Paddy Upton

Psychopaths: Snakes in the team room

Psychopaths in business, politics and sport

‘Corporate psychopaths’ are possibly the biggest threat facing modern-day business, politics and sport; where they currently flourish and are highly rewarded.

During three previous professional assignments, I found myself being highly frustrated as I tried, woefully unsuccessfully, to manage a uniquely destructive individual. Each was highly successful, well respected in their field and admired by many (except the few who worked closely with them). They were also uniquely manipulative and destructive. Eventually the environment around them became untenable, soul destroying and often impossible for others to survive in.

On each occasion I spent an inordinate amount of my time thinking about how to help the individual to lead in a more constructive manner. Nothing seemed to work. I found myself doubting my professional ability and wondering what the hell I was missing?

More than 10 years later the penny dropped. Sometime, whilst working with the third such individual, I remembered a strange thing the Professor Tim Noakes once said years back about Hansie Cronje – that he suspected Cronje was a psychopath*. It never resonated with me at the time because I thought I knew Hansie well and had a high regard for him. Although his involvement in match-fixing never quite made sense?

Psychopaths, for me, were callous murderers who tortured animals as young children. Not Hansie. And then I learnt that psychopaths could show up either as criminals or as highly intelligent and successful ‘corporate psychopaths’.

I wish I had known about this cunningly destructive animal earlier. It may have saved me much wasted time and energy, and unnecessary frustration, confusion and illness. As I began researching the corporate psychopath, I was surprised to learn that several colleagues, friends and acquaintances also had endured harrowing experiences with a charmingly tyrannical boss. I was far from alone. The most worrisome discovery I made was how abundant they are in society; one in 100 people is a psychopath, amongst business leaders they are one in 25 and they are even more common in certain industries. Although there doesn’t seem to be any research on psychopaths in sport, it is highly likely they also exist in this field.

Despite their common occurrence, psychopaths operate quite successfully and largely unnoticed. Harvard Medical School psychologist Martha Stout says that, “People see psychopathy in their personal lives, and they don’t have a clue that it has a label or that others have encountered it.” Corporate psychopath researcher Clive Boddy suggests that “they present as very likable people and lead us to believe that they are our friends. Then one day, we wake up too late finding ourselves a victim of their conniving ways”.

Who are they?

To the casual observer they are intelligent, charming, charismatic, have alluring personalities and appear very friendly. They are brilliant at creative or strategic thinking. They have outstanding communication skills and are highly persuasive, making it easy for them to inspire and manipulate others. They have an uncanny ability to spot and exploit a weakness in a person or a loophole in a system. They have massive self-belief, operate well amidst chaos, are calm and unemotional under high pressure and make difficult decisions with remarkable ease. They do whatever it takes to win.

Most of these attributes are sought-after leadership skills, and thus undetected by most people, the psychopath cleverly navigates their way to high-ranking positions in business or political structures, or to the top of their sport. They make all the right moves, charm their superiors into rewarding and promoting them and accumulate all the right contacts. Up until this point their strengths work for them, and even for others. And then the shit starts.

The further a psychopath rises up the corporate ladder or hierarchical structures, the more they are able to accumulate power, status and money. They have a grandiose sense of self-worth, and are entirely self-serving. They will do as they please and take what they want by lying, cheating, deceiving and breaking rules and laws. They will callously use, abuse and manipulate others, particularly subordinates, as pawns in their own game. They operate without guilt, shame or remorse. Regardless of the chaos, damage or hurt they cause to people and organisations, they do not take any responsibility for their actions.

The following are the eight main characteristics of a ‘corporate psychopath’, according to Professor Robert Hare, a psychologist and the world’s leading authority on psychopaths**.

• Glibness/superficial charm
• Grandiose sense of self-worth
• Pathological lying
• Cunning/manipulative
• Lack of remorse or guilt
• Emotionally shallow
• Callous/lack of empathy
• Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Psychopaths in business and politics

Corporate psychopaths seek positions that give them access to power over others and the chance to get things for themselves. Financial institutions, stock exchanges and IT companies are amongst the most fertile environments for them to flourish. As long as they deliver profits and raise stock prices, most corporations are willing to overlook their manipulative, deceitful, callous, verbally and psychologically abusive and exploitative ways. An ex-CEO of one of the biggest investment banks in the world admitted that they used psychometric testing to recruit corporate psychopaths because their characteristics were perfect for senior corporate finance roles! They make great salesmen and can sell ice to Eskimos with their smooth talking, manipulative, guilt-free and not entirely honest ways.

