On her way to a promising job interview, Maria can’t help feeling a sense of loss and disappointment when she thinks about some of the reasons she is seeking a change. When she joined her current organization, a nonprofit dedicated to improving local communities, she was enthusiastic and convinced that she could make a real difference. She believed in the mission and she enjoyed the work. The organization has a great reputation and she was proud to be associated with it. Then things began to fall apart, a year or so after her arrival. Her boss hired a new person, a relative of another section head, who started to make trouble immediately. Maria was amazed that no one in authority seemed to notice, or if they did, that they didn’t care. The new person immediately took credit for the work of others, and immediately started to gossip and trash coworkers. Although everyone in the unit realized she was bad news, they still had to deal with her. Eventually, this began to sap the energy and motivation of the team, and Maria noticed that people were becoming less and less open and trusting with one another. What had been a great and well-functioning team just a few months before had now become a somber, suspicious, and generally dysfunctional group. She was saddened to see how much of a toxic effect one person could have on a great organization. However, since no one in authority seemed particularly bothered by it, she realized there was nothing she could do. She decided to look elsewhere, and it hasn’t surprised her to find that several coworkers are doing the same.
While Jim Collins emphasizes getting the right people on the bus, corporate transformation expert Bob Miles notes that if you get the bus moving in the right direction, the wrong people will get off. Which brings us to the question, “What do the wrong people look like?”
Individual characteristics to avoid
This is simple and important: don’t hire bad apples. If you already have them, get rid of them as quickly as possible. One toxic person can do more damage to an executive team than all your star performers can overcome. A few incompetent or lazy team members can ruin the team. In an article describing the bad apple syndrome, researchers Will Felps, Terrence Mitchell, and Eliza Byington observed, “The bad is stronger than the good.” In one study, they found that just one abrasive or lazy person on the team could bring down the overall performance by 30% to 40%.
Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Charles O’Reilly report that leaders who tolerate their high-performing but toxic superstars underestimate the damage they do. For example, they note that one company reluctantly fired their best salesman because he was a jerk with a negative effect on coworkers. Subsequently, none of the other salespeople sold as much as he had as an individual, but the total sales of store increased by more than 25%. The lesson here is that a bad apple can suppress the efforts of others, and that by removing that individual, the other team members begin to thrive.
Allowing abrasive or ineffective people to remain in place sends the message that you are too timid to confront the issue, that you are out of touch, or that you don’t care.
Some, if not most, of the causes of poor performance can be related directly to problems with the I-Competencies described earlier. Although all types of ineffective people have a detrimental effect on team performance, a particular category of bad apple deserves special attention. Certain pathological people can do more than just damage internal morale and performance. These people are most likely to get into ethical difficulties. If they’re at an executive level, they can do real damage to the organization, up to and including destroying it. The rest of this discussion will focus on them.
There are measures to diagnose some of the pathologies likely to be associated with wrongdoing, but they’re not very useful with an executive population. The professional roadmap for clinical pathology definition is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s unlikely, however, to see obvious signs of the pathologies described in this work in a normal population, especially a high-functioning group such as managers and executives. While we might see hints of certain pathologies, if they were blatant enough to meet the diagnostic criteria, any person displaying them would be selected out of the process long before arriving as a candidate. In addition, the measures to diagnose these pathologies are typically quite apparent to a normal job applicant. However, although they can be sub-clinical, the expression of milder forms of these pathologies can be related to organizational malfunctions in general, and ethical problems in particular.
Assumptions about world: underlying mechanisms of pathology
When people see the world as a hostile place, and assume others will hurt them if they can, their responses to most life situations are very different from those of normal people. Normal people define reasonable behavior by the cultural norms and standards they have internalized from parental, school, and societal influences. Normal people have a hard time understanding why some people behave poorly – not only being overtly violent, but also acting in more subtle aggressive ways, some of which are readily observable in organizations.
People who see life through the distorted lens of aggression think their pathological actions are reasonable responses to a hostile world. Where normal people see others in a positive light, pathologically aggressive people see them either as weak players to be used or despised, or as strong competitors who pose a threat. They see life as a struggle between dominance and victimization, and believe that aggression is better than cooperation, because cooperation indicates weakness. When given a choice, they prefer force, competition, and displays of power to avoid having others take advantage of them.
