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Corporate Psychopaths - 30 August 2012

Back in the 90s, psychology professors at Harvard University conducted one of the most famous experiments of all time. They asked students to observe a video in which they were instructed to count how many times the players wearing white passed basketballs to each other.

Before reading on, please take a moment to watch the video, which lasts less than 90 seconds.

Did you notice the gorilla? Or did you miss it? If you fell into the latter category, you’re not alone. More than 50 per cent of students who participated in the experiment totally missed it. And they missed it because of something called inattentional blindness.

Inattentional blindness is when you fail to notice something even when it’s really obvious. And the reason we miss it is because our minds are too full concentrating on other stuff. We’re so overloaded with cognitive inputs that there’s very little attention left to see even things that are in plain sight.

Here’s what this has to do with corporate psychopaths. If you have one in your team, chances are you don’t know it. You don’t know it because of inattentional blindness. That doesn’t mean you’re neglectful or uncaring. It just means you’re unlikely to notice it because your mind is preoccupied with so much other stuff … and also because the psychopath is exceptionally good at disguising his (or her) true self from people that matter.

The corporate psychopath is the metaphorical gorilla. She’s staring you in the face. Or he’s beating his chest. But to key influencers and VIPs, the psychopath is charming and charismatic. The psychopath is one of your best performers. The psychopath is often the person you’d least expect to be tormenting people behind the scenes.

To manage the situation, it helps to be aware of the four causes of inattentional blindness.

Conspicuity: This refers to the ability of something to capture your attention. Most of us are never on the lookout for a corporate psychopath unless we’re personally confronted by it. So, be cognisant of the signs that one might be lurking within your team. In particular, keep an eye out for sudden changes in attitude or performance by employees who might be victims.

Mental workload: This relates to how much stuff is in your head. We can only focus on so many things, and that means more important factors are reprioritised and sometimes forgotten. So, block out some time in your diary during which you just clear your mind and reflect. Use it as a quiet period for you to consider what you haven’t considered.

Expectation: When you expect something to happen, such as people wearing white shirts throwing basketballs to each other, you’re less likely to spot the unexpected. So, expect what the statistics tell us about corporate psychopaths. They constitute 1 per cent of the workforce. Look out for that one in a hundred.

Capacity: This is in regards to presence. You’re more likely to be prone to inattentional blindness if you’re always in meetings, or located on a different site, or withdrawn from interaction with your employees. The greater allowances you make for being there, the higher your chances of spotting things that aren’t quite right.

Keep in mind, though, that corporate psychopaths are very different to workplace bullies. Bullies can be coached to improve their behaviour and communication skills. Much of the evidence on corporate psychopaths, however, indicates they can’t be cured. In fact, upon being identified and counselled, psychopaths usually become worse. They go underground, and become more sinister, as they seek to extract greater revenge.

The best thing you can do – if you’re certain you have a corporate psychopath on your hands – is to get them out of the organisation as quickly as possible. It’s hard to tame a gorilla.

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