The dark side of charisma: book review

A new book explores how corporate psychopaths thrive in the business world.

You may have spotted them in your workplace. They are intelligent, charismatic, attractive and socially skilled. They make great first impressions. They are spontaneous and uninhibited by rules. They are fun to hang around with–at least initially. Then, slowly, a darker side begins to emerge. They show themselves to be egotistical and narcissistic, greedy, manipulative and ruthless. Behind the style, there is no substance; behind the charisma, there is no conscience.

They are corporate psychopaths, people who use their charm, looks and cunning to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power and authority. They then abuse their co-workers and exploit the company for their personal advantage. In the process, they create so much dissonance that it is often difficult to identify who or what the problem is.

This is the theme of Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, a compelling new book by Vancouver psychologist Robert Hare and New York industrial psychologist Paul Babiak (Regan Books/ HarperCollins, $34.95). It refines the popular conception of psychopaths as serial killers and habitual fraudsters by describing the more subtle variations of psychopathy that appear in our everyday lives, particularly our work lives.

“Whenever I give a talk, I always start out by asking the audience who comes to mind when they hear the term psychopathy,” Hare told Canadian Business. “They say Ted Bundy, Clifford Olson or Hannibal Lecter. That's the problem: most psychopaths don't become serial killers. They don't engage in the types of crime that will inevitably land them in prison. Most are bending and breaking rules in ways that allow them to get away with it.”

Hare is an acknowledged expert on psychopathy. He is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and president of his own consulting firm, Darkstone Research Group. He provides consulting services to law-enforcement agencies, such as the RCMP and the FBI, and is a member of the research advisory board for the FBI's child abduction and serial-murder investigative unit.

In his enormously successful earlier book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, published 13 years ago, Hare wryly noted that after jails, an ideal place to find psychopaths is the Vancouver stock market. “A good social predator isn't going to go into a barren field looking for victims. He goes to a watering hole, like an unregulated and fast-moving financial market, and waits for victims.”

Hare says psychopaths prosper “in chaotic situations where things are in a state of flux, where the old rules are put aside, or where change is so fast-paced that the rules have to be made up as you go along.” Enron and WorldCom certainly fit that description. They were in a constant state of transition. Rules, particularly accounting rules, were made up on the fly.

Throw in a few people with psychopathic tendencies, and you have a predictable outcome. “If you look at some of the major corporate scandals, clearly many of the major people involved have psychopathic features,” says Hare. “These are not normal, warm, loving and caring people. These are sharks. They are predators. The state of the victim doesn't enter into their consciousness, except in an abstract way. This is a huge advantage for these people because they can do things without worrying about the impact on other people's lives. Most of our lives are controlled by the repercussions of our actions on other people.”

Hare says society is preoccupied with style, which makes it easier for psychopaths — especially if they are well-dressed, good-looking and socially skilled — to infiltrate the business world. “Most of us can't tell the difference between someone who looks good and someone who is good. We have difficulty separating the wolves from the sheep. In nature, wolves and sheep look different, but we humans all look the same.”

The authors note that psychopaths can be very charming and able to talk their way past the most seasoned interviewers. But the consequences of hiring one can be serious: “Just as those who have unwittingly married a psychopath find themselves trapped in a web of deceit, abuse and pain, so, too, can a company make a faulty hiring decision and find itself with a serious problem on its hands.”

If they are caught, psychopaths — in an ironic twist–frequently see themselves as the real victims. If they do apologize, it's simply to secure some future advantage. Expressions of remorse, says Hare, are often “words without music,” just another device to manipulate people.

Hare is currently developing a tool, the B-Scan 360, which, despite legal concerns, might one day be used to detect psychopathic behaviour. Five or six people — supervisors, subordinates or peers — compare notes on an individual, which can be fed into a computer to produce a psychological profile. “The idea is to look ahead, to be proactive rather than looking in the rear-view mirror and dealing with the wreckage.”