Murder in the C-Suite: Is Your Boss Really Out to Get You?

Baggage. We’ve all got it. And it’s not just the result of our upbringing and sibling rivalries and conditioning and experiences. It’s there is our brain, apparently, sometimes right from the very start – just waiting for the right trigger.

This was the roundabout conclusion of a fascinating BBC documentary ‘The Mystery of Murder: A Horizon Guide’ I came across on iPlayer, a scientific exploration of the neurological, genetic and environmental ‘baggage’ that tends to be found in those who kill.

Okay, so let’s expand a bit on baggage. We’re all flawed beings. We all have our own little (or big) neuroses. We all have ‘issues’. And we all bring them into work (whether we’re conscious of them or not). We’re ‘complex machines’. We’re humans. But few of us are, happily, fully loaded with danger.

Not that you’d think that if you listened to how people talk about those they work with. A convention of the workplace is the amount of time we spend blaming other people for not dealing with their baggage – and, more for dramatic effect than as any form of considered diagnosis, we carelessly label them psychos, control freaks, megalomaniacs, narcissists, schizos – conjecturing on the root of their issues from the things we know about them, or suppose about them, or project onto them.

Sometimes, we might seriously consider that our colleague or, more likely, manager is, in fact, psychologically ‘damaged’ in some way. I think it’d be fair to say, rarely do we think “It’s not their fault; it’s how they’re wired.”

The Horizon programme got me thinking about this because, through presenting various big data research studies relating to neurological and genetic factors, alongside studies in nurture as well as nature, it concluded though many of us may have the biological triggers for murder, those triggers are almost universally squeezed only when put in a psychologically damaging environment, usually from a very early age.

Murderers are created by nature and nurture.

It still begged the question, taking a scientific analysis of the mind of a murderer, is it possible to excuse the crime, or diminish it, by identifying the fault in the machine that sparked the impulsion, the compulsion?

But it was the triggers, and how present these are in so many, that was so fascinating and really got me thinking – particularly about those that tend to occupy the C-suites of our biggest businesses and organisations.

Those with a biologically-determined killer instinct tend to have quite a lot in common. The main thing is they’re all men. Well, almost. Ninety percent, to be exact (and, due to this overwhelming representation, the programme only explored recurring factors in men).

Excess testosterone, unsurprisingly, can be a factor, particularly in sexually motivated killers. Low seratonin was another, encouraging thrill-seeking to replace the missing chemicals. A bigger surprise to me, though, was the identification of the ‘warrior’ gene in men and its connection to poor responses in the emotional centres of the brain, leading to expression of emotion being replaced with aggression. A gene present in some 30% of men.

So let’s think about that for a minute. 30% of the male population’s brains are naturally wired to be aggressive. That’s a lot of guys. That’s a lot of CEOs.

It could also help explain one of the most tragic stats there is in this country – that, if you’re a man under 50, you’re more likely to kill yourself than die any other way. When emotion overwhelms, that aggression can turn in on itself, or the warrior just can’t go on fighting.

In psychopathic killers, the overwhelming neurological characteristic is a brain that doesn’t ‘do’ empathy. At all. They showed some brain scans of psychopaths and ‘normal’ people watching violent footage. In the norms, everything was lighting up. In the psychopaths, nothing changed. Shut down.

The scariest bit though was the psychopathic ability to learn to act empathy. The desire to control and manipulate can clearly be a big spur in learning how to display emotional intelligence.

The happy news was the rather jolly presence of a doctor who, through his research, found he, indeed, had all the triggers – and could identify his own marginally psychopathic/unempathetic traits – but was a happy family man from a happy family (though they didn’t seem all that surprised when he came back from his lab with his diagnosis).

This one case study in the programme proposing nurture can outstrip nature, at least some of the time, got me thinking about business leaders, often said to have psychopathic tendencies – the ability to think ‘big picture’, above ‘the little people’, think ruthlessly, pragmatically, perhaps for a perceived good (like a good old-fashioned Messiah complex) – or, more likely, for personal gain, be it power, status, money or, even more likely, all three.

There are 93 men running the FTSE 100. According to studies, possibly (but in no way certainly), 3% could have psychopathic tendencies. 30% could be warriors at the very least (though that could be a mistake to think all warriors are leaders, some might just relish war and I can find no studies into the correlation).

From my own experience (and echoing that of Victor Lipman in Forbes), I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a lot of leaders throughout my career and it really has been a privilege: they’ve all been courteous and considered, seemingly genuinely engaged and generous with their time (even when it clearly has been pressed); I’ve had great insights from them and learned an awful lot.

And they always tend to be very on-a-level, straight forward kind of people. They always seem to be very authentic, and you can see how people want to follow them.

Of course, now I have to look back at those interviews in light of my new found knowledge into just how good psychopaths are at lying, but, having also interviewed some real, institutionalised psychopaths too – when I was still at school believe it or not – my gut tells me these people weren’t faking their high emotional intelligence or deep understanding of their operations and cultures (not that you can really compare the experience of working with someone to having a one off 121 interview).

The ‘Psycho Boss’ is a role embedded in our culture. I would argue, it’s celebrated too (and even emulated, as anyone who has ever seen The Apprentice can testify to). From Gordon Gekko to Patrick Bateman to Frank Underwood, success is often positioned as the result of a certain kind of psychopathy. We glamourise the power, the breath-taking ruthlessness. It’s appealing in a dangerous way. Sexy. Devilish.

It could be alluring to act it out. A trap, a role, history tells us, many fall into as leaders, developing, in the name of success, the ruthless pragmatism and self-serving impulses that dehumanise all who surround them.

Which is exactly the kind of thinking that allows psychopathic murderers to kill people.

I’ve no doubt it would be healthier to challenge that narrative, change that narrative. We must. Let’s not kid ourselves though. Businesses take on plenty of tough cookies and crumple them up. The world of work can be, if not a war, a battlefield, a viper’s nest – and it’s tough at the top.

We do need tough people and the challenges of our chaotic world sometimes require a bit of ruthless pragmatism, at least in the system we have now and in how the world works – and, sadly, I don’t see many signs of the world changing to allow for much else right now.

Always one to try and find a happier flip-side, however, I’ve never felt, over the last two decades of my working life, as I do now, such a strong desire for something else though, collectively in businesses and in all of the people I meet and interact with on social media.

Ultimately, I think we’re bored of the battleground. Fatigued by the mind games. We desperately want authority we can believe in and I really believe that’s a powerful driving force for change (we might be entertained by Gordon or Frank, but we don’t really want to work for them).

The challenge is that all sounds a bit emotional (and we know what a dirty word that is in business), and, with all this talk of warriors and psychopaths and alphas, it does get you thinking about the struggle to bring true empathy and EQ into the workplace and have this led from the top.

Perhaps that’s the biggest career challenge for our business leaders in the evolving 21st century workplace today: developing empathy probably isn’t what got you to the top, but it’s probably what’s going to keep you there.

After all, collaboration – that current, constant watchword of the contemporary business and the hopeful spur to that elusive increased productivity – only works with empathy, sympathy, harmony, balance, emotional intelligence.

This can be easily dismissed as idealism but it’s also worth remembering we’re hard-wired for empathy as a species – it’s what helped us survive.

And real collaboration is not impossible to achieve at all, it’s not just an ideal it’s a commercial imperative (indeed, the killer commercial instinct for the millennial age) and, when it happens, it is where the best ideas come from (and are most likely to be delivered). I’ve been lucky enough to see it in action many, many times (but, come to think of it, I don’t think there was a potential psychopath in the room at the time).

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