I vacillated a fair bit in making this post, for a number of different reasons.
First off, I didn't want to write something shocking to get web hits -- or even have the appearance of it
. Except for the occasional April Fools post, everything I write, I mean. (And this is no April Fools post. If you want that, check out www.QADate.com
, the Dating Site for QA professionals ...)
More importantly, though, I've tried to make this series about our productivity killers -- the things that happen to us, in our own minds, that we can actually do something about - things like tester fatigue
or Work Avoidance
. These things stink and they are no fun, but when they happen to us, we can do something about it. Sociopaths in the organization, however, are something different entirely; it is a problem external to us.
The last thing I want to do is to give people "tools" to point fingers and say "look, it's not us, it's those guys
Still, I have to admit, a mis-functioning organization is just plain all to common. Yes, it can kill productivity, and, if it gets bad enough, entirely sink a company. Having to deal with Sociopaths can also beat you up, burn your out, and possibly make you stupid
. (I will explain that last claim later.)
There are things you can protect yourself against, so I decided to write this post.
What's a Sociopath?
I am not a Psycologist, and I do not mean to be dispensing medical advice here, but in order to give "regular old" advice I have to use certain terms. One term I will use today is Sociopath, which wikipedia
defines as "...a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood." Another term that is often thrown around is Psychopath, which wikipedia
defines as "An abnormal lack of empathy combined with strong amoral conduct but masked by an ability to appear outwardly normal."
In America today, "Psychopath" tends to imply violent action, so I'm going to go with the milder term "Sociopath." We could debate which is appropriate, but my goal here isn't to dispense medical advice or to diagnose people.
Instead, I'd like to point out that a Sociopath is someone willing to lie, to cheat, to steal, in order to advance themselves and their agenda. They can take credit for your work, lie to the customer, suck up to the boss, destroy you for getting in the way, or, perhaps worse, use you as a scape-goat
And for some reason they end up taking over organizations.
How does that happen?
We like to believe that advancement in our organizations is based entirely on Merit, and often it is, to one extent or another. When the advancement is not based entirely on merit, we tend to use certain terms like "too much politics." "Politics", after all, is a sort of umbrella term, but if you will let me, I'd like to peel back the onion a little.
Small and hungry organizations are usually just trying to survive. They don't have time for politics; people wasting time are noticed and thrown out quickly. Yet, eventually, the company grows.
Suddenly people have job titles, and management's pay is connected to how many people report up to them, how much those people make, and perhaps something to do with the company goals. To advance, managers have to do certain things, sure, but they also need to build a bigger empire.
That means that, in addition to the public "game" of running the business, there is another, deeper game going on involving position and reputation. Those that recognize the game and are willing to play it will likely do better at it.
This is a generality, of course; many large organizations use things like profitability bonuses and good management to align incentives, to try to prevent this sort of problem. Ultimately, though, there is likely to be some small difference between the official rules and what people actually have to do to get ahead.
Now consider the person of integrity; the person that wants to be rewarded for a job well done. To some extent, they made advance, sure, but it is unlikely they will play the "hidden" game.
The Sociopath, on the other hand, is going to pick up on the hidden game very quickly and play it aggressively. As the pyramid-shape of the organization grows steeper, it is the Sociopath who is willing to do whatever it takes
to advance; including cutting off his bosses peers at the knees and inciting a re-organization. For that matter, he'll be more willing to discuss, at least in private, the hidden agenda and the price of his loyalty.
As Jerry Weinberg once famously quipped "In a room full of liars, the honest man is at a distinct disadvantage."
Google tells me that Sociopaths might consist of three to four percent of the population. Yet when you look at it as a pyramid, is it really any surprise that the Sociopaths rise to the top?
When the Sociopaths Take Over
I don't think it's fair to say that I have worked with Sociopaths; again, I am not a medical doctor. However, I can that I have worked with people willing to do amoral things in order to advance. At one organization, years ago, I said something very much like this in private:
"Well, if you pretend for a moment that Sociopaths are running the organization, those decisions kind of make sense, don't they? And if you keep pretending, you can sort of ... predict ... the moves they will make next."
What I did not realize at the time, and the reason for this post, was the terrible impact on the organization that Sociopaths can have.
Recently, a friend of mine pointed me to this post
on psychopaths in the workplace, along with this follow-up
It was't just that those folks were in our organization; instead, I submit we were actively being ponerized.
One thing I got from those posts, that align with my experience, is the language
of the Sociopath:
"Perception is reality"
"There are two sides to every story"
"One man's hack is another man's design pattern"
If you've been in corporate America long enough, I'm sure you've heard lines like this. To some extent, those terms can be helpful in looking at certain problems, some of the time.
I'm not talking about that.
I'm talking about active denial of reality with code words.
Notice these code sentences, and what people who consistently use them talk -- they stay away from facts, or, if when they must use facts, carefully assemble a set of facts to draw an impression
to draw a picture. The facts might be true; they might not be. The important thing is the impression.