Aggressive people are always vigilant for hostile intent and see it where none exists. They misinterpret positive overtures from coworkers as hostile attempts to find and exploit their weaknesses or steal their work. This sets up a vicious cycle – their behavior turns others away from them, and causes defensive reactions: reinforcing their worldview.
They have a keen sense of injustice and are motivated by a desire to get even for perceived wrongs. They seek retribution. When given well-meant and innocent critique, they respond both with anger at the “injustice”, and with feelings of inadequacy, a powerful combination that drives negative, hostile behavior. At its worst, this can trigger workplace violence. However, the effects of this aggressive response bias can be seen in theft, sabotage, cheating, malicious gossip, and other negative acts. Aggressive personalities always try to get even, and can always justify their behavior. They are not likely to be swayed by moral arguments.
The pathologically aggressive person operates with very different assumptions. His reasoning is designed to justify and rationalize behavior that harms others. These people are unconcerned with traditional ideas of ethical and moral behavior.
Aggressive personalities can do great damage to a company, especially if they have the veneer of social polish, above average intelligence, and impressive educational credentials. In positions of executive leadership, they can take the company down. However, if we can understand their assumptions, which are beneath their level of awareness, we can avoid bringing these potentially destructive people into our organizations. This is difficult, but there is promising research that could eventually provide some help here. Psychologists Larry James and Mike McIntyre have developed an instrument which appears to be a test of reasoning, but which is in fact a measure of aggressive versus normal assumptions. This measure is not correlated with general intelligence, so pairing it with cognitive tests should be a powerful method to screen for potential pathology. Brighter people with a more normal (that is, less aggressive) worldview are always better hires.
This mechanism is at the heart of many ethical problems. The aggressive worldview can be changed over time if the individual truly understands how harmful it is to him and is truly motivated to change, but this is not an easy task. Moreover, it’s beyond the mission scope of most organizations. If you’re running a business, you need to keep pathologically aggressive people out of the hiring pipeline.
The aggressive worldview is implicated in the factors of the Dark Triad of pathology: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism. These are separate but overlapping disorders, all of which generally predict bad behavior. As an upper level graduate student explained, when I was just learning about such stuff, the main thing you need to know about these people is that “They don’t care about you!” All three types are characterized by self-centeredness and manipulation. A key factor to remember here is that these disorders are long-term, stable, and resistant to change. They have a strong and consistent influence on the person’s behavior over time, and in a wide range of circumstances. Clinical efforts to change such people have not been effective, and in some cases have made things worse. In short, you don’t want them in your organization.
The Dark Triad
Nicolo Machiavelli, a Florentine poet, musician, playwright, and keen observer of political power, is best remembered for The Prince, a biting but accurate treatise on the practical application of power in politics. Although some of his advice is harsh, such as his dictum: “If you must fight, don’t wound your enemies … kill them, their families and friends, so they can’t come back to do you harm later”; his messages still carry a certain resonance of uncomfortable accuracy.
Machiavellianism, as a negative term, became one focus of research in social psychology in the seventies. It was defined as the proclivity to manipulate and exploit using power, intimidation, charm, or other such methods to win personal or organizational advantage. Psychologists Richard Christie and Florence Geis developed a scale to measure a person’s level of Machiavellianism. People with high scores on this measure are seen as calculating, detached, manipulative, deceptive, and self-centered. They employ all means available to them to get their way; but some of these characteristics are also correlated with rising to power in organizations and, as Machiavelli observed, maintaining power. Those who achieve low scores on the Machiavellianism measure developed by Christie and Geis are usually more empathic, sympathetic, open, and agreeable.
Unfortunately, this measure of potential pathology isn’t very useful in helping select people in business organizations, because it is rather transparent. That is, a reasonably bright candidate can easily figure out the right answer. It doesn’t take much to understand that the socially acceptable response to such items as “Most people are basically good and kind,” or “There’s no excuse for lying” is agreement. So, we have to rely on more indirect means.
For instance, high Machiavellianism tendencies are related to low scores on the standard personality factors of agreeableness and conscientiousness (stay tuned for more on this).
In mythology, Narcissus was a handsome young man who eventually fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Freud saw narcissism as the quality of being self-absorbed to the point of pathology. Narcissistic personalities are characterized by an inflated self-concept and self-centeredness in general. They lack empathy for others and typically assume that they are entitled. Their view of themselves is grandiose. They are sometimes flamboyant and have an undeserved and unrealistic sense of superiority.
