace increase dramatically.
    Research shows that Corporate Psychopaths who are only about 1% of the working
    population, at least in one sample of respondents accounted for 26% of all
    bullying in the organizations concerned.


    Research into the influence of
    psychopathic managers also shows that psychopaths who work in organizations
    have a large negative effect on workload and this means that other employees
    have to work harder to counter the negative effects of psychopathic managers.
    Job satisfaction and good communications go down in their presence leading to
    problems with morale and commitment to the organization. The level of
    organizational constraints goes up as Corporate Psychopaths seek to use
    workplace rules and regulations to their own advantage and to their own ends
    and this means that employee access to resources and productivity goes
    down.  Employee withdrawal behavior
    also, understandably, increases as workers try and avoid being in the presence
    of psychopathic colleagues and managers. Corporate Psychopaths thus destroy the
    moral fabric of an organization, cause withdrawal behavior, increase conflict
    and disrupt overall effectiveness and productivity. 

  • Dorothy

    Some people in their quest to be desireable to those deemed favored and desired sometimes take extraordinary measures and course of actions to make those they are overcome with feeling jealous and must feel superior less desireable. I think this is troublesome especially for capitalists and landowners since they run a risk of ruining their assets by letting these sycophants who want to rub shoulders with the elite and establishment on their way up in the ladder ending up ruining soil, leaving litter and pollution, misrepresenting product use or mis-use of household brand names after these cultish people's much needed outlet of orgy-holocaust-feast rituals as a result of their belief that best things in life are free.

  • Indrid Froid

    This should be required reading for the workforce in general. Although Mr Deutschman would like to think that there may be some benevolent narcissist (productive narcissist), including so-called start-up narcissist CEOs, nothing can be further from the truth. No counter personality/co-worker should be responsible for those individuals, nor do they magically counteract the destructive effect of those narcissist or psychopathic tendencies exhibited by their bosses. Professor Hare has methodically and quantifiably established that power seeking narcissist individuals who work in the 'legal' realm of society, no matter how popular, likeable and profitable they may seem, leave a trail of destruction and turmoil which can easily be veiled in accomplishments and grandiosing 'donations'. Giving with one hand does not negate what one destroys with the other. Remember that a psychopath/narcissist will only execute that which will benefit it's own agenda. This dog-eat-dog mantra which we are made believe to exist in the business world, has been instigated and perpetuated by sefl-serving individuals who seek power and gratification at all cost, with the least ethical restrictions as they can get away with. Remember that business is not the only reason for life on this earth, and those narcissist types create havoc and destruction in social venues of their lives as well. We are made to believe that in the business world, ruthless and merciless are the norm. Few and forcefully hidden are those examples in business, where cooperation, loyalty and all around benefit travel vertically and horizontally. They do exist. And people who are working in companies who are expected to give absolute loyalty and dedication to individuals who can't offer no guarantees in return is a ludicrous demoted concept which needs to be addressed.

  • Peter Freeth

    An organisation with around 200 employees working in the public sector asked us to develop a coaching program for their senior managers which would accelerate the implementation of their new strategy.

    An ambitious 10 year business plan needed strong leadership to guide an underlying culture change, shifting the focus of the business from a public sector mentality to one of business and commercial awareness. The CEO had been in place for only a short time, having been promoted rapidly from company accountant to Finance Director to CEO.

    We coached the CEO to develop this strategy, and this evolved into a coaching program for the senior managers, supporting them in implementing the strategy in their own areas of the business.

    From the beginning, the CEO avoided key issues during coaching and inconsistencies began to show during conversations between the CEO and the Directors. During a strategy workshop, Directors closed ranks, recited rehearsed statements about the strategy and looked to the CEO for approval.

    After just two months into the coaching program, it was clear that some managers' ideas to implement the strategy were being blocked, whilst others were contradicting themselves and avoiding accountability. The CEO was continuing to avoid key issues and was making very little progress overall.

    The main issue appeared to be the avoidance of accountability. Staff would avoid work that they were not interested in and their managers would take on extra work rather than make individuals accountable for their actions, so work flowed up the organisational structure rather than down and managers took on a higher workload resulting in longer working hours, greater stress, mistrust and resentment .

    We called a meeting with the CEO and told her that we were closing the coaching program.

    The fundamental issue was that the CEO was manipulating her managers and the board in order to support her own hidden agenda; her early exit. She knew that she did not have enough experience as a CEO to secure her next position, so the only option was a significant achievement in the form of a merger with another organisation which would give her an instant successor from outside the organisation, enabling her to block succession from within. She had already removed two Directors and had identified a third who she was setting up to fail in key performance areas. She influenced board elections to ensure support from new members and gave the impression that she was protecting her team from the board in order to control communication between them.

    This complex system of control and manipulation bred mistrust, avoidance and dishonesty throughout the management team and began to create a barrier to the CEO's own hidden agenda. The business was disintegrating faster than she could orchestrate her exit, and at some point the board would take the exit decision away from her, leaving her with neither the experience nor the achievements to move forwards yet equally unable to move backwards.

    At our final meeting, we told the CEO that we had identified all of this, and that we were no longer part of the game. Although she was surprised at our withdrawal from the program, she admitted to everything that we said. She recognised the risk that she faced, and the danger that she was putting the company in. If we had said nothing and continued to coach her, the coaching would have been ineffective because of her manipulation and avoidance. By admitting to her behaviour, she had taken responsibility for it and no longer needed coaching. Either way, our feedback was more valuable than any coaching ever could be.

  • Susanna Emme

    this reminds me of someone i used to work with. thanks goodness i don't work with them anymore :).