Snakes in Suits (Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare)

Something about the words ‘psycho’ and ‘path’ – perhaps the influence of the cinema, from Hitchock’s Psycho to Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and onwards – leads us mistakenly to imagine that sociopaths/psychopaths (the two terms seems to be increasingly interchangeable) are rare and that their condition is one that requires and/or responds to treatment. The word was coined by German psychiatrists in the 19th century, created from two Greek roots; ‘psyche’ for ‘soul’ and ‘path ’for ‘feeling’ or ‘disease’ and existed long before its precise meaning had been defined. Indeed, the definition remained in flux for a long time before starting to gravitate around a phenomenon at first described as a ‘perversion of the moral faculties’ (Benjamin Rush, 1812) or ‘moral insanity’ (James Cowles Pritchard, 1835). In the 1920s, an American psychologist, George E. Partridge, started to narrow the definition down to anti-social behavioural traits (consequently suggesting that ‘sociopathy’ might be a more appropriate term). Then, in 1941, an American psychiatrist, Hervey M Cleckly, published a seminal study of psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, based on case studies (all psychiatric patients). Cleckly proposed sixteen characteristics of the condition, including three that have remained central to the modern understanding of the term; an outward appearance of normality (the ‘mask’ of the title), pronounced amorality, and a lack of empathy. The study struck a chord and updates were published at regular intervals (five altogether), with Cleckly extending his case studies to individuals outside clinics and hospitals. Although all sorts of advances were made in the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1970s there was still no international clinical agreement on the diagnosis of psychopathy. Then, in 1970, a Canadian psychologist, Robert D. Hare, published another seminal study about the phenomenon. Like Cleckly, Hare initially based his work on case studies (initially, prisoners) and, also like Cleckly, established a check list of characteristics (reduced down to ten). But, going beyond Cleckly, Hare elaborated a scoring system for the items on his checklist and considered the whole life of his case studies. In 1993 he published his best-selling description of psychopaths, Without Conscience. In 2006 he published a sequel, together with industrial psychologist Paul Babiak, with the graphic title Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work. The reality about psychopaths is that they are numerous and their condition is considered largely untreatable. (Indeed, attempts to treat the condition may make it worse.) The main thesis of Snakes in Suits is that psychopaths tend to congregate at the higher levels of corporate organisations, in both the public and the private sector. Since they can cause immense damage to individuals and to organisations, those in management would do well to learn something about them and how they might deal with them.

Despite the commonly-understood inference of a sick mind, psychopaths are not mentally ill and are generally free from psychosis and anxiety and mood disorders. (To be diagnosed as a psychopath is no defence in a court of law.) Psychiatrists consider psychopathy to be a personality disorder. It could be described as being a different way of relating to the world, resulting from both nature and nurture (there would appear to be some causal linkage with traumatic childhoods). In his earlier work, Without Conscience, Hare drew up what has come to be considered as a standard checklist of the domains and traits of the psychopath. Such checklists have spawned a considerable literature about how to know whether somebody is or isn’t a psychopath. Psychiatrists insist that only clinical tests carried out by trained experts can give reliable diagnoses (more about this below) but admit that, the more of the traits on the checklist an individual seems to display, the more likely it is that s/he is psychopathic. The first domain is the interpersonal. Psychopaths tend to be superficial, grandiose and deceitful. The second domain is the affective. Psychopaths tend to lack remorse and empathy and do not accept responsibility, even when the lines of responsibility seem clear. In terms of their lifestyle, psychopaths tend to be impulsive, to lack strategic goals and behave irresponsibly. They tend to be promiscuous in their sexual relationships. The fourth domain is the antisocial. Psychopaths tend to have poor behavioural control, will probably have exhibited antisocial behaviour in adolescence and will tend to exhibit antisocial behaviour in adulthood.

