Tuesday, December 16, 2003

PART III: Approaches for Coping
with Sociopathic Bosses  

In the last pair of entries I discussed in general organizations run by a head-man who behaves like a sociopath, and the Yankees in particular.

It's not a very common model, although a surprising number of them move to the top of their field, and some even endure. The Yankees have a wonderful record of success, and if you're a stockholder, you probably think General Electric has a fair track record (though if you're a buyer of any of their consumer products, you almost certainly don't). Others, Like Sunbeam, fail.

But what do you do if you are in an organization run like this; how do you cope? I promised some partially-effective approaches. There's nothing in my tool kit that's assuredly successful. Here are my suggestions, in decending order of effectiveness.

1. Don't ever hire on under any circumstances. If you're up for a job in an organization you don't work for, and the job is one someone just got fired from, nose around. The head-man in a sociopathic organization will be very seductive (and his henchfolk will, too). He may have a good cop, a very empathetic co-dependent whose main purpose is to bring in fresh meat to get chewed up. The good cop will tell you the incumbent was incompetent, and they really need you to bring some class to the organization. Some additional warning signs: much higher than market scale pay; a sense of urgency; reports oozing from the head-man and his good cop about this and that incompetent who had to be let go; a level of pursuit that's almost like flirting. The good cop will always be able to convince herself that The Boss is about to turn a corner, and if not, he'll at least have a toy to toy with who isn't her. If you think there's even the vaguest chance the organization is sociopathic, insist on getting evrything promised to you in writing. To most sociopathic-acting bosses, signed contracts, like any kind of accountability, are like garlic to a vampire...not fatal but very repulsive, and you can out them with the polite request for one. The ones who are true sociopaths, btw, will go ahead and sign one anyway, not caring about the consequences, so it's not a perfect strategy.

2. Get the heck out as soon as you can do it on your own terms. It appears the Yanks G.M. Brian Cashman is doing just that. Having come up from a lowly office job to G.M. of a most successful franchise, Cashman is now in a position to shop his services elsewhere. There's not much more he can do in New York -- they've won the Series with him in the position. Steinbrenner has worn out Cashman's loyalty, if you can believe the story linked to here. He has a good reputation, although some probably believe anyone of reasonable skill could succeed given the Yankees' resources. It makes sense for Cashman to move on and see if he can prove himself with a franchise that doesn't behave as though it has unlimited funds. Sadly, once a functionally-sociopathic boss no longer has the power to fire you, he will almost invariably try to mess with you in other ways...tarnish your reputation, try to undermine other job opportunities, withhold agreed-upon exit wages or threaten to go back on other agreements. In the Yankees case, it looks like Cashman has to be released to go elsewhere because Steinbrenner has an option on him for another year after this one, and it's pretty common for the functionally-sociopathic boss to resent an employee he likes to terrorize escaping from his clutches, exposing his impotence.

3. Build a plan to overthrow the head-man and save the organization. This has been my pattern. I don't recommend it. Too much trouble and likely to fall on deaf ears. I did succeed in helping to bring down one such boss who behaved as though he was a sociopath, by making a point of contacting every one of his serial victims and getting them to write letters to the C-level guy the head-man reported to. There were other factors, but because some of the victims had been treated in a way many courts would consider sexual harassment and because this man carried a concealed weapon sometimes, there were enough cautionary indications that when the company had a thin business excuse, they let him go, though it was after I was already gone. The problem with this kind of rescue behavior is an organization that deserved it would rarely have allowed a person like this to run the lives of 100 people in the first place.

4. Don't be a "Tall Poppy", and keep your exit plan current and polished. The Australians have an expression, "Don't be a tall poppy". It means don't attract attention. In the sociopathic organization, acting fearless, refusing to respond to the head-man's routines, makes you a tall poppy. Being entertainingly fearful (in response to the head-man's initiatives), like asking for reviews or asking how you can please him more by being better or by cowering or hiding when he's in one of his (frequently staged) rages or scolds also makes you a tall poppy. The model is to act fearful, but in a moderate, boring way that doesn't attract his attention. Don't run out of the room and hide, but don't be conveniently near, either. And always have an exit plan ready, evolving week to week. Plan on not being able to have a reference from this company. Do good (not great) work; you don't want to be recognized as an achiever, because the boss who behaves like a sociopath will frequently sacrifice or simply serially humiliate an achiever to terorize other employees. This avoidance is a strategy I don't care for at all; I think it makes people lose their edge, because once most people get used to dogging it, it's harder to excel, to ratchet it back up. In the Permafrost Economy, some people have so few choices that this one becomes viable, though. It's conceivable you may outlast a functionally-sociopathic boss without doing anyhting intentional designed to shorten his tenure. This seems to have been the survival model of choice for middle-class Iraqi people from the late 1980s right up to today.

Brian Cashman probably has more options than you do, and it seems to make him both more able and more willing to take abuse from his boss. What would you do if you had his job?

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