Monday, 20 January 2014

Year in Review: Bad Behaviour, Bullies, and Borderline Bosses

Continuing our review of work psychology in 2013, one trend concerned the shadow side of the workplace. Psychopaths, it seemed, were looming around every corner, ruining organisations left, right and centre. The truth? Well it so happened that we covered the biggest review to date of workplace psychopathy research. It tentatively suggests relatively higher incidence of psychopathic traits in senior positions. Psychopathy is associated with more passive leadership styles, more unethical decision-making in business contexts and prioritisation of innovation over nurturing of team members. The overall consequences of this on organisational performance are hard to detect, although the effect is likely to be detrimental rather than beneficial (see link for all these findings).

More recent data suggests that, despite the impressions that you might get from watching too many reality shows, entrepreneurialism isn't boosted by psychopathy - although some elements may overlap. And an overview on bad leadership suggests that, never mind psychopathy, there are all manner of personality disorders that may afflict those at the top and may explain those occasional, but spectacular, high level flame-outs.

Moving away from darkness in leadership, we covered some other areas of antagonism. Qualitative research points to some of the holes we need to plug to make sure anti-bullying policies work. We discovered that in environments where racial slurs are thrown about, those who maintain the culture through their silence tend to be not just avoidant but tacit supporters: they tend to be those members of the majority race who report more investment in their racial identity and in the domination of out-groups.

We discovered how an advisor who declares a conflict of interest may be benefiting from a kind of sneaky psychological trick. Instead of making it easier for the customer to judge the true worth of the options, declaring an interest reveals to the customer that the advisor would lose out if they don't take the recommendation, adding a subtle pressure, especially in a face-to-face discussion with a trusted advisor.

We also found how skewed perceptions lead to premature evaluations of women as combative, when similar conflicts between two men are considered as just part of normal work interaction. This may be the origin of those 'Queen Bee' articles that circulate from time to time, and the lack of corresponding male stereotypes (King Kongs?).  Speaking of perceptions, we were also introduced to the idea of the 'sexual performance' at work – the flirt-for favour, for example - and how common it’s likely to be. Those who are marked out as 'sexual operators' may simply have fallen foul of the organisation's unspoken limits.

How can we challenge these things? The research suggests that a single voice can make a change: for instance, if the seller in a negotiation is aiming for win-win outcomes, both sides will end up better off, even if the buyer is only in it for themselves. And some people are more naturally inclined to make such a difference, such as the subset of conscientious people who put duty, rather than personal achievement, as the priority for how they operate. These people are more likely to speak out to achieve genuine organisational change.

One change that might be fruitful is to reduce the control that controlling people have. Evidence suggests that more autocratic people can dampen down collaboration, but only if their injunctions carry formal weight. Otherwise, people are able to muddle forward.

Regardless of the specifics around psychopathy, organisations should continue to take care with their leadership, mindful of the wealth of derailing qualities that can lead to disaster. Meanwhile, dysfunction in employees can be in the eye of the beholder. And speaking out is key for organisational improvement - on specific, charged issues such as racism, as well as broader concerns.


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