It’s easy to see how people with these characteristics can be destructive to an organizational culture. In their less pathological form, some narcissistic characteristics can help people rise quickly in an organization; but in the long term, their self-centered, superficial, and manipulative characteristics do turn people against them.
Psychopathy and sociopathy are related terms, sometimes now referred to as antisocial personality disorder. As with other such disorders, they are deep-seated and quite resistant to change. Psychopathy is characterized by lack of concern for others, disregard for social norms, low tolerance for frustration, and a keen ability to rationalize problems by finding blame elsewhere. Psychopaths do not experience guilt, and consequently don’t learn much from punishment. They are thrill seeking and impulsive. The worst cases of psychopathy rarely make it to the executive suite, because their antisocial behaviors usually serve to remove them from the path for succession and progression in most organizations. However, as with Machiavellianism, milder and more attenuated expressions of their deeper nature can sometimes give them a competitive advantage. A charming psychopath can do a great deal of damage in an organization, especially if he or she is brighter than average.
Other individual factors related to organizational dysfunction
Locus of Control
Locus of control, a concept first defined and researched by psychologist Julian Rotter, refers to the belief that we control our lives by our own actions (internals) or that we’re mostly at the whim of outside forces (externals). Note that this has nothing to do with the normal personality traits of introversion or extraversion that will be discussed a little later.
Internally-controlled people are more satisfied with their jobs, have a more favorable attitude towards their managers, and feel better about salary increases and career advancement. They see themselves as more in charge of their own destiny and as responsible for their own actions. They are less likely to succumb to negative peer pressure. When motivated by positive factors, they have a strong moral compass.
Externally-controlled people are likely to believe more in luck and happenstance than in their own ability to make things happen. They feel that their own efforts do not significantly affect outcomes. They are more likely to see themselves as victims and, because of this, more likely to justify “getting even” thinking, which leads to bad behavior.
We can measure this factor, but as with Machiavellianism, the test for it is easy to manipulate. Rotter’s original IE scale, if applied to a work environment, would have candidates indicate whether they agree or disagree with such statements as “Promotions come to those who do a good job.” Most people would rightly assume that if you want the job, you should agree with these types of statements. If using such a test as a selection tool, you’re selecting for higher intelligence, but perhaps not much else. For selection purposes, the methods to estimate this characteristic must be more subtle than tests that have been used for research on it. Moreover, because most people in executive ranks score in the internal control direction anyway, it would not be particularly useful.
Cognitive Moral Development (CMD)
A helpful framework through which to view moral and ethical decision-making is offered by psychologist James Rest. His model describes four basic components of moral decision-making: identifying it as a moral issue; making a moral judgment about it; focusing on how to deal with it; and taking the appropriate action. This model makes use of the developmental stage framework for moral reasoning suggested by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. He outlined six stages, from Stage One (recognition only of oneself, the perspective of the infant) to Stage Six (recognition and adherence to universal ethical principles) as the basis for ethical behavior. People who have reached the higher stages of CMD make better ethical decisions.
The traditional way to measure this factor is to present a scenario with a dilemma of competing values, such as determining the rightness or wrongness of stealing something from someone who owns it, to help someone whose life depends on getting it. This is cumbersome in a selection situation, and of questionable value, because it is more of a surface competency. That is, people can learn to think differently about complex issues when given the proper training and perspective. Therefore, ethical decision-making is better addressed in training than used as a selection factor, unless there are blatantly obvious signs of problems. If you’re selecting for intelligence, you also indirectly help to increase the overall cognitive moral development of the organization, because brighter people are able to understand the subtleties of ethical issues more readily than those who aren’t as gifted, as long as they have the proper instruction. Remember, select for the foundation competency (the Intellectual Competency, in this case) and train for the surface competency (CMD).
Just a few bad apples will spoil any team. Left unchecked, they can wreck a good corporate culture. Get rid of lazy, incompetent, or toxic people. Better yet, don’t hire them in the first place. Just as there are consistent characteristics of good people, there are also consistent characteristics of people who can harm an organization. These include the “dark triad” of pathology – Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism. These factors are related to a general inclination towards aggression. People who have a sense of personal control over their environment and people who can understand some of the subtleties of ethical decisions make better employees.