The Psychopath Test, bosses, and Hillary Clinton

About 20 minutes after I heard author Jon Ronson interviewed on NPR about his book The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, I was on Amazon ordering a copy.

Photo of the cover of Jon Ronson's book, <em>The Psychopath Test.</em>

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

What grabbed my attention was a statistic Ronson quoted about the percentage of those among the general public who are clinical psychopaths versus the percentage of CEOs who are psychopaths. I don’t remember the ratios, but Ronson’s claim was that the percentage of CEO-psychopaths is significantly higher than the percentage among the general public.

This finding was exciting to me, not because it held any surprise, but because it meant I was right. I’d believed as much based on my own experience, and now there was published evidence to support it.

I’ve worked for some people who, to put it kindly, had no business being managers. In a couple of cases, they had no business being allowed to roam free in public. Each case has puzzled me more than the one before. People so incapable of leading that they actually drag a company down — how is it that they continue to be employed? Promoted? It’s a mystery that makes black holes seem simplistic by comparison.

When these managers are brought in, or when I’ve been hired to work for them, or transferred to their teams, I know within a few days that I’m in trouble. It’s happened enough that I’ve become adept at spotting them. But I haven’t yet figured out a way to successfully work for them so that I am productive and proud of my work, and don’t find myself weighing the benefits of killing myself versus going in to the office most mornings.

Part of the problem lies in something I consider to be fact, but which some people mistakenly take for opinion: Being a hard worker is not the same thing as being a workaholic.

I work hard, and care about the quality of the work I produce, because I see my work as a reflection of me and of my work ethic. I’m good at what I do, and I’m a team player. That said, I’m also a work-to-live person, not the other way around. Ergo, I believe in working efficiently during the workday so that I can finish on time and participate in life. The best teams I’ve worked with, where we’ve enjoyed the most professional success and had the most fun, have been those staffed with people who view and approach work in this way.

Photo of Adam Sandler in the movie "Billy Madison."

Adam Sandler settles the shampoo-versus-conditioner debate in Billy Madison.

Workaholics, on the other hand, fall in the live-to-work camp, and have a hard time understanding people like me. I’m not talking about the fortunate people who get paid to do something they truly love, like marine biologists or Adam Sandler. I’m talking about workaholics. 

These people don’t believe you can work to live and be a competent, dedicated employee. They have others (and themselves) convinced that they are passionate about what they’re doing, and their long hours are proof of that passion.

But what’s really going on is that they are addicted to success, and driven to keep pursuing it. (Some of them have the added desire to avoid going home.)

This type of person sees his or her employees and coworkers in black-and-white terms. If you aren’t just like them, you must be a slacker. It’s a fallacy, but it’s their view, and it’s a royal pain in the rear to contend with.

Working for this kind of manager is mentally and physically draining. They can sap you of your enthusiasm, which is dangerous, because that’s when you become disheartened, which turns into disengagement, which becomes bitterness. Ultimately, whether by free will or force, you leave.

I’ve been a victim of it, and have seen coworkers go through it. I’ve lost bosses to it. Early in my career, a rather, uh, eccentric exec wore out and ran off my mentor — a brilliant writer and fantastic manager without whom I wouldn’t have a career.

At another company, the founders hired one of these walking nightmares as a C-level exec. He had a seriously nasty reputation, but they hired him anyway, and then watched him chase off half the creative department.

I have so many questions. Maybe this guy has the answers.

I have so many questions. Maybe this guy has the answers.

What I am incapable of comprehending is how people like this rise through the ranks, and continue to find employment. In a million years, I would never hire someone like that. They are easy to spot because they don’t try to hide what they are. They wear their psychosis like a badge of honor.

An executive team or BOD that knowingly hires one is throwing its own company under the bus. But why?

“The world,” someone wise once said, “may never know.”


A side note: I’m not a very political person. I have my beliefs and opinions, but I don’t follow politics closely. I don’t know a lot about Hillary Clinton, other than that she’s controversial, and that my mom doesn’t like her. But there was something in Ronson’s book I found interesting, due in part to the fact that I was reading it during the summer of 2011.

A few months earlier, a team of Navy SEALs caught and killed Osama bin Laden. A photograph circulated by the media showed the reaction of President Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton and other White House staff as they watched video of the mission. Clinton was harshly criticized for having displayed obvious horror at what was happening in the video. It was said that someone in her position should be capable of masking her emotions; that showing them was a display of weakness and proof she was not fit for political office.

Photo showing President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receiving an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House May 1, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

Who in this photo would pass the psychopath test?

In Ronson’s book, he talks about attending a seminar given by Dr. Robert Hare that is part of a training protocol for psychologists on the fine points of psychopath-spotting. During one session, the class is shown a disturbing and graphic image of some type; I don’t recall if it was of a body, or a person who had been seriously injured, but suffice it to say the image was gross.

As soon as the image appeared, everyone in the class recoiled. Most looked away; I think Ronson said it made him physically ill. Hare explained that, when a psychopath sees a similar image, he or she does not react the same way. The psychopath will feel nothing upon seeing the graphic image, and display no physical reaction. It has something to do with a physiological difference between the amygdala of a normal person and that of a psychopath, which affects how each person’s brain processes the information.

Now take another look at the photo of the White House staff watching bin Laden die. I’m not making any judgment, positive or negative, about anyone in the photo. With this new information and perspective, though, it’s like looking at a whole different photo.

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