Shining a light on the dark side
Another leader fails and derails. A CEO resigns, is sacked or sent to prison. The costs are high for all stakeholders, the consequences considerable. How and why were these people ever selected in the first place? What was missed? Can psychologists’ eagle eyes spot those doomed to fail, or is it only hindsight that is 20:20?
In a report from the Institute of Policy Studies in 2013, researchers examined the performance of the 241 corporate chief executives who had ranked among America’s 25 highest-paid CEOs in one or more of the previous 20 years. Their analysis revealed widespread poor performance. The report’s key finding: nearly 40 per cent of the CEOs on these highest-paid lists were eventually ‘bailed out, booted, or busted’. The question is how and why that occurred, and could it have been prevented? It’s a question that has exercised a lot of selection committees, the media and, more recently, academics.
Management failure, as opposed to success, has only been studied for the last 30 or so years. In America, Tulsa psychologist Robert Hogan developed a theory, a psychometric test, and a loyal following. His ‘Hogan Development Survey’ has inspired much research and a new take on selecting, and indeed coaching, senior managers and leaders. Paradoxically, this is done less thoroughly and thoughtfully than selecting graduates.
Importantly, Hogan also gives clues as to what ‘dark-side traits’ to select out, rather than ‘bright-side traits’ to select in. He calls these traits the ‘derailers’. There’s now an active research effort on these dark-sideand dark triadexplanations for leadership failure, with special issues of journals, books on the business psychopath pioneered by psychologist Paul Babiak and psychiatrist Robert Hare, research pioneered by Delroy Paulhus in Canada, and a number of psychologists like Rob Kaiser running very successful consulting businesses to help organisations avoid pitfalls in selection.
These researchers seek primarily an individual difference explanation for how, when and why people fail spectacularly in leadership roles. Others take a more social and situational approach, but the literature is dominated by personality and clinical psychologists. Three things, all of which are surprising and counterintuitive to many people, characterise this growing and important literature.
First is the large number of leaders who fail and derail. The data from over a dozen studies, which I reviewed in my 2014 book Bullies and Bastards, suggest the number may be as high as 50 per cent: that is, failure of one sort or other is as common as success. It is therefore surprising that the topic has been neglected for so long.
Second, failure and derailment comes as a shock to many because those that do fail have nearly always been regarded as high flyers and in the talent group. It is those who have often been lauded and chosen for particular talents that are most often among the derailers. Why does a supposedly highly successful, carefully selected leader fail and derail?
Third, failure is not exclusively due to the personality and pathology. Tim Judge and colleagues, in a brilliant review paper, pointed out that two other factors play an important role. The first is organisational culture and processes, which can allow and even sow seeds of management failure. The second is employees or followers who are prepared to go along with, and obey, the derailing leader. For fire you need heat, oxygen and fuel; for derailment you need personal pathology, willing followers and a poorly regulated and managed corporate culture. Yet many organisations who have experienced significant derailment in leaders prefer the ‘bad apple’, individualistic explanations for failure. They quite naturally resist the explanation that it was predominantly ‘bad barrel’ organisational processes and procedures that encouraged the derailment. In this sense there are attribution issues: the organisation blaming individuals and vice versa.
Incompetence vs. derailment
It is important to make the distinction between leadership incompetence and derailment. Essentially the incompetent manager is lacking something: most are simply over-promoted. Others are there because of favouritism or simply bad selection. They do not have the skills, the energy, the courage or perhaps the insight to do what is required of a good leader. They fail rather than derail. This issue is amusingly discussed in The Peter Principle, the famous book by Laurence Peter.
In the management literature, derailment has come to mean the demise of an otherwise successful business or political leader who seems to have too muchof a good thing – maybe self-confidence, boldness or courage. Indeed, it is for those characteristics that they were often chosen. However, the strengths became weaknesses possibly because of the way they were overused or because they were, in the first place, compensating for something else missing. There have been a number of papers by myself and colleagues that have shown that some personality disorders are associated both with ‘climbing the greasy pole’ of organisational hierarchy but also ‘sliding down’ rapidly after seriously bad behaviour.
So can we discover the roots of this aberrant, despotic, destructive, malignant, toxic and tyrannic leadership?
Why are they selected?
Most derailed leaders were carefully selected, and often started off well. Selectors may have had a list of competencies that they were seeking to assess. They were told to look for good behavioural evidence that the candidates have these competencies. Unfortunately, this approach overlooks various problems.
