When exceptional people lack ethics, empathy, remorse, and loyalty, we start to think of them as tragic losses–virtuosos that have gone bad. Often these top performers snake their way into an organization, initially looking look like the fulfillment of the company’s wishes. Certainly, they can represent a dream come true–right up until they turn into nightmares.
Calm under fire, psychopaths excel during times of chaos. They embrace change and the upheaval it brings. Unfortunately, turmoil makes psychopathic personality traits–the appearance of confidence, strength, and calm–look like the answer to the problems. Attracted to fast-paced, high-risk, high-profit environments, these snakes move quickly, often ignoring rules that cause impediments to the goals they want to achieve while adhering tenaciously to protocols that don’t really matter. In short, they confuse people while simultaneously giving them hope.
The ability of clever snakes to hide their true natures makes spotting them difficult. They creep into the organization and quickly burrow in undetected, often camouflaged by chaos. We admire many of their traits, taken in moderation. For instance, they have a talent for reading people and for sizing up situations quickly–abilities that help them excel in sales and negotiations.
Also, they frequently display advanced verbal agility. Social inhibitions don’t restrain them, so they meet people easily and stand ready to jump into conversations. Since they have mastered impression management, they exude confidence, which causes listeners to accept at face value both the message and the delivery method. Their insights into the psyche of others, combined with convincing verbal fluency, allow them to change their personas as adeptly as their serpentine brethren molt their dead skin.
In leadership positions, these venomous top performers allow the perks of power to override their moral sense. Many of them experience a weakened sense of “right” in the face of excessive temptation and easy access to authority. Others among them feel justified in reaping rewards, arguing that their extravagances seem excessive only to those who have little hope of enjoying them. Still other snakes embrace the self-serving mantra that “greed is good” and justify success at any cost to others. These snakes in suits display pathology rooted in lying, manipulation, deceit, egocentricity, and callousness.
What can you do personally and professionally to avoid these destructive reptiles who masquerade as exceptional people? First, be aware of their existence. They try to rush relationships because they can’t sustain the “act” too long. A trusting personal or professional relationship takes time to build and doesn’t have as its foundation inappropriate disclosure, lies, or manipulation. If a person seems too good to be true, you might have met a snake. Snakes don’t form relationships; they take hostages.
Second, look for patterns of unresponsive behavior. Snakes can pretend to listen and show empathy when they don’t have a vested interest in the outcome, but in the long run, they choose the self-serving action, ignoring the feelings of others.
Finally, stay away from creatures you suspect might be snakes. When I see a legless reptile slither across my path in the woods, I don’t stop to do an identification. With alacrity I take myself someplace that the snake isn’t. That advice will work for the two-legged kind too. You can’t reform a snake. You can get away from it, or it can bite you. No other choice remains. Therefore, beware of snakes in suits, golf attire, formal wear, and business casual.
For more information about psychopathology, see Snakes in Suits by Babiak and Hare.