conscience & psychopaths & cynicism … or naiveté

Dysfunctional Management at the Bar

“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Karl Marx


So. This is actually about business organizations and how the sometimes “less competent” <sometimes dysfunctional> people get promoted into leadership roles and how a group of well educated people, a large group by the way, maintained  in an unequivocal stance that there were a bunch of psychopaths rising to leadership positions <and are ‘the dysfunctional>.

Sadly that relatively large group of people are TED members.

On a side note … I recognize that you always have to be careful when discussing “how do such idiots <incompetents> get promoted?” to weed out the envious, the blind and the ignorant. But in the end … it is true there are a shitload of “less competent” people, and certainly some quite dysfunctional people, who get promoted into some very important roles in business organizations.

Uhm. Notice I didn’t say ‘incompetent’, but rather ‘less competent.’ I did so because when really putting organizations under a microscope the real issue is not the surprisingly less than competent people who get promoted, but rather the truly competent who are dwelling somewhere in the depths of the organization who have NOT been promoted.

This all began for me within a very disturbing discussion among some TED members. I was being faced with an overriding belief that “psychopaths” <or sometimes called ‘predators’> were increasingly becoming this generation’s business leaders. Leaders driven by greed, lack of values and ego doing whatever it takes to maneuver their way to leadership.

Well. I didn’t agree, but I was in a minority.  To be clear. I think these are real issues (all you have to do is read things I have written to know that), I just do not believe they represent the majority of leadership assuming they could do what they knew to be right.

Anyway. Until I read a post/discussion comment <from a Dr. Gupta> I had begun thinking I was either naïve, working on a different planet, oblivious to the greed and lack of values surrounding me … or actually one of the psychopaths and was so good at hiding it from others I was hiding it from myself.

Let me posit two things to outline my disagreement:

–          It is most often not any predator trait, but rather an ability, and desire, to manipulate, or manage, the system that gets a ‘less competent’ person into a leadership role.

The Original Fearless Leader

–          Organizations play a significant role in how their employees decide how to behave to attain ambition/self-objectives even if it means a ‘bending’ of traditional ‘what is right’ conscience.


–          Why I believe it is not a predator/psychopathic trait:

I have met and worked with dozens of leaders and I can maybe think of one as having such a poor moral compass that I would place them in the true predator/psychopathic category. Yes. One.

Afterwards I knew that one situation couldn’t be solved, but I did know one thing — that company would ultimately fail. Not that day but that type of personality inevitably creates a larger dysfunctional company that just cannot compete (in the end). The organism dies because it has a bacterium that can’t be cured. I imagine my real point here is that there is a natural evolution of companies, i.e., the truly sick die all on their own. Maybe not as fast as we would like, but they die.


A quick thought about dysfunctional/less competent people in leadership roles. Let’s be honest. The true psychopaths are few.

Maybe I just have been lucky in the organizations and leaders I have met, but while all leaders want to make a profit I haven’t seen boundless moral-less/amoral greed. In fact, when interviewed, most leaders have a huge desire to increase the wealth of the “head, heart and wallet” of their employees.

All aspects of employee benefit.

But practically speaking most leaders would admit “managing the balance sheet is much easier than the people management.” The typical quote you hear:

“I am more rewarded by the people but I don’t believe I am as good at it (or it is just too difficult).”

So, what happens?

As good managers do: they delegate.

They delegate to someone (or someones) who they perceive, or believe, is better at maximizing the heads and hearts portion.

<by the way … if you want to work on corporate dynamics for this aspect that is the gatekeeper to find … the one delegated to not the delegator>

Is there a way to weed out the dysfunctional? Or, at minimum, identify the harmful incompetent?


I know I have suggested to HR departments, or the keepers of the culture and staff, that no organism/organization is flawless (unless it is made up of robots, maybe has less than 5 employees or is somewhere in corporate utopia, i.e., a different planet). Therefore their job isn’t to eliminate all the bacteria just be sure you have systems set up to identify the bacteria that could kill the organism.

There are varieties of methods.

I would suggest pattern tracking over time (because even good employees are infamous for doing something bad, or questionable, to get to where they want to go and exhibiting different /better/behavior once there). In other words, one time behavior is completely different than ongoing patterned behavior.

Pattern tracking actually is effective because no matter how sneaky or talented at hiding predator/psychopathic-like behavior that employee does give clues which when tracked uncover the underlying flaw.

Obviously this falls apart once someone shifts companies, but you gotta start somewhere.


The truth is that most less competent leaders didn’t elevate because of any ‘lack of conscience/predator’ trait, but more likely because they knew how to manipulate, or manage, the system. Sure. There can be some less-than-desirable characteristics exhibited when managing the system, but the majority of the time it is all about taking advantage of others mistakes and taking advantage of the opportunities. I mention that to say if people are doing things you don’t like, than change the system, not the people.

–          Why I believe it can be driven by an organization:

Ok. How can an organization contribute to encouraging a thread of predator behavior?

Before I get specifically to that point let me share the premise behind the thought. Research has shown us several things.

–          All people are born with a conscience <or a sense of right or wrong>

–          And even true psychopaths have a conscience <they just do not act upon it>

“In the end, we found that six- and ten-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.”

Professor Bloom


In my mind the research and information is clear. Children are born knowing inherently what is moral and ethical and that over time as they experience the real world their natural born tendencies are shifted into whatever spot their experiences put them in.

I purposefully wrote it that way.

This isn’t “children are born good and the world is evil.” And. This isn’t “leaders are born psychopaths and the world is good.” Like it or not, behavior can be shaped by systems and contexts.

We now have intriguing scientific evidence pointing to that inherent human faculty.


At the age of six months babies can barely sit up – let along take their first tottering steps, crawl or talk. But, according to psychologists, they have already developed a sense of moral code – and can tell the difference between good and evil.

