Friday, May 31, 2013

Denial Part 2: Why Would He/She Do Something Like That?

The Sociopath Next Door
To make this a Trifecta, I’ll finish up the last week’s focus on mental health issues by discussing a book I read many years ago but which has had a strong influence on how I see the behavior of others around me.  In The Sociopath Next Door, Dr. Martha Stout estimates that 4 percent of “ordinary” people, one in 25, can be classified as sociopaths. 

What does this mean?  First and foremost, it means that they have no conscience.  They can do whatever they want and feel no guilt or remorse whatsoever.  In case you’re thinking that sociopaths are all serial killers, rapists, and child abductors, nothing could be further from the truth.  They are everywhere, in every industry, profession, calling and walk of life. They live in the same world you do but their reality is very, very different.

When I first read this statistic, along with Dr. Stout's descriptions of sociopathic personalities, it occurred to me that I must know people like this.  In fact,I probably worked with some of them.  And as soon as I realized that, the names came flooding in.  The people who behaved in inexplicable and appalling ways, the ones who seemed to enjoy causing confusion and difficulty, who manipulated people to his/her benefit with no regard for the consequences to others, who took pleasure in creating discomfiture or even real fear.  You know, the ones about whom you have asked, “How could he/she do something like that?”

Here’s how Dr. Stout describes a sociopath in the business world:  “Maybe you cannot be the CEO of a multinational corporation, but you can frighten a few people, or cause them to scurry around like chickens, or steal from them, or—best of all—create situations that cause them to feel bad about themselves.  And this is power, especially when the people you manipulate are superior to you in some way.  Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable.  This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance.  And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do.  You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’s boss, cry some crocodile tears, or sabotage a coworker’s project, or gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.”

Sound like anyone you know? 

Chainsaw Al Dunlap
"Chainsaw Al" Dunlap
Sometimes, of course, they can be the CEO or its equivalent.  Think of Bernie Madoff, who stole from people of his own faith and defrauded charities.  He was a hero and a billionaire until it all crashed down around him.  Or Robert Campeau, who was given power and money despite a spectacular lack of qualifications and bankrupted 250+ profitable department storesHis career began with forged documents.  Or “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, who earned his nickname by making a career of ripping through companies, laying off thousands of hardworking and dedicated employees.  Wall Street rewarded his “turn-arounds” with higher valuations and stock prices.  He claimed to tell only the brutal truth but, ultimately, the resume that gave him access to such power was exposed as fraudulent. 

The connection is so strong that in June of 2011, Forbes magazine published an article called “Why (Some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs.”  In it, British Journalist Jon Ronson says of Mr. Dunlap, “There was his reputation that he was a man who seemed to enjoy firing people, not to mention the stories from his first marriage — telling his first wife he wanted to know what human flesh tastes like, not going to his parents’ funerals. Then you realize that because of this dysfunctional capitalistic society we live in those things were positives. He was hailed and given high-powered jobs, and the more ruthlessly his administration behaved, the more his share price shot up.”

Unlike the people in my posts about untreated, seriously mentally ill people, or unacknowledged and unmedicated co-workers, sociopaths are not treatable.  No psycho-pharmacological regimen can grow them a conscience and neurosurgery can't implant empathy for others.  The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath in the workplace (or anywhere) is to avoid denial and acknowledge their presence. 

Dr. Stout offers this advice:

(The book provides more detail for each of the 13 points.)
  1. The first rule involves the bitter pill of accepting that some people literally have no conscience.
  2. In a contest between your instincts and what is implied by the role a person has taken on—educator, doctor, leader, animal lover, humanist, parent—go with your instincts.
  3. When considering a new relationship or any kind, practice the Rule of Three regarding the claims and promises a person makes and the responsibilities she has.  Make the Rule of Three your personal policy. (One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding instead.  Two may involved a serious mistake. But three says you’re dealing with a liar and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behavior.)
  4. Question authority.
  5. Suspect flattery.
  6. If necessary, redefine your concept of respect.
  7. Do not join the game.
  8. The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication.
  9. Question your tendency to pity too easily.
  10. Do not try to redeem the unredeemable.
  11. Never agree, out of pit or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character.
  12. Defend your psyche.
  13. Living well is the best revenge.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond
Ernst Stavro Blofeld
The late Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, said it more succinctly:  “Once is happenstance.  Twice is coincidence.  Three times is enemy action.”  The sociopaths among us may not plot destruction from a laboratory atop an alpine peak, or stroke a white cat while they issue orders to heavily armed underlings but that does not make them any less destructive to those who are trapped in the same workplace. 