Imagine the organization is run by Sociopaths. These people don't do work; they get others to do the work for them. In some cases, they manage to advance beyond their own competence that they do not understand
the nature of the work. As long as they have someone to blame when the project runs south, or can be off to another project before the disaster hits, well, no harm no foul, right? (The really sad thing is, when this is a mental condition, these folks don't even lose sleep at night.)
Now imagine what happens to the poor worker in such an environment. He is taught that the way to advance is to get someone else
to do the work. He is taught that there are two sides to every story, that perception is reality, and that the important thing is to manage perception.
Since there are two sides to every story, well, if he believes the wrong story, that is bad, and he will be punished for it. Likewise, if he believes the right
story ("we will
hit the ship date", "The DBAs really screwed the pooch on that one", "everything is fine"), the employee will be rewarded, appreciated, invited to lunch by the cool kids, considered one of the winners.
What do you think is going to happen to that person?
The smart ambitious people are going to learn that lieing is okay, that "perception is reality" and there are "two sides to every story" -- or they are going to become disgusted and leave. The downtrodden masses that don't leave will also either be subtly changed, or, perhaps, just "keep their head down."
It turns out there is a term for this Ponerization.
It is a social process by which people lose independent, critical thinking skills or are driven out of the organization.
But the organization is going to slowly get filled up with people who care far
more about their personal agendas than the business.
Once the employees have been Ponerized and the majority of management are Sociopaths, suddenly no one is doing the work -- certainly not doing it well -- and no one is looking after the real long-term health of the business.
Suddenly, Enron, WorldCom, K-Mart, Bernie Madoff, and all the other great accounting scandals of our era sounds less like scandals and more, well, inevitable.
This isn't a little article about inter-personal relationships on your team; this is about business survival.
I am serious. Have you ever worked in an organization where it took over a month to make a trivial change to a system? What was everybody at that company doing all day?
Oh, sure, your organization might not have been as bad off as Enron or K-Mart, but let me ask you: Did the word "politics" come up a lot of in a sort of vague, ill-defined way?
What to do about it
My first, best advice is, is possible, avoid organizations with Sociopaths at the helm, or at least, get yourself a few layers of decent people between you and the other. The easiest time to do this is in the interview phase, before you accept the offer. One way to do this is to take a very long-term view of hiring; go to a user's group meeting for years, talking to people. The ones whom you trust, who say consistent things about their organizations -- those folks might be candidates for your next job. In any event, before you take the offer, try to find out about the organization from it's employees. Get beyond the sounds bytes. Find out what behaviors are rewarded, and if you want to have those behaviors.
If all you do is respond to a help wanted in the paper, you are basically gambling.
Second, if you find you are being ponerized, be careful. It's likely that you are dealing with a somewhat hostile environment and
there are few people you can share your honest feelings with. Find someone you can really share your feelings with, even if it is your spouse. If a project is headed south, don't be afraid to transfer. In the worst cases, you'll get strange double-think comments you can not process (for example, getting a reprimand for your performance on a project, then, when you ask to transfer, being told you are indispensable.)
It's important to keep your sense of reality; try to stick to facts, and try to communicate in writing. If you can, take the temperature of your boss -- try to find out if he is on the side of reality, if he has an agenda, or if his agenda is to simply match the word of someone higher up in the organization. Ideally, transfer to report to someone grounded in reality.
If you are late in the ponerization process, this will be very hard to do. Now you have some tough choices to make -- to look for new work, to re-define your job, to compromise in some way.
Personally, I find that you can usually make some compromises to conform that do not violate your sense of ethics -- say, for example, dressing like management or cleaning off your desk. Even the Sociopaths recognize they need someone to actually do the work, so in a very sick organization, the five guys who do the work may be tolerated to have a certain amount of, well, "attitude."
The Bottom Line
Despite all the talk of TDD and FDD, Scrum, DSDM and XP, Sociopaths running the organization will throw sand in the works. In many cases the bottleneck to performance is not process at all; it is culture.
In a senior management role, the key to fixing culture is to look at what behaviors you are rewarding, and what hidden signals those rewards might give off. Finding a Sociopath in the organization is going to be hard, because their behaviors toward you will be impeccable. One place to to look is for a massive reputation difference between that person between management and the do-ers. (I can speak more to this in a future post if I get some requests.)
For a do-er, the equation is different. The key is to find a way to keep your sanity. Once you can do that, figure out how far you are willing to stick your neck out to try to save your project, your team, and your division.
The careerist in me says that, especially in this economy, it might make sense to jump ship, just be sure to have an alternative lined up.
The idealist in me is reminded that some of the people I admire the most have walked away from jobs with no clear alternative lined up, and they did just fine. In fact, there is actually a pretty strong correlation between quitting a gig and later success.
Sure, you can't control the scammy liar. What we can do, however, protect our own minds, and refuse to grant your consent to the lies.
Has this ever happened to you? Has anyone ever tried to ponerize you? What did you do about it, and how did it turn out?
This is something we don't talk about often enough. One more thing is can do is share our success (and failure) stories.