An astonishing series of experiments is challenging the views of many psychologists and social scientists that human beings are born as ‘blank slates’ – and that our morality is shaped by our parents and experiences.

Instead, they suggest that the difference between good and bad may be hardwired into the brain at birth.

In one experiment involving puppets, babies aged six months old showed a strong preference to ‘good’ helpful characters – and rejected unhelpful, ‘naughty’ ones. In another, they even acted as judge and jury. When asked to take away treats from a ‘naughty’ puppet, some babies went further – and dished out their own punishment with a smack on its head.

Professor Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University in Connecticut, whose department has studied morality in babies for years, said: ‘A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. “With the help of well designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bones.”


This is simply the fact children have a relatively blank experience slate on which the first words are not necessarily ‘self interest’ but rather ‘interest in feeling good’ … which can be a social or individual thing.


I know that is all about children but let me use it moving into the discussion on ‘psychopaths in the workplace’ (surrounding the discussion on why so many crappy people end up in management positions) and adults entering into the workplace.

So. Most people understand social contracts intuitively. They don’t have to reason them out. Ordinary people are also similarly attuned to questions of risk. Interestingly psychopaths typically exhibit similar levels of intelligence to the norm. Nor does their lack of guilt and shame seem to spring from a deficient grasp of right or wrong. Ask a psychopath what he is supposed to do in a particular situation and he/she can usually give you what non-psychopaths would regard as the correct answer.

<by the way … this is all pulled from research>

So what goes wrong? It is just that he/she does not seem bound to act upon that knowledge. They understand the rules of social contracts, they just do not believe they are defined by the rules.

<please remember that last thought because I will use it again … but this time within a business organization framework>

This is the life of a true psychopath:

“Imagine – if you can – not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern of the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. 

Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken.  And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools. 

Now add to this strange fantasy the ability to conceal from other people that your psychological makeup is radically different from theirs.  Since everyone simply assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, hiding the fact that you are conscience-free is nearly effortless.  You are not held back from any of your desires by guilt or shame, and you are never confronted by others for your cold-bloodedness. 

The ice water in your veins is so bizarre, so completely outside of their personal experience that they seldom even guess at your condition.”

Martha Stout Ph.D.

In other words, a psychopath is completely free of internal restraints with an unhampered liberty to do just as you please with no pangs of conscience.  You can do anything at all, and still your strange advantage over the majority of people, who are kept in line by their consciences, will most likely remain undiscovered.

Many mental health professionals refer to the condition of little or no conscience as “anti-social personality disorder,” a non-correctable disfigurement of character that is now thought to be present in about 4 percent of the population – that is to say, one in twenty-five people.  This condition of missing conscience is called by other names, too, most often “sociopathy,” or the somewhat more familiar term psychopathy.  Guiltlessness was in fact the first personality disorder to be recognized by psychiatry, and terms that have been used at times over the past century include manie sans délire, psychopathic inferiority, moral insanity, and moral imbecility.

All that said, do I personally believe a true psychopath can rise to any significant leadership role in any viable company?


Do I believe an organization can unburden some of the typical ‘conscience’ restraints a normal person has?


You bet.


Remember what I said before about psychopaths: ‘They understand the rules of social contracts … just do not believe they are defined by the rules.’

Similar to a child, an employee entering an organization has the ability to discern right from wrong which tells me that we not only believe there is a difference but that our natural inclination would be to do right <versus wrong>.

Are there people born who do not have consciences? Whew. I doubt it. Or they are few and far between.

As a corollary … do I believe there are people who enter a business organization who do no have a conscience? Once again … I doubt it.

So what happens?

Most likely the organization, through its rewards & promoting behavior, create a new conscience framework in which it so dulls their conscience senses that they no longer believe in the traditional ‘right versus wrong’ behavior <or guides their senses in a different direction> and thus, those who elect to follow the new framework, appear to have no consciences <or have a more expanded view of what is conscientiously acceptable>. By the way, this is my main argument for why I believe “company values” is bullshit. The system frames the conscience framework, not some words.

Let me be clear.

The employee understands the traditional rules of social contracts but the organization has defined a different set of rules they believe they can play by.

So. If you believe that then, in general, the really competent people who don’t get promoted have decided, in some form or fashion, to maintain their sense of ‘right versus wrong’ framework. They just decide to not play by the different set of rules.

And, let’s be clear, I am not suggesting they are better people because of this decision, but rather each person makes their own decision. And each should feel comfortable with their decision because both are playing by the rules.

I have never begrudged the ‘less competent’ rising to a leadership role as long as they didn’t exhibit the nasty predator-like characteristics. Because if they didn’t, than they just managed the system better than others did.

Last thought.

Maybe we should think of businesses as microcosms of Life itself.

There is something called the concept of Natural Law <I did not make this up>.

The concept of Natural Law implies that human beings inherently know what is ‘good from evil’ and what is ‘right from wrong’ <our conscience compass>. It refers to our belief that inherent in nature itself is a moral law that has validity everywhere for everybody, regardless of race and culture. Human beings can use our reason to discern that natural moral law so as to derive binding rules of moral behavior which we make into our everyday positive law.

I believe that when a new employee enters an organization they begin with Natural Law embedded, therefore, any changes to the natural law are created by experience within the organization itself.

Ponder that.women leadership

Because you almost have to believe that or you have to believe that a disproportionate percentage of the true psychopath population <like all of the 4% they represent> end up in business instead of hanging out in strip clubs & low income housing.


Maybe I am naive.

But I think I would rather believe even the ‘less competent’ leaders have a conscience and a sense of ‘right versus wrong’ than believe a bunch of psychopaths have run amok in leadership within organizations.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Written by Bruce