When and why 'Nice Guy' management fails

A sympathetic supervisor can be surprisingly easy prey for the psychopathic employee

Things have changed since I was reading undergraduate management textbooks. Back then, the list of management styles was short: Autocratic, laissez faire, and democratic (or collegial).

On a personal level, I’ve worked under all three of these styles and categorize myself as collegial.

Today’s management section of any bookstore displays dozens of books on leadership and management — the list of leadership categories (now famously differentiated from management) seems endless.

Variations of the Collegial Model
The schematic common in many of these books — all written by successful, charismatic characters — is that with the right motivation any team can be high performing. They are, for the most part, variations of the collegial model. They depend on a leader matching the needs of the organization’s mission to the needs of team members in a way that produces employee productivity.

The wonderful thing about these approaches is that they can absolutely work, but with one exception — the employee whose primary motive is a pathological need to be in control.

Collegial leadership requires everyone’s attention to everyone else’s needs with resulting compromise to accomplish goals. For this to work, team members must have some degree of loyalty and feelings of respect or affection for the leader. For the team member who simply does not have the capacity to feel or have empathy, this simply will not happen. If mutual caring is a necessary component of a leader’s style, it has zero chance of success with a disordered person who has no such feeling.

Psychopathy is a prime example of this kind of deficiency.

Characteristics of psychopathy (these people aren’t necessarily “psycho” although it is estimated that a quarter of the prison population could be labeled as such, and lack of empathy is associated with crime) are helpful for managers to know and recognize. According to author Martha Stout, PhD, most psychopaths are like the rest of us except they have no capacity to love.

Emotions for the psychopath are skillfully practiced from their observations of others’ genuine emotions, called upon whenever needed for them to accomplish their manipulative goals.

Stout explains that control and manipulation of others is the psychopath’s prime objective. This is accomplished primarily by lying. She explains that psychopaths are often charming and charismatic, because they are adept at mimicking emotions without fear of feeling like they are being disingenuous. They will often lie just for the sake of lying.

A psychopath’s favorite victim, according to Stout, is someone smart who has power to help them. A well-intentioned collaborative supervisor, who cares about his or her team members and about the organization, is ripe for manipulation.

This kind of leader often assumes that employees share their feelings when, in fact, the psychopathic employee has no such feeling. Psychopaths are experts at engendering pity while feeling no guilt about the maneuver.

It is sad to say that a sympathetic supervisor can be surprisingly easy prey for the psychopathic employee. A person with normal feelings can’t imagine someone being so utterly unmoved, especially a person with highly-practiced skills of faking emotion as psychopaths readily do.

More Options in the Playbook
Teams with empathetic members who perform, even if in their own self-interest, by understanding and caring how others think, can be effectively managed by a collegial leader.

Once the person with no such conscience enters the mix — especially one viewed as a person for whom we should feel sorry, or one viewed as charming and charismatic — collegial management exposes its primary flaw of relying on feelings. This often results in the frustrated collegial manager resorting to punitive and highly-regulated behavior that creates a hardship on everyone and a new challenge for the non-feeling member to find new ways of control and manipulation.

Being aware of people in the organization who have no capacity to respond to emotion-based leadership can provide great relief to the frustrated leader who can’t understand why an employee does not respond to all of the leader’s efforts.

This is not to say collegial management should be abandoned, but rather that leaders must have more options in their playbook.

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