When detecting a sociopath, the first clue is typically asking that question, "Why would he/she do something like that?"  When that happens a red flag should go up.  Then I have my own three rules:
  1. Pay attention to strange behavior.
  2. Do not assume the person is normal or thinks like a normal person.
  3. As soon as you can, run.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Denial in the Workforce: Does That Executive Seem Normal to You?

As I said in my previous post about untreated mental illness, denial is powerful.   We as a society have a deeply rooted need to think that the people around us are normal or, to use the new term, neurotypical.   After all, we consider ourselves normal so we expect our co-workers to be as well.  The problem is that many people fit somewhere on an atypical neural pattern:  ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, paranoia, autism, OCD, bipolar, borderline personality and even sociopathy.  Just because they haven’t been diagnosed, or haven’t told you that they have been diagnosed, doesn’t mean they’re neurotypical.  When one of these folks does something abnormal, we are thrown for a loop and wonder how that person could have done anything so bizarre or hurtful. 

Cheetos, office
Overdosing on Cheetos
In my career in the high-tech industry, I have met many such folks.  I have worked for some of them, had others as my peers in the organization, and had several report directly to me.  After so many years, I have come to believe that they gravitate to high-tech because it’s very forgiving of people who are smart but behave differently.  The problem is that there are many kinds of different—a spectrum of odd behavior that may fit into one or more of the syndromes listed above.  The software developer who wears bedroom slippers to work and sits in his cube pulling at his hair and eating Cheetos® all day probably fits somewhere on one spectrum or another but is harmless to his co-workers and to the company. 

The CEO, president, VP, or COO who exhibits atypical behavior is far more dangerous, however.  I’m not talking about gun-toting homicidal actions but rather the kinds of decisions that have a deleterious effect on the organization, the employees, and the bottom line.  While not exactly a secret, this is something that is seldom talked about except in an off-hand way.  People in the cafeteria might say that he (It’s almost always a he in the high-tech industry.) did something really crazy yesterday, but they’re only using hyperbole.  They are caught in the denial trap of needing to believe that the CEO or their boss is really normal; he just happened to do something weird.  It's too scary to think otherwise.

Think again.

I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV, but in my career I have experienced a lot of behavior that fits into either one of these categories or possibly another one that I have never heard of.  I’m not talking about the pretty normal guy who, frustrated by the new telephone system, threw his office phone across the room and dented the far wall.  Neither am I talking about oversized egos, self-aggrandizing actions, or vaunting ambition at the expense of others, even though these are all too common. 

