Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of Health Care Dysfunction

A new article in the Journal of Business Ethics suggested that the global financial crisis, or great recession, was primarily due to a fundamental flaw in the leadership of financial organizations, one that has important implications for health care organizations. 

The article, Boddy CR. The corporate psychopaths theory of the global financial crisis.  J Bus Ethics 2011; 102: 255-259 is here.  Its premise was:
The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis is that Corporate Psychopaths, rising to key senior positions within modern financial corporations, where they are able to influence the moral climate of the whole organisation and yield considerable power, have largely caused the crisis.

Note that in 2004 we first posted about the possibility that a proportion of corporate managers, including those in health care, could be psychopaths, raised then by two experts on psychopathy, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare. In 2006, they published Snakes in Suits, about the dangers of psychopaths as executives and managers (see post here). However, the issue got scant attention in those days of letting the good times roll.

Defining Corporate Psychopaths

Boddy described psychopaths as:
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.
Corporate Psychopaths as Leaders

Such people do not make good leaders:
Although they may look smooth, charming, sophisticated, and successful, Corporate Psychopaths should theoretically be almost wholly destructive to the organizations that they work for. The probable mal-effects of the presence of psychopaths in the workplace have been hypothesized about in recent times by a number of leading experts and commentators on psychopathy.

Researchers report that such malevolent leaders are callously disregarding of the needs and wishes of others, prepared to lie, bully and cheat and to disregard or cause harm to the welfare of others. Corporate Psychopaths are also poorly organized managers who adversely affect productivity and have a negative impact on many different areas of organizational effectiveness.
How Corporate Psychopaths Could Have Become Prevalent
Despite the dangers posed by such leadership, corporate psychopaths may rise quickly in management:
Psychologists have argued that Corporate Psychopaths within organizations may be singled out for rapid promotion because of their polish, charm, and cool decisiveness. Expert  ccommentators 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.

The nature of current corporate culture may facilitate the rise of corporate psychopaths:
These Corporate Psychopaths are charming individuals who have been able to enter modern corporations and other organisations and rise quickly and relatively unnoticed within them because of the relatively chaotic nature of the modern corporation. This corporate nature is characterized by rapid change, constant renewal and quite a rapid turnover of key personnel. These changing conditions make Corporate Psychopaths hard to spot because constant movement makes their behaviour invisible and combined with their extroverted personal charisma and charm, this makes them appear normal and even to be ideal leaders.

The destabilization of modern corporations likely lead to the ascendancy of the corporate psychopath:
However, once corporate takeovers and mergers started to become commonplace and the resultant corporate changes started to accelerate, exacerbated by both globalisation and a rapidly changing technological environment, then corporate stability began to disintegrate. Jobs for life disappeared and not surprisingly employees’ commitment to their employers also lessened accordingly. Job switching first became acceptable and then even became common and employees increasingly found themselves working for unfamiliar organisations and with other people that they did not really know very well.

Rapid movements in key personnel between corporations compared to the relatively slower movements in organisational productivity and success made it increasingly difficult to identify corporate success with any particular manager. Failures were not noticed until too late and the offending managers had already moved on to better positions elsewhere. Successes could equally be claimed by those who had nothing to do with them. Success could thus be claimed by those with the loudest voice, the most influence and the best political skills. Corporate Psychopaths have these skills in abundance and use them with ruthless and calculated efficiency. In this way, the whole corporate and employment environment changed from one that would hold the Corporate Psychopath in check to one where they could flourish and advance relatively unopposed.
The Harms Caused by Corporate Psychopaths as Executives

Thus, Boddy hypothesized the rise of management by corporate psychopaths lead directly to the global financial crisis or great recession:
As evidence of this, senior level remuneration and reward started to increase more and more rapidly and beyond all proportion to shop floor incomes and a culture of greed unfettered by conscience developed. 
Corporate Psychopaths are ideally situated to prey on such an environment and corporate fraud, financial misrepresentation, greed and misbehaviour went through the roof, bringing down huge companies and culminating in the Global Financial Crisis that we are now in.

