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Why Sociopaths Succeed

13/08/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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And How To Deal With One In Life And At Work!

All of us come across people at work or in life who make us think 'what a sociopath'. Our survival instinct kicks in and the amygdala buzzes with flight or fight signals. Most people take a side step, while the sociopath cruises along unperturbed. I was intrigued to find the richness of scientific and management literature, as well as a plethora of business journal articles on the topic.

Terminology: Psychologists suggest that the term sociopath is meant for people who may have adopted bad behaviours due to unsympathetic social environments or harsh upbringing, where as a psychopath tends to have an inherent genetic medical or psychiatric condition. This is different from the antisocial behaviours seen in highly intelligent people suffering from autism. Given the association of psychopaths with serial killers and violent criminals, in popular usage, everyone with social behavioural dysfunction is termed a sociopath. But often, the terms are used interchangeably in common parlance.

"[G]reater fraction of leaders exhibit sociopathic traits when compared with the general population."

Traits: There is telling consistency across subjects - erratic behaviour, lack of control, cool rationality, disregard for social rules, lack of empathy or guilt or remorse, calmness under pressure, large amount of self belief, self promotion, and, believe it, lots of charm. A 2005 study by researchers at the University of Surrey found that a greater fraction of leaders exhibit sociopathic traits when compared with the general population. British journalist Jon Ronson wrote in his 2011 book The Psychopath Test that there are 4% psychopaths in a group of CEOs, four times higher than in ordinary people.

Scale: As in many an affliction, it is not an either-or state. There are gradations and each one of us may have these traits in small doses. Researcher Robert Hare devised a scale to measure sociopaths on a scale of 0 to 40, with higher levels being extreme behaviour. Interestingly, some US law firms have used this assessment metric in their hiring practice, preferring to employ lawyers with sociopathic index close to 29. After all, what may be uncomfortable in interpersonal relations, becomes a virtue in a law firm - successful lawyers can survive in high pressure environments, do not feel empathy towards those they defend or guilt towards those they prosecute, and can charm judges and jurors. A 2012 article in Scientific American by Kevin Dutton of Oxford University cited the interview of a UK neurosurgeon, whose sociopathic traits were a boon when he was standing with the scalpel in the operating theatre.

"It helps leaders keep teams in line, and feel no empathy or remorse at cutting costs or firing employees."

Organizational Culture: It would appear that many organizations in India and elsewhere actually celebrate sociopathic behaviour in leaders. Some psychologists have even suggested that there may be a sweet spot, an ideal level of sociopathic trait. It helps leaders keep teams in line, and feel no empathy or remorse at cutting costs or firing employees. Analysts have found a direct correlation between cost cutting announcements and stock price rise. Coaching guru Dale Simpson suggests that many Indian firms have moved away from their roots, while several firms in the West are adopting the Indian notions of mindfulness, graciousness and empathy. Indic mythologist Dr. Devdutt Pattnaik stated in an article that at the heart of erratic misbehaviour lay 'deep loneliness, a sense of feeling exploited and unloved.' Such individuals, he suggests, are happy to hurt the world before the world has a chance to hurt them.

How sociopathic traits lead to success: While its merit may be ethically debatable, the art of premeditation and manoeuvring can be found in those who reach the top of business, government or bureaucracy. In this age of hyper-marketing, where people are products, self-belief and self-promotion are mantras of anyone who wants to reach ahead. Charm offensive is required to deal with a wide network of stakeholders inside and outside organizations. A small modicum of coolness allows leaders to do what is needed, without being strangled by emotional empathy. Professor Kevin Dutton in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths suggests that certain proportion of 'seven deadly wins' are needed in every successful CEO or entrepreneur. Both Steve Jobs and Rahul Yadav might measure high on these traits, though in one it may spill into self-destruction.

How to deal with a sociopath: More people have to face a sociopath, than being one. After all, sociopaths are driven and calculated enough to reach the top. Everyone else is simply collateral damage in the environment of unstable equilibrium they create. Yale University professor Stanley Milgram has experimented on the human propensity to 'obey orders'. He suggests that apaths, or people who obey and are fearful, are natural targets of a sociopath. They can be cajoled, charmed, or threatened to 'obey'. In contrast, empaths, or individuals with high emotional intelligence, pose the greatest threat to a sociopathic mind. Studies of organizational behaviour suggest that the empath may feel internally compelled to take a stand against the sociopath, but the sociopath is usually able to shift the blame on the empath, while going scot-free himself. The term 'gas-lighting effect' has been used to describe behaviours by which a sociopath will attempt to erode her opponent's reality.

So, the way to deal with a sociopath, psychologists suggest, is simply to learn to set boundaries and distances. Dr. Martha Stout in her book The Sociopath Next Door has 13 suggestions on how to handle a sociopath. Standing up for oneself or others is commendable. But in these scenarios, self-preservation is better than kamikaze stances! Who knows, over time, divine intervention or spontaneous combustion may change the state of play.

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