HR Guy Creates High Potential Psychopaths.

Tick tock.  24 hours until announcing the downsizing.  Names come off the list, go on the list, transfer opportunities and newly created jobs appear.  So interesting are the discussions regarding the “high potentials.”  I get to be fly on the wall for a lot of these, and it’s stunning how real the conversations can be.  “High potential?  My ass.”  “Stevens put him on there; Stevens is gone, and he should be too.”  “She’s OK, but no way she can make 2 vertical moves in 5 years.”  “Yeah those two get results, but there are dead bodies everywhere.”  So the question is what happens when there is no lay-off?  Do these designated high potentials now have a license to commit organizational murder?  I know there is no blanket answer here, but some sure do.  In fact they are sometimes the one saying “High potential my ass” after having been identified as a high potential by the next level up.

What many of us will experience is interaction with some destructive and dangerous folks that we have in part created.  In a quest to validate the importance of succession planning, the HR function, and our own power base by brokering many succession related organizational moves, we’ve created work place psychopaths.  Oh, I’m guilty of this.  At one point in my previous life, I supposedly had responsibility for 18,009 employees in 29 countries.  I called my old bosses and we reminded each other of how many “misses” we had. They said I missed them all.  They may be right?

Anyway, I’m not referring to Dahmer, Gacy, or Bundy types but rather a Kevin Spacey in Horrible Bosses type. Psychopathic behavior is not illegal or classified as a mental illness.  Many of our behavioral metrics confuse psychopathy with commonly espoused corporate success attributes and raw talent.  How many high potentials have a strong bias for action, results orientation, are resilient, articulate, intelligent, and charismatic? Their presence can disarm skeptics, but without a moral compass, or the emotions of empathy, guilt or loyalty, what you have is psychopathic behavior.

Searching internally and externally for world-class talent, we sometimes see what we want to see.  “She oozes leadership skills takes charge, makes decisions, etc.”  We see innovation and calculated risk while ignoring the consequences of forced decisions. We miss the slickly repositioned but dysfunctional drivers of personality domination and manipulation into a socially acceptable leader that lasts long enough in one position to get the next promotion.

These employees may have a limited perspective and inflexible approach toward life.  Easy enough to get past this, but fold in an incessant need for admiration with a sense of superiority, inflexibility and narrow-mindedness and you have the narcissist.  Narcissism is one of ten defined personality disorders and can deliver a high maintenance prima donna who feels that the world revolves around them.  Here are ten signs to look for:

  • Comes across as smooth, polished and charming to impress and influence others.
  • Turns most conversations around to a discussion of him or her to get publicity and reputation.
  • Silent sabotage, discredits, puts down others in order to build up own image and reputation.
  • Over exaggerating, faking data, lies to coworkers, customers, or business associates with straight face.
  • Considers people he or she has outsmarted or manipulated as dumb or stupid.
  • Opportunistic; insincere, arrogant, untrustworthy, take chance, hates to lose, plays ruthlessly to win.
  • Comes across as cold and calculating, puts blame on others and makes them scapegoats.
  • Acts in an unethical or dishonest manner while gaining advantages.
  • Creates a power network in the organization and uses it for personal gains.
  • Shows no regret for making decisions that negatively affect the organization, peers, company, shareholders, or employees to achieve personal goals.

So what can you do about them?  Well, just do the first step which is identifying the signs.  The second step is not to play psychologist or expect that the manager will.   Managers do however need to document the behaviors that cross our ethical and social codes.  Those are what should be dealt with as documented performance issues.

Disruptive performance must be challenged head-on with zero-tolerance for repeated abuses or complaints being clearly defined as the expectation.  If it continues, professional assistance via EAP or other means might be introduced.

When all else fails, termination is probably best.  Sure, we in HR can claim that our hands are tied in dealing with personality disorders and mental illness as they could be positioned as disabilities but, documentation is what makes or breaks any challenges.  If we helped create the problem, we should help fix the problem.

The focus for all those concerned should be on how behavior, whether good or bad impacts performance; not on the personality itself.  Focusing on inflexibility or false data may be how you frame the performance issue that is ultimately directed at an individual’s personality.  If these individuals do not modify their behavior or are not removed, you run the risk of losing your true high potentials. By rationalizing that true validation of high potentials was the responsibility of county or regional HR, I caused true high performers to resign.  No doubt about it.  How could I have known the true behavioral patterns of an operations leader in Belarus or a R&D leader in Portugal?  By working harder.  These are high pedestals that we put these folks on, and I should have done a better job.  Don’t repeat my mistakes.


Posted on October 4, 2011, in Employee Engagement, Employee Relations, HR Management & Leadership., Talent Management and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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