Writing in 2005, this author commentating on Corporate Psychopaths predicted that the rise of Corporate Psychopaths was a recipe for corporate and societal disaster. This disaster has now happened and is still happening.
What Could be Next

Worse, if this hypothesis is true, as long as it is not addressed, things will get worse:
The very same Corporate Psychopaths, who probably caused the crisis by their self-seeking greed and avarice, are now advising governments on how to get out of the crisis. That this involves paying themselves vast bonuses in the midst of financial hardship for many millions of others, is symptomatic of the problem. Further, if the Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis is correct then we are now far from the end of the crisis. Indeed, it is only the end of the beginning.
Some Agreement

The plausible theory that corporate psychopaths ascending to top management positions in finance caused the global financial crisis has been noticed by a few prominent financial pundits. Writing in Bloomberg, William D Cohan agreed with Boddy's suggestion that "anyone who makes decisions that affect significant numbers of other people, concerning issues of corporate social responsibility or toxic waste, for example, or concerning mass financial markets or mass employment, should be screened to make sure that they are, at the very least, not psychopaths and at most are actually people who care about others."

Brian Besham, writing in the Independent, suggested that Richard Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, whose bankruptcy kicked off public awareness of the global financial collapse, saying he wanted to eat the hearts of those selling his company's stock short (see this post), was a "terrifying" example of corporate executive psychopathy. Worse, Besham noted that he had discovered an case of an investment bank which "psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles."  It may be that corporate psychopaths are actively recruiting their fellows.

Implications for Health Care

This is chilling. It also unfortunately is highly relevant to health care. As we noted, most recently here, leaders of big finance firms, including those whose failures were most spectacular, now often sit on boards of trustees of hospitals, academic medical centers, medical schools, and their parent universities. Thus, the likelihood that a good proportion of the stewardship of our most prominent not-for-profit health care organizations may be in the hands of psychopaths is not negligible.

Furthermore, health care organizations have become as unstable and chaotic, in the way these terms were used by Boddy, as finance firms. This would suggest that their current nature would make it as easy for psychopaths to rise to positions of power in them as they may have in financial firms. In health care we certainly have seen the consequences he suggested were due to psychopathic managers, including

- intimidation (per Boddy, corporate psychopaths are "prepared to lie, bully and cheat and to disregard or cause harm to the welfare of others");
- self-interest ("pursuit of self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement") leading to outrageous executive compensation ("senior level remuneration and reward started to increase more and more rapidly and beyond all proportion to shop floor incomes")
- fraud and other crime ("corporate fraud, financial misrepresentation, greed and misbehaviour went through the roof,... ")

So as we noted in 2006, "a high prevalence of psychopathic managers could explain the prevalence of mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and corruption in the leadership of health care organizations that we have often discussed on Health Care Renewal."

Boddy's first suggestion to deal with the problem in finance was:
Measures exist to identify Corporate Psychopaths. Perhaps it is time to use them.

However, it is as hard to imagine top health care leaders willingly and honestly submitting to the use of instruments designed to identify psychopaths as it is to imagine finance leaders doing so. Furthermore, it is easy to imagine how corporate psychopaths in positions of leadership would ruthlessly deploy their legions of public relations personnel and lawyers to quash any challenge should the notion that they are so dominant gain any credibility.

However, if there is any significant prevalence of corporate psychopaths among the leaders of health care, woe will be unto us until we identify and remove them.


Afraid said...

Absolutely true. I know a few of these leaders and they are psychopathic and recruit psychopathic goon/enforcers. That group isnt going to leave without a fight. God help us all.

Anonymous said...

I have met these people in business and they seem to al have two additional traits:

They are very passive/aggressive


They do not like the word No.

No is a good work, one we should all use more often.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


al should be all and work should be word.

Steve Lucas

Judy B said...

How do we go about identifying and getting rid of these people?

Afraid said...

Judy: I say throw the baby out with the bathwater. Toss em all.

Ponerology Writer said...

Very interesting. I've written a ton about this topic in general at the page I've linked, but haven't focused quite as specifically on health care itself as you did here.