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Are psychopath leaders stifling sustainability and business transformation?

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However, it is essential for workplaces to transform in a sustainable way and move away from socially toxic forms of business management. Enlightened organisations emphasise a more internal and shared shift away from amoral management, integration of ethics into systemic thinking, and a wider spiritual sense of self-awareness.

The pressure to gain a competitive edge encourages the psychopath

Amid the growing need for businesses to focus on the ‘drive for success’, individuals with a willingness to employ high-risk and fast-paced organisational growth strategies are being actively recruited to senior roles. This is deemed by some an acceptable price to pay for short-term commercial advantage.

In this context, it is easy to understand why psychopathic traits and behaviours can become normalised, tolerated and even valued by organisations that pursue fast growth. However, employees and the organisation eventually suffer in a variety of ways, damaging the sustainability of the business. For example, committing risky or unwise ventures can lead to an adverse impact on productivity and financial performance, talented employees are unsupported, and the formation of teams problematic.

Psychopathy, as a trait, can encourage a burn-out culture and even ‘white-collar’ crimes. It can cause people to engage in relational aggression, which eventually affects the business sustainability and sustainable development, and pushes others to have negative emotions towards the organisation and engagement.

In real life, we would rarely meet a colleague or boss with a true psychopathic personality, but psychopaths are known to be attracted to power, prestige, financial gain and positions of influence.

Are commercial pressures distracting us from the real purpose of work?

Increasingly, workforces face demanding, dehumanising work environments and a continuous pressure to increase productivity as a result of a locally and globally competitive business world. Also, add to these various economic crises – which have worsened since COVID-19.

In this landscape, it is not unusual that the culture at the top of organisations pushes management for more aggressive and competitive performance. Such environments can often slowly degrade the very core purpose of work, which is as much about organisational, societal and wider prosperity as it is about human beings and the growth and development of their relationships.

Toxic organisations and dehumanising management structures can turn leadership into merely a force for imposing aggressive growth business models, without proper concern for resourcing them fairly. In other cases, leadership can become amoral, moralistic or irrelevant, paying lip-service to goodness and niceness but without proper action.

Over time, this creates an unsustainable work culture in which increasing pressures and processes accumulate to destabilise trust, weaken wellbeing and personal dignity, and instil doubt in human relations. In turn, this can transform colleagues into strangers with behaviours that echo psychopathic personality disorders: they show a heightened capability for success, use superficial charm, manipulate colleagues or subordinates through gossip, and constantly seek praise. These are all characteristics of psychopathy and can be mistaken as indications of strength.

This is why sustainability-inspired businesses require deep transformations to include not only a wider positive environmental and social impact but also a profound focus on empathy and attention to the value of human beings as more than just their skills, actions or competencies.

The social-relational side of work and the need to move away from socially toxic forms of business management (even if they are profitable), are significant and must be given greater priority to transform our workplaces in a sustainable way.

This article is one of a series exploring the challenges of business transformation.

Visit Improvement Leader Apprenticeship | Managing Business Transformation to read more and discover how Henley’s apprenticeships can drive strategic change and improvement.

More in this series

  • Can your company survive and thrive in today’s evolving business environment?
  • Data doesn’t have to be big to be clever! Why small data is a change agent’s best friend
  • Business transformations – why you need to change your mindset to change your fortunes
  • Many boards are abdicating their ESG responsibilities – they need to wake up to the realities of sustainability
  • Transforming for sustainability
Published 1 July 2022

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