Understanding the behaviour of people in organisations: social norms and corporate psychopaths
The way in which people behave is fascinating and, as psychologists suggest, better understanding of the influences on people will create opportunities for managers.
For the majority of us, most of the time, we are predictable. This gives psychologists the ability to theorise about what would appear to be logical and rational phenomena.
The trouble is, though, we are all capable of 'free-will' and, as sentient beings, are subject to a range of innate motivations and emotions. However, this 'problem' seems to give psychology no apparent problem though I would say that it becomes, at best, a pseudo-science.
Nonetheless, as a management scholar, I am always willing to consider the views (theories) that psychologists believe will assist in our understanding of the influences on people's behaviour.
Increasingly organisations use techniques such as psychometric testing to select candidates; especially for senior management positions.
Therefore, I was especially interested in an article in the October edition of The Harvard Business Review by Steve Martin in which he provides a justification for the use of social norms in encouraging different forms of behaviour that will potentially make organisations operate more efficiently.
In '98% of HBR Readers Love This Article' Martin is deliberately using a title to elicit interest.
Martin explains that the phenomenon known as 'social norms' can be used to encourage people to be motivated to behave in certain ways by appealing, according to psychological theory, to our apparent desire to conform with the majority perceive to be accepted ways of doing things.
As the theory goes, this desire is strengthened if we wish to be part of the group or at least identify with it and Martin cites come examples of research work that he has been involved in.
One concerns the UK tax system and concerned the problem of those who did not pay on time and had to be pursued (which costs money).
Accordingly, he describes, the usual method of dealing with late payment was by the use of threats of charges, fines and legal action.
In an experiment that Martin was part of in 2009, letters sent out to those who were due to pay their tax included language placed emphasis on the benefits that their money would bring to wider society; to appeal to their "civic duty":
"We collect taxes to make sure that money is available to fund the public services that benefit you and other UK citizens. Even if one person fails to pay their taxes it reduces the services and resources that are provided."
In another letter there was use of the statistic that nine out of ten UK citizens pay on time which would mean that anyone failing to do so were art of the minority and, of course not conforming.
In the tradition of all good research it is worth letting the data (results) of the experiment tell their own story. As Martin states, in the previous year for a particular 'portfolio of debt' that was used HMRC collected £290million out of £510 which is represents a success rate of 57%.
In 2009 after the letters containing the new wording were sent out the success rate was increased to 86% which, apparently, resulted in additional revenue through taxation of £5.6million. Certainly not small beer!
Another example is equally persuasive.
Exercise machine provider NordicTrack changed a in their advertising 'Operators are standing by' to 'If operators are busy, please call again' and resulted in making this one of the highest selling products.
Martin concludes the article by stating that using social norms can achieve massive savings through efficiencies that will result in massive savings; he states "billions, not just millions." This would suggest that the technique can be used to encourage people within the organisation to alter their behaviour.
For example, in the management of change there is usually great stress placed on the need to inculcate values (through modified behaviour) that align with the altered goals of the organisation. This is especially the case if the organisation wishes to become more customer-focused.
What becomes interesting about the use of such psychological techniques is that they give the pretence that it is easy to achieve consistent and compliant behaviour though I accept that this is not all bad.
It's legitimate to ask whether using scientific approaches to attempt to predict and manage the behaviour of people ever really tells us everything we really need to know about good and bad organisational behaviour?
A more pertinent question is whether it is always good to have people behaving in exactly the same way?
If you wish to encourage creative and innovative thinking it is might be good to have some individuals who, though I won't posit a percentage figure, are permitted to be non-compliant and are and willing to break the rules in pursuit of what they perceive to be the 'right' result.
The challenge for organisations is in being able simultaneously encourage creative and innovative thinking (which is good), whilst at the same time maintaining control over those whose personalities lead them to be reckless and take unnecessary risks (obviously bad).
In reading Martin's article I was struck by the thought that he didn't simply say everyone, i.e. 100%, loved his article. Maybe he was hedging his bets on the very sensible basis that there will always be someone who wants to disagree.
This then led me to wonder about those individuals whose personality traits means that they not do not care about social norms, but wilfully disregard them; psychopaths.
In particular I am considering the belief that many senior managers in organisations are promoted on the basis of their independent thinking and refusal to join the 'pack'. Indeed, some believe that it is a virtue to be a maverick.
Research carried out by Clive Boddy and contained in his book Corporate Psychopaths, Organizational Destroyers (published in 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan), describes what effect these individuals have and how, as the book title suggests, the harm they may bring.
In his book, Boddy presents empirical evidence to show the presence of psychopaths in organisations tends to result conflict and bullying in the workplace, increased workload with attendant problems of stress, reduced job satisfaction and that corporate social responsibility becomes less important.
Citing research by others, Boddy shows that the incidence of psychopaths in corporations is greater than would be expected to be found among the general population. Moreover, he claims, corporate psychopaths are more likely to exist in senior organisational positions than elsewhere.
The criteria that test for psychopathy were originally developed by a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Hervey Cleckley and published in his book The Mask of Sanity in 1942 (originally published by C.V. Mosley Co).
Cleckley's originally defined a psychopath as someone who has the ability to appear more 'attractive than normal' when others first meet them and seem sound in judgement, ethics, values and reasoning. However, he believes, the reality is that are unable to feel real love or empathy with others and will commit acts that have appalling consequences for others (adultery, fraud, theft, including casual sexual encounters) but with no remorse or guilt.
According to Cleckley, their apparent self-belief in the correctness of the judgment will mean that they are able to defend themselves with such conviction that their actions remain hidden until it is too late.
Moreover, as Boddy reports, there is strong evidence to show that psychopathy is positively associated with ratings of charