I remember every time a question or statement like that was made – in all innocence, of course, because they were only trying to understand the unthinkable truth – I felt the emotional blows to my chest and my stomach as if they were real. Over and over, the shame and guilt would be relived as people screwed up their faces trying to make sense of what I knew to be the truth “but surely, Mel, a bright and intelligent person like you, surely you must have known something was going on?” “How can anyone tell so many lies for so long – it must have been exhausting!” Many times I felt like screaming out loud… although on most occasions I decided that calm responses would serve me better in the long run! Yes, I am bright and intelligent (although there were times I began to wonder whether perhaps I might have been better understood had I been deemed slow and dim-witted!) and yes, lying is exhausting for the likes of normal people. But as everyone here knows, we’re not dealing with a ‘normal person’ – these people simply don’t tick the way we do!
We’re NOT All The Same!
As is often discussed here on this site, we don’t know what we don’t know… and the fact is, in order to learn new things, people need to find something – anything – to connect with something they already know. It’s like finding a foundation stone, or a solid piece of ground from which to start…. The difficulty with explaining the psychopath, though, is that while they may look like us and often come across better than many normal people, that is where the likeness ends. So people who are doing their best to understand, automatically link the appearance of a normal person with what they know to be the behaviours of a normal person – specifically themselves, or people they know. And unless someone has already been targeted by a psychopath, the idea that such ‘creatures’ exist and influence others in such a negative way is often pooh-poohed as being far fetched. As if such a notion is as ridiculous as early childhood fears about bogeymen and monsters under the bed.
I remember many times feeling certain that well-meaning people were quietly calling my own sanity in to question “well, you’ve been through an awful lot – perhaps you’re over-reacting a bit? It’s understandable, of course… I’d do the same… but perhaps, you know, it’s not as bad as you think…?” I knew at the time that they meant no harm. That their kind eyes and hugs were meant to reassure me… but each time I heard words like that, it would be another kick in the teeth and I’d shut up and hide myself away even further – becoming more and more determined, absolutely resolutely and passionately determined, that some day I’d tell every detail of my story so that I would be heard and believed. Certain that in doing so, not only would I vindicate myself, but that my actions would also provide others with a platform to identify with and make sense of their own experiences. I’m coming to realize, though, that this is just the start.
The Parasitic Predator
In my professional career, I work in the field of leadership development. This means that I am regularly exposed to top-level directors and managers within large organizations. According to Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s recent study of more than 200 executives, nearly 4% scored at or above the traditional cut-off for psychopathy. Dr Babiak uses the phrase ‘parasitic predator’ to describe corporate psychopaths, saying “They are parasitic in that they are looking for a host to support them. A big company is an easy place in which to hide” Couple that with the fact that many leadership skills can arguably be translated in to psychopathic traits, it makes even more sense that this level of professionals could indeed include around four times the number of psychopaths than research suggests we should expect to find in every day life. In the corporate world where profit is king and ruthless decision-making can be viewed as a positive if not necessary attribute for successful leaders, it makes perfect sense to me that psychopaths should be attracted to this arena.
It also makes perfect sense to me that, with an increasing awareness about psychopathy thanks to the work of people like Dr Robert Hare, and the growing audiences on sites like Lovefraud and I Am Fishead, people are finally starting to wake up and smell the coffee. Not as much as I’m sure most of us here would like – but it’s a start. Take for example the scathing resignation letter by Greg Smith, the executive who worked for nearly 12 years at Goldman Sachs. Whatever the gentleman’s reasons for writing the letter, he clearly stated the existence of unethical, immoral and callous tactics that he alleges were used by employees of the firm. Regardless of where the ‘blame’ lies, I for one am pleased that truths like these are being aired – allowing people more opportunities to vote with their feet, and also to become curious as to what is meant by a bad or ‘toxic’ culture. Along the old adage that no publicity is bad publicity, I buy into the idea that the more these issues are talked about, the more people can choose to find out more – and that, surely, can only be a good thing.
Because it’s a tough job getting people in senior positions to understand and accept exactly how damaging continuing actions of some of their peers can be – to the staff, to the culture and ultimately to the business. I came across a specific case last year, where it was perfectly clear to me that one particular senior person was creating havoc within her department. She was one of those people who knew all the right things to say and could turn on the charm at any given moment. Her bosses adored her, believing her to be the best thing since sliced bread, and her peers admired her business knowledge (marveling at her experience and buying her rather off-the-wall strategy for the business). Her team, though, was terrified of her. When I asked them on a confidential one-to-one basis how they would describe the culture, their eyes would dart around the room, they’d shift in their seats and they’d ask me how confidential their answers were going to be kept. After a great deal of reassurances, I got the truth – both barrels. As these people talked, words such as “fear-based” “abusive” “bullying” and “controlling” came out time and time again.
That, in my opinion, was bad enough. But when the performance of this particular department was actually scrutinized for factual proof of performance, it turned out that the results had plummeted since this lady had taken over – despite her consistent and eloquent affirmations that her plan was working! I found it baffling to understand how she was able to maintain her position – and what was stopping her peers and her immediate bosses from seeing through her performance. Until, that is, I started talking with them and really hearing what they were saying.
I Thought It Was Me!
Yes, they’d heard the rumours and had of course realised that the figures were not stacking up to the original plan. They also knew that it was difficult to stand up to this person in meetings, as she would shout people down and baffle them with long-winded justifications about what she was doing and why they need to stick with the plan. The entire team, not just those who worked under this person, had learned to walk on eggshells around her. This had been going on for so long that many of them had simply given up any idea of questioning her tactics – because it had become just too draining and too much hard work. “And anyway” whispered one of her peers when the truth started to emerge “I thought it was just me! I thought I was the one being stupid! I thought that I just wasn’t bright enough to understand the plan!”
It was a Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment for me. Well of course people are going to find it hard to stand up to people who are highly likely psychopathic – in exactly the same way it was difficult for me to break free, or even realize what was happening. Even after the truth became clear, there has still been (and continues to be) a long journey back to health and self-respect. So I can fully appreciate that it may seem the ‘easier’ route to just let things continue, particularly in the workplace where (in many cases) you can leave it all behind when you leave at the end of the day… better the devil you know eh?
Well no actually. The devil you know is certainly not the best option in my opinion. Because if we don’t stand up and do something when something is clearly wrong, well then we’re giving the message that this kind of behaviour and culture is ok. It’s in these kind of places that the good people tend to walk away when they realize what’s happening. These are the kind of places where the workforce that is left is emotionally shut down and just there to get through the day rather than being there to develop enthusiasm and passion for the business.
But you know what I’m realising? I’m realising that when people begin to understand and consciously embrace positive team and leadership behaviours, the ‘devil you know’ is suddenly left out on their own – because they can no longer thrive or manipulate when their peers and bosses are learning about honest and open communication. When the team trust each other enough to say “no” whenever inappropriate behaviour creeps back in. When they are confident enough to ask each other to explain the detail when something is not clear. With those behaviours becoming second nature, the psychopath’s manipulation and mind-games are suddenly ineffective – because fear is replaced with trust, silence with questions, and uncertainty with passion.
And I’m learning that there is no need to point the finger or even use the word psychopath – which, in a corporate environment can create some pretty big responses. No. The fact is, the more we as ‘normal’ people learn to step up and say “yes” to the good stuff (the things we like, that are healthy, that enable us to grow as individuals and as a collective) and say “no” to the bad stuff (fear, control, manipulation and deliberately confusing word-smithing) the less psychopaths will be able to thrive among us.
And you know what? It only works