Ever since the March/April issue of CFA Magazine published an article, The Financial Psychopath Next Door by Sherree DeCovny, everyone’s been talking about sociopaths and psychopaths in management.
[Update: On March 14, 2012, a Goldman Sachs executive director resigned after publishing a New York Times op-ed that said the firm’s culture is “toxic,” with managers openly talking about “ripping their clients off … sometimes over internal e-mail.”]
Charming, bright, dangerous, lying psychopaths
As DeCovny wrote: “These “financial psychopaths” generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think. At the same time, they display an abundance of charm, charisma, intelligence, credentials, an unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation, and a drive for thrill seeking.”
Seems she’s rung bells with a lot of people. One Wall Street therapist told her that although there’s an estimated 1 sociopath in 100 in the general population, he’d put it at four times that many on Wall Street. And as we have watched the economy melt down on high-risk investments presented as AAA opportunities, we have to admit: that number seems less than surprising.*
You really DO know psychopaths
Just out of curiosity, I took the FastCompany “Is Your Boss a Psychopath” quiz and answered a few questions about a former colleague, the one who regularly taunted me with a nickname that I was still too Northern to know was nasty. The quiz results? “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Too late.
Protect yourself from psychopaths
Martha Stout, the Harvard psychologist whose research opened this topic half a decade ago when she published The Sociopath Next Door, urges individuals facing sociopathic bosses (or friends or family members) to focus first on self-protection.
“Do not try to redeem the unredeemable,” she urges in an interview published by Broadway Books. “Second (third, fourth, and fifth) chances are for people who possess conscience. … we cannot control the behavior — let alone the character structures — of other people. Learn this fact of human life, and avoid the irony of getting caught up in the same ambition he has– to control.”
Redeem a psychopath? This is a job for God!
Well, I know I can’t redeem anyone. And when I read DeCovny’s description — and think about the first business psychopath I knew, who was described as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by even a non-believing coworker — I know that psychopaths are unusually clear channels for evil to act in our world.
So that makes the task of redeeming the psychopath, as an individual, a job for God. Of managing the psychopath, as an individual, a job for human law. And we, of course, mediate in prayer and through responsibilities God may have given us in the legal system. Should, God forbid, the psychopath be another believer, we are charged by God with the responsibility of confronting him or her:
“You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17).
That is to say: we would be in sin if we held anger against a psychopath; we may (but do not have to) correct him or her; and again, we shall not do evil ourselves as a result of a psychopath’s behavior.
When the system is psychopathic, what then?
But what is our responsibility when an entire system of enterprise has fallen to the control of psychopaths?
First, this is not a surprise. As DeCovny describes the psychopath, we hear echoes of him who fell from Heaven in rebellion. The one who is often called Lucifer, “light bearer,” because in his charisma, his graceful language, his charm, he still bears an glimpse of the heavenly light from which he came. We understand why our forebears named the early friction match after this one — it’s something that starts a fire suddenly, with the slightest irritation. We know that the system of this world is under the control of this one we do not follow. So it should be no surprise to find many of those leading this world system following his patterns of leadership.
Second, God has told us that we are not ourselves to behave like psychopaths in business: “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 25:17).
So what does that mean if you find yourself in a business directed by a psychopath, who expects you to behave in ways that are contrary to how God would run a business?
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Not of the psychopath who’s managing the company, but of the Lord your God. And do what God says. Pray. And then, if you need to: Run. Not just to God’s arms, but to an entirely new field of endeavor, if need be. Perhaps to regulators as a whistleblower who will be persecuted and lose the dignity and respect you used to hold in the psychotic system, but who might just help to change it.
As Edmund Burke — the British MP who supported the American Revolution — said:
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Will we continue to let evil triumph? Or will good Christians stand, confident that our God is greater than the evils of our times?
* Dave Cohen takes issue with the prevalence of psychopathy in the population and on Wall Street — then suggests that as long as “corporations are people” THEY are psychopaths in a very interesting blog post.
- Untrue: 1 out of Every 10 Wall Street Employees is a Psychopath (psychcentral.com)
- Wall Street Psychopaths (1oneday.wordpress.com)