It’s worse than that.  By way of illustration, I have:
  • Reported to a VP who would go on walkabout without warning.  I would go to get him for a meeting with a major industry analyst only to find his office empty and his cell phone on his desk.  I would then scour the office and even send someone into the men’s room to no avail.  When he returned and learned that he had missed an important meeting, he would look sheepish but offer neither explanation nor apology. This happened more than once and conversations with someone who knew him at a previous company uncovered the fact that he used to do it there as well.
  • Reported to a man who could only act when his adrenaline was flowing and a deadline was looming.  Incapable of planning ahead or getting an early start, he would procrastinate until the last minute, forcing everyone on his team to work in crisis mode until late at night or over a weekend, regardless of our own schedules and deadlines.  (Not to mention family obligations.)
  • Reported to a VP who went into towering, foul-mouthed rages that terrified his own staff as well as many others around him.  Had I not taken over managing the people in his organization, he would have lost half of them in the first six months.  Once, angry with another member of the team, he stood in the man’s office and crushed an empty soda can in his large fist, saying, “This is your heart.”
  • Reported to a VP who would spend hours focusing on tiny details of a press release that had already been issued and posted on the website.  He would come into my office wondering if there should be a space in front of that hyphen in the second paragraph.  Meanwhile, I was working on his marketing plan and budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 
  • Worked with a woman who spent a great deal of time deviously undermining, undercutting, criticizing and bad-mouthing others in the company.  She really believed that she could do everyone else’s job better than they could even though she had absolutely no training or experience in their discipline.  Her behavior was so destructive and so vicious that co-workers—including members of the department she managed—were having novenas said so she would get pregnant and stay home. 
  • Prepared to make a presentation to a VP who was known for his “impatience.”  When I reviewed the presentation with my boss, he said, “It’s too long.  Drop half the slides.  You only have five minutes; after that he starts reading The Wall Street Journal.”
Do all these behaviors ring a bell?  Sure.  These folks had and have a problem that is either undiagnosed or unmedicated.  I know at least one who did not take his medication because he did not like the way it made him feel.  Another told me that he would rather die than change.  Their behavior is a problem for them and a problem for the people who work with them.  It’s often a big—but unrecognized or unacknowledged—problem for the company.

Mister Burns
Everyone Hates Mr. Burns
I have seen organizations demolished by “bad managers” who often exhibited behaviors associated by one diagnosable disorder or another.  Quantifying the damage is difficult because the people around or below such an executive either suffer in silence or bail out.  There is no benefit for the VP of Human Resources who measures how much the company has spent on employee churn created by an executive who was hand-picked by the CEO.  The board or venture capitalists don’t care if a member of the management team exhibits bizarre behavior unless there’s a possibility it could get them sued.  It’s vanishingly rare that a CEO, board member or VC would choose to even see abnormal behavior, much less do something about it.  

 It’s so much easier to deny, deny, deny. 

At times, I have felt that the high tech industry succeeds in spite of itself rather than because of its own accomplishments and this tolerance for destructive decisions and odd actions is a big reason why. Unfortunately, I don't see anything changing anytime soon.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Breaking the Mail-ware Chain: Every. Time.

This morning I received another chain email from a good friend who means well.  She had forwarded one of those sappy messages that wraps a not-so-veiled threat in a puppies-and-rainbows feel-good message.  These things are crafted by someone—probably a lot of different people—for purposes that have nothing to do with the content.  Let’s deconstruct the message to see how it works.

Don't Panic button
The subject line made me cautious immediately:  “There all true.”  Anyone who doesn’t understand the difference between “they’re,” and “there,” probably does not  have great words of wisdom for me.  Granted, I’m an intellectual snob, but proper use of language is important if you want to communicate accurately.   

So here’s how this email goes.  We start off with an order followed immediately by a nice statement and then a threat:

            Read this and I mean REALLY read this! 
            This is without a doubt one of the nicest good luck forwards I have received.  I hope it works for you – and me!  You have 6 minutes.

Say what?  Is the bomb ticking?  What if it takes me more than six minutes to REALLY read this?  Will my computer explode?  Let’s continue:

            There’s some mighty fineadvice in these words, even if you’re not superstitious.  This has been sent to you for good luck from the Anthony Robbins organization.  It has been sent around the world ten times so far.

Hmmm.  The Anthony Robbins “organization.”  Does this mean the Anthony Robbins Foundation or are the authors just trying to sound like it?  Two words are run together so someone did not proofread very well.  And I guess that I’m supposed to be impressed by the fact that it has been around the world 10 times.  But how did they measure that?  Is there an app for tracking the distance an email travels?  And from where to where?  If I send an email to someone in Tokyo, does that count as halfway around the world?

            Do not keep this message.

Oh, don’t worry about that. 

            This must leave your hands in 6 MINUTE.  Otherwise you will get a very unpleasant surprise.  This is true, even if you are not superstitious, agnostic, or otherwise faith impaired.