Clive Boddy attests that the 2008 global credit crunch that continues to unsettle the world today, was caused by corporate psychopaths. He showed how a handful of rogue executives in influential positions traded ruthlessly and recklessly with other people’s money and livelihoods to feed their own power and greed, inflicting untold pain, suffering and destruction. Most of the perpetrators still believe they did nothing wrong and refuse to take any responsibility. Some even managed to convince governments to bail their companies out.

University of Surrey research on 39 high-level British executives showed that they were more likely to be superficially charming, egocentric, insincere, and manipulative, and just as likely to be grandiose, exploitative, and lacking in empathy as criminals and psychiatric patients. The criminals only scored higher on being impulsive and physically aggressive.

Politics is another fertile ground for psychopaths. Their position gives them power over others and access to money. They rise fast thanks to their excellent communication skills, strategic thinking abilities and charm which is accompanied by clever yet pathological lying, manipulation and deception. Once in power they are able to make themselves largely untouchable, while serving their own interests. Their lie-to-your-face whilst deceiving-behind-your-back behaviour spans building their personal empires and off-shore bank accounts to leading genocides and major atrocities against fellow humans. Callously and without any remorse, they bring countries and economies to their knees. Researchers point to Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic as examples as well as to some current heads of state.

Much of modern day politics is psychopathic in its very nature. Truth is pathologically twisted, being glib and manipulative is commonplace, words and smiles are false and superficial, yet behind closed doors malice, back-stabbing, corruption, being self-serving and abuse of power is equally commonplace and in some cases even acceptable. Corrupt politicians are left licking their lips.

Psychopaths in sport

There is little if any research into the existence of psychopaths in sport. It was unsettling to venture into this terrain as nobody wants to find dragons in their favorite playground. The unavoidable truth is that psychopaths exist in sport, as players and as administrators.

They not only exist, but also thrive. With massive self-belief, they will not stop at anything in order to win, are excellent strategic thinkers and can spot and exploit weaknesses in opponents. They play and win mind games. They get the best out of their teammates through positive manipulation, knowing which buttons to push and what to say to them to motivate and encourage. They know who to charm and how to impress. Being emotionally shallow, they are fearless and remain relaxed and calm under the highest pressure. All these positive attributes support them to become highly successful, gain a huge fan base and be very popular with sponsors and admiring businessmen.

As their power increases, their negative attributes become more visible, often after it’s too late to do anything about it. While their adoring fans have no idea of their condition, their teammates would tell a story you would not believe, nor want to believe. They might share frustrations of an increasingly arrogant and manipulative individual who became less and less of a team player as he moved to serve his own selfish needs, often at the expense of others. They may speak of someone they struggled to connect with, of someone greedy for power and of a two-faced liar who they couldn’t trust. They may also tell of a seeming absence of guilt and remorse.

Their behaviour can create so much negativity in a team that the majority of the other people’s energy goes towards limiting the damage rather than driving success. In one assignment I estimate that over 90% of my input went towards repairing damage and trying to lift colleagues who had become frustrated, angry, demotivated or resigned. Team morale went down, enjoyment went out the window, communication decreased and the team became divided. Performance declined accordingly. In this type of environment the only person left thriving is the psychopath, believing that all around him are incapable and deluding himself that he alone is keeping the boat afloat. This environment is exhausting and soul destroying and eventually can lead to a ‘normal’ person becoming mentally, emotionally and/or physically ill.

The reality, however, is that their teammate would never tell this story. No one other than their immediate teammates would believe them as the psychopath is a superstar in the eyes of the outside world. Often the whistleblower is at risk of being labeled as the sick, bitter or twisted one. I remember the backlash at the time Professor Noakes suggested Hansie Cronje was a psychopath. When exposed, psychopaths are experts at publicly discrediting and intimidating the whistleblower and turning the world against them. Professor Hare contends that they are experts in making other people look bad, crazy or deluded.

