30 November 2011

The Other One Percent: Corporate Psychopaths and the Global Financial Crisis

Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporation has seen the empty suits that seem to inexplicably rise to positions of power.  They talk a great game, possessing extraordinary verbal acuity, and often with an amazing ability to rise quickly without significant accomplishments to positions of great personal power, and often using it ruthlessly once it is achieved.

Their ruthless obsession with power and its visible rewards rises above the general level of narcissism and sycophancy that often plagues large organizations, especially those with an established franchise where performance is not as much of an issue as collecting their rents.

And anyone who has been on the inside of the national political process knows this is certainly nothing exclusive to the corporate world.

Here is a paper recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics that hypothesizes along these lines. It is only a preliminary paper, lacking in full scholarship and a cycle of peer review.

But it raises a very important subject. Organizational theories such as the efficient markets hypothesis that assume rational behaviour on the part of market participants tends to fall apart in the presence of the irrational and selfish short term focus of a significant minority of people who seek power, much less the top one percent of the psychologically ruthless.

Indeed, not only was previously unheard of behaviour allowed, it became quite fashionable and desired in certain sections of American management where ruthless pursuit of profits at any cost was highly prized and rewarded.  And if caught, well, only the little people must pay for their transgressions.  The glass ceiling becomes a floor above which the ordinary rules do not apply.

If you wish to determine the character of a generation or a people, look to their heroes, leaders, and role models.
This is nothing new, but a lesson from history that has been unlearned. The entire system of checks and balances, of rule of law, of transparency in government, of accountability and personal honor, is based on the premise that one cannot always count on people to be naturally good and self-effacing. And further, that at times it seems that a relatively small group of corrupt people can rise to power, and harm the very fabric of a society.

‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’

Edmund Burke

'And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that.'

Lord Acton

These things tend to go in cycles.  It will be interesting to see how this line of analysis progresses. I am sure we all have a few candidates we would like to submit for testing.   No one is perfect or even perfectly average.  But systems that assume as much are more dangerous than standing armies, since like finds like, and dishonesty and fraud can become epidemic in an organization and a corporate culture, finally undermining the very law and principle of stewardship itself. 

'Our government...teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.'

Louis D. Brandeis

MF Global, and the reaction to it thus far, is one of the better examples of shocking behaviour that lately seems to be tolerated, ignored,  and all too often met with weak excuses and lame promises to do better next time, while continuing on as before.

"These corporate collapses have gathered pace in recent years, especially in the western world, and have culminated in the Global Financial Crisis that we are now in.

In watching these events unfold it often appears that the senior directors involved walk away with a clean conscience and huge amounts of money. Further, they seem to be unaffected by the corporate collapses they have created. They present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings, and investments, and as lacking any regrets about what they have done.

They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events are very persuasive in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own continued worth and value. They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disasters.

Many of these people display several of the characteristics of psychopaths and some of them are undoubtedly true psychopaths. Psychopaths are the 1% of people who have no conscience or empathy and who do not care for anyone other than themselves.

Some psychopaths are violent and end up in jail, others forge careers in corporations. The latter group who forge successful corporate careers is called Corporate Psychopaths...

Psychologists have argued that Corporate Psychopaths within organizations may be singled out for rapid promotion because of their polish, charm, and cool decisiveness. Expert commentators on the rise of Corporate Psychopaths within modern corporations have also hypothesized that they are more likely to be found at the top of current organisations than at the bottom.

Further, that if this is the case, then this phenomenon will have dire consequences for the organisations concerned and for the societies in which those organisations are based. Since this prediction of dire consequences was made the Global Financial Crisis has come about.

Research by Babiak and Hare in the USA, Board and Fritzon in the UK and in Australia has shown that psychopaths are indeed to be found at greater levels of incidence at senior levels of organisations than they are at junior levels (Boddy et al., 2010a). There is also some evidence that they may tend to join some types of organisations rather than others and that, for example, large financial organisations may be attractive to them because of the potential rewards on offer in these organizations."

Clive R. Boddy, The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis, Journal of Business Ethics, 2011