With such a long list of traits, one could be forgiven for thinking that psychopaths might be easily identifiable. The reality is the opposite. This is because, in the words of Babiak and Hare, ‘many psychopaths are master manipulators and game players.’ Moreover, they can be very good at imitating ‘genuine’ or more typical social behaviour in such a way that those interacting with them have little reason to suspect that they are in any way different. At the same time, most people do not go about their lives suspecting that their interlocuteurs might be psychopaths. This simple fact allows psychopaths to be hidden ‘in plain sight’. In part, perhaps, because Hare’s original samples were drawn from prison populations, but also because popular entertainment has consistently portrayed them as such, the impression has grown that psychopaths are necessarily evil – and that psychopathy is also necessarily evil. The impression is misleading. To the extent that they can be identified, most psychopaths are not evil. Many psychopaths get by in society without their worst potential being triggered. In all probability, many psychopaths do a lot of good and the argument has even been advanced that, in certain walks of life, psychopathic tendencies, if not psychopathy, actually facilitate positive societal roles (for example, politicians and op-ed journalists who may have convincingly to argue one position passionately one day and then its opposite the next day). This has led some to argue that psychopathy is a ‘good thing’ and/or that psychopaths do good things (for instance, Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, Arrow Books, London, 2013). At the other end of the scale, there are those who paint a picture of psychopaths as being almost like the enemy within. Hare seems to fall into this trap when, towards the end of Without Conscience, he points to the promiscuity of psychopaths and speculates that, since the disorder can in part be traced to genetic origins, psychopaths are gradually becoming a larger proportion of the total population. In fact, psychopaths are not, pace the horror stories, aliens who recognise one another and plan to conquer the world.

But some psychopaths are undoubtedly evil and many do a lot of harm to their victims. They can lie with impunity. They are manipulative. They lack empathy and are unconcerned about the hurt they may be causing. They need thrills and can have a penchant for high-risk behaviour. They have no sense of guilt or remorse and will frequently blame others. They will exploit people ruthlessly and drop them just as ruthlessly. At the same time, they can be absolutely charming and charismatic. As Babiak and Hare point out, ‘many organizations are prime feeding grounds for psychopaths with an entrepreneurial bent and the requisite personal attributes and social skills. Like all predators, psychopaths go where the action is, which to them means positions, occupations, professions and organizations that afford them the opportunity to obtain power, control, status, and possessions, and to engage in exploitative interpersonal relationships.’ (p. 97)

Babiak and Hare dub such individuals ‘corporate psychopaths.’ Nobody knows – and nobody can know – how many psychopaths there are. Some estimate around 1% of the population. That would mean ten psychopaths in a one-thousand-strong organisation. Babiak and Hare estimate that about three to four per cent of more senior positions in businesses and corporate organisations are psychopaths. To have thirty or forty ‘corporate psychopaths’ in an organisation will almost certainly spell trouble. The authors describe how psychopaths get into organisations, how they begin to assess those around them and begin to manipulate them, how they engage in character assassination once they have won a position of trust or responsibility, and how they can rise through an organisation, because their ruthlessness and charisma can all too frequently be mistaken for desirable leadership skills. Babiak and Hare suggest ‘lines of defence’ for organisations, particularly when it comes to hiring and selection. But a last section of the book is evocatively entitled ‘circling the wagons’. In it, they seek to address the question as to what to do when the ‘enemy’ is within – as s/he almost certainly already is.

The first step is to know about psychopaths – know what they are and about their behaviour patterns. It is equally important, though, to avoid the temptation to label people as being psychopaths. It is certainly not something that should ever be done to somebody’s face. As explained above, only a trained psychiatrist, using the full complexity of the Hare check list, can diagnose an individual as being a psychopath. Besides, labelling somebody a psychopath carries sinister connotations and will be regarded as an insult (after all, the vast majority of psychopaths do not know that they are psychopaths). The second step is therefore to know yourself – to understand your weaknesses and how you might be manipulated by somebody with psychopathic tendencies, and to avoid collusion. Psychopaths within your organisation will either be below you, alongside you, or above you. Your relative position within the organisation will determine what sort of power you may have to deal with any unpleasant situation that might arise (as it probably will). Unfortunately, though perfectly understandably, realisation tends to come too late. If you are competing alongside a psychopath, the damage will probably already have been done by the time you realise it. Babiak and Hare stop short of following their logic to its full conclusion, but if you are above or below a psychopath you probably have a simple choice: get them out, or get out yourself. If neither is possible, then at least you’ll know why you are being put through such torment.

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