Selection involves both ‘select in’ and ‘select out’: looking for characteristics you want and don’t want. It is the failure to do good select-out work that means potential derailers get through selection processes. Also, select-out criteria are often thought of as ‘not enough of the select-in criteria’ rather than as something different. In very important jobs – think nuclear submarine captain, security services – selectors have long been interested in markers of potential problems, but this approach is not widespread. Indeed, if people are asked to list what they do not want in a new recruit they usually have no difficulty in answering, but these characteristics are not always covered in the competencies. Often very senior people are not screened on competency-based methods, as a new graduate may be, and this could in part account for why their dark sides are not spotted.
So what’s the answer? A check-list of questions (or, indeed, questionnaires) may give useful insight into potential derailers. Questions may relate to how they describe and explain failure; how they build trust. But often dark-side managers are particularly skilled at interviews where they can display their impressive impression management – they enjoy it. Much better to interrogate those who have worked with and for them (of which more later).
More is not always better
When selecting for particular competencies or features (team work, innovativeness) selectors erreously assume that more is better (linearity), rather than adopting a more cautious curvilinear approach. Thus, while high self-esteem is good and healthy, this might tip over into sub-clinical narcissism and then clinical narcissism where it is vulnerable or grandiose. Being rated as a ‘very strong team player’ may indicate someone who ‘hides’ in teams and is dependent rather than independent. A ‘strong analytic thinker’ may easily suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’. Someone who is rated as a mover and shaker may be dysfunctionally impulsive and a bully.
Look to the biography
When an analysis of failed and derailed leaders is made, there is a consistent (and for many, surprising) finding – that there were many early biographical markers of their future failure. And of course situational factors can lead to both stress and derailment, but it may also be the case that dark-side traits in part predict the situations people get into, as well as how they evaluate and respond to them.
A dark-side focused interview
The use of references is notoriously problematic in job selection, yet a detailed structured interview with people who have known the candidate well can provide extremely quick, cheap and relevant information. Help is at hand in the many questionnaires that have been designed to assess personality disorders, which I reviewed with colleagues in a 2013 paper. But to really zero in on the core issues, I would suggest that whilst there are many factors that might indicate that a leader could derail, there are three that are always most important, and they concern issues like empathy, intimacy, identity, learning and transitioning:
- self awareness; and
Can the person establish and maintain healthy, happy, long-term relationships with various sorts of people, inside and outside the workplace? This is all about ‘emotional quotient’, but also about reciprosity and integrity. Leadership is really about the ability to form, motivate and maintain a team to be more successful than the competitors.Whilst nearly all researchers have demonstrated that problems with interpersonal relationships are at the heart of the problem for derailed managers, it has been suggested that these are often complemented by a whole number of self-defeating behaviours. These include being rigid, hostile, overcommitted, suspicious and defensive. Interestingly, these very behaviours make it less likely that a candidate will respond to questions about their relationship-building skills, so ring up half a dozen people who worked with them and ask them instead. This is a cheap, efficient way of getting valid data and is used now more and more by those involved in the recruitment of senior people.
Does the person have insight into themselves? This is defined as the accurate appraisal and understanding of your abilities and preferences and their implications for your behaviour and their impact on others. It is essentially reality-testing: a calibration against the facts of life. Self-awareness is partly knowledge about the self: strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and passions, idiosyncrasies and normalness. There is an academic literature on the benefits and consequences of self-awareness, particularly in terms of abilities. Beware the executive with an inflated opinion of their intelligence, decision making and persuasiveness. Hubris is one of the major causes of management failure.
It has frequently been observed that a derailed leader’s early career success was often responsible for their later failure – they failed to learn. At various times in a work career people have to learn to let go of old, odd, dysfunctional assumptions and beliefs. Further, they need to acquire new skills and ideas. This often means exposing themselves to learning situations that can be threatening and that may involve failure. We also know that curiosity, linked to personality (openness) and intelligence is a marker of learning and agility, and therefore, adaptation in a quickly changing world.
On the right track
Once a quiet academic backwater the dark-side literature has emerged into the light, both in the academic world and in applied settings. Dark-side measures have been used to help select, as well as coach, people in very high positions (including university vice chancellors!). Challenges remain. This is not easy research, as it involves ‘real people’ in ‘real settings’, where it can be difficult to even define ‘management success’ or ‘failure’, let alone gather observational and behavioural data on it.
Yet the prize is worth reaching for. It has long been argued that we learn more from failure than we do from success, and studies on leadership derailment can inform our understanding of healthy leadership. And the use of dark-side measures in selection can help panels to probe on a number of important issues, like excessive self-confidence, a weak moral compass and flamboyance. When we’re talking about such important and senior roles, it’s clear that the time, money and effort at this stage in selection can prevent an almighty mess if that person were to come off the tracks further down the line.
- Adrian Furnham is Professor of Psychology at the Norwegian Business School
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