Dysfunctional managers create toxic offices. They manage, often in a brief period of time, to create mayhem, distrust and disaffection. (22)
No news to any of us who’ve worked with a boss who is, to use the book’s title, a bully or a backstabber, not to mention the third epithet the author wanted to use – a bastard. His publisher vetoed it. Adrian Furnham’s book investigates how dishonest and damaging individuals climb the greasy pole of corporate power and suggest ways organisations can guard against such people, who often look so good on paper and at interview. The selection system, he tells us, favours “the selfish unethical showman rather than the wise leader”. We’re often told that psychopaths lack empathy: Furnham, a Professor of Psychology at University College London, says it’s not empathy they lack, but conscience. They are often intelligent, charming, articulate people who are alert to others’ feelings – the thing is that they just don’t value them. They’re all about themselves. Beginning to sound like a boss you had?
Furnham concentrates on the corporate world, where there are glittering prizes for leaders who climb that greasy pole, and he deals with narcissistic and self-serving individuals. It made me wonder, though, about toxic leaders in professions that are apparently altruistic. I’ve worked all my life in the so-called “caring professions” where there are no great financial prizes, and no great public kudos, but the toxic leader is alive and well there too. Dedicating yourself to the good of others may, underneath it, be a way of validating yourself and feeding your own ego.
There are 70,000 books on leadership in the British library, Furnham tells us, but most of them concentrate on what leaders should be, the leader as hero. There is one, though, snappily titled Snakes in Suits, about successful business psychopaths. Surely, given all the horror stories of businesses failing and CEOs walking away unscathed, it’s time for personnel managers to read a few books like this. Let alone us poor wage-slaves who just want to survive.
Adrian Furnham: Backstabbers and Bullies: how to cope with the dark side of people at work (Bloomsbury, 2015).