The one way that they may be found out though, is through their lying and cheating ways. They break rules and thus will readily involve themselves in match-fixing, taking performance enhancing drugs or other means of corruption, regardless of how successful or how rich they might already be. They do not believe they are doing wrong. Unfortunately their web of deceit is weaved so wide, they often end up taking their team and even their sport down with them. When caught, they will deny, lie, manipulate, launch attacks, serve legal notices and blame others whilst not taking any responsibility for their actions. When Hansie Cronje was caught red-handed for match-fixing, he first denied his involvement and then blamed the devil. At no point did he show any remorse towards the vulnerable teammates who he manipulated into his web of deceit, which ended up ruining some of their careers and lives.

At this point, my guess would be that almost everyone who has read this far and who has followed the case against him, would have thought of the name Lance Armstrong.

He was the ultimate hero, a role model for everyone, the greatest cyclist and maybe even the greatest sportsman that ever lived. He was the cancer survivor and cancer champion who put both cycling and the fight against cancer on the world map. He was also the ringleader of the most sophisticated international doping programme sport has ever seen.

He cheated, lied and bullied his way to winning seven Tour de France titles, and when threatened with being exposed, he covered his tracks, intimidated witnesses and lied to hearing panels and to the world.

Armstrong claims that evidence of his doping and intimidation scheme, provided by 26 people, including 11 of his former teammates, is fabricated. He maintains that he never lied and he vehemently denies having ever doped.

The prosecution suggests that some of the most shocking evidence was Armstrong’s vindictive, mendacious, vicious character. One report suggested, “He comes across less like a cyclist, more like a psychopath”. Those who dealt closely with him suggested Lance’s strong-arm tactics could be likened to the Mafia.

He forced teammates to follow drug programmes so they could help him win, threatening to fire them from the team if they didn’t. He paid Michele Ferrari, one of the world’s leading doping doctors nearly 1 Million dollars over his career. He flew in private jets, but cut people from his team ‘to save money’. Armstrong ruthlessly threatened anyone who moved to expose him or his collaborators, bullying teammates, journalists and fellow professional cyclists. When team masseur Emma O’Reilly, who helped his drug-taking testified against him, he called her an alcoholic and prostitute in court and set out to make her life a living hell. In 2011 he threatened ex-teammate Tyler Hamilton telling him, “when you’re on the witness stand, we’re going to f___ tear you apart. You are going to look like a f_____ idiot.” Hamilton sums him up, “Lance used his power to flout the rules, lie to the world, make millions and walk away scott free.”

Armstrong is still in denial. He remains, like all corporate psychopaths, completely unapologetic and wholly unconcerned about the impact of his actions on the people around him or on his sport. He continues to lie, feel no shame, admit any wrongdoing nor ask any forgiveness.

Armstrong’s first public statements since his banning will be aired on Oprah on 17 January 2013, via a pre-recorded interview with her. Whatever the world hears, it will be very clever, very strategic and very much on Armstrong’s terms.

What Lance Armstrong is to cycling, megalomaniac businessmen are to economies and lying politicians are to countries. Empires have already fallen, and will continue to do so if changes aren’t made to the way we choose our leaders.
Ignore, tolerate or promote psychopaths at everyone’s peril.

What to do about them?
Get rid of them: This option may be very difficult, but keeping them on is downright dangerous.
If you can’t get rid of them, then get yourself out: This may also be difficult, but the cost on your mental, emotional and physical health will be too high if you don’t. One researcher suggests that the only way to deal with a powerful corporate psychopath is to move to another country.
Screen for them: A more preventative measure is to screen when appointing people into influential positions in business, politics, religion and sport where the risk of psychopathy is greatest. This said the risk amongst business leaders is already one in 25! Some countries already screen policemen and teachers for psychopathy.

* I cannot say that Hansie or any of the three individuals I referred to were/are psychopaths, but their behaviour did lead me to this research

** It takes a trained professional to diagnose the condition. Psychologists caution against a non-professional or over-simplistic labeling of someone as a psychopath.

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