Wow.  The time limit for sending it on has been repeated and emphasized but they left the S off the word MINUTE, which reinforces my suspicion that the author speaks English as a second language.  The threat is also repeated.  I will get a very unpleasant surprise even if I don’t believe that will happen (I don’t), if I’m agnostic (God is behind the threat with a stopwatch in His hand), or if I’m otherwise faith impaired.  This paragraph is the first time that religion has been mentioned and it’s a pretty vague reference but I guess that might motivate someone who believes that God is actually tracking what I do with this email. 

What follows is a list of 21 uncontroversial statements that sound wise and profound.  They are designed to give the reader both a good feeling and also to give him/her a reason to pass the message along.  After all, without these statements, the message is really just orders and threats and who’s going to send something like that to 15 of their best friends?  Here’s a couple to give you an idea:

ONE.   Give people more than they expect and do it cheerfully.
FIVE.  When you say, “I’m sorry, look the person in the eye.
TEN:  In disagreements, fight fairly.  No name calling.
FIFTEEN:  Say ‘bless you’ when you hear someone sneeze.

See what I mean?  They sound good but there’s no real substance to them. 

Having sucked you in this far, the email moves on to the real instructions:       

     Now, here’s the FUN part!  Send this to at least five people and your life will improve

Umm, why will it improve?  Did Pope Francis bless this email?  Did the Dalai Lama meditate on it?  Did the author light candles, say a novena, fast for a month, or hoist prayer flags?  Why would I believe that this email--or any email--has the power to improve my life?  Well, the author thought about that and provided some seemingly quantitative rationale:

1 – 4 people:  your life will improve slightly
5 – 9 people:  your life will improve to your liking
9 – 14 people:  you will have at least 5 surprises in the next 3 weeks
 15 and above:  your life will improve drastically and everything you ever dreamed of will begin to take shape.   

Clearly, the author wants this email passed along to as many people as possible.  But why?  Hmmm.  Could it be that the email contains some kind of malware, like a keyboard logger or a way to steal email addresses?  Call me cynical, but somehow I think that getting hacked is a whole lot more likely than blessings raining down upon me. 

                A true friend is someone who reaches for your hand and touches your heart Do not keep this message.

Now we’re back to the mixed messages.  A statement aimed at making you feel the the true friend who will reach out to all his/her friends by forwarding this message is followed by the command not to keep it.  Well, why not?  If it’s so great, why not hold on to it and read it every day?  I’m just saying.  Oh, that missing period between sentences once again raises my suspicions about the source of this email.

This is without a doubt one of the nicest good luck forwards I have received.  Hope it works for you – and me!

Well, it’s not going to work for you, baby, because I’m not going to pass it on to anybody.  But it’s probably too late for me since I opened the email already.  I deleted it and emptied the trash but my system is probably toast by now.  Don’t be surprised if you receive some junk email from me in the next few days. And now the wrap up:

            You have 6 minutes.

In case you didn’t get the threat before, here it is again.  The author wants to reinforce the importance of you sending it out to as many friends as possible as quickly as possible.  Well, the six minutes are long gone and I don’t expect to experience any bad luck real soon.  Why?  Two reasons: (1) I already got the bad luck from opening this email, and (2) an email has no magical power to affect your life for better or worse.   It’s an email.  It’s probably also loaded with malware and there’s no good luck in that for anyone except the originator. 

Delete chain email
I have said this before and I’ll say it again:  Please don’t send me chain emails.  I will break everyone I receive every time.  I repeat:  Every. Time.  I feel good about doing this because I think chain emails are just a con job in an electronic medium.  Oh, and I have broken many of them but never experienced any bad luck or ill fortune as a result. 

I’ll finish up with the email’s number 18:  “Don’t let a little dispute injure a great friendship.”  I know my friend meant well in sending me this email.  Like most people who forward these things, she had no idea of its real content and intentions.  I hope she doesn’t take this post as criticism because that’s not its intention.  I do hope that you also take my example.  Break those fake feel-good chain emails every time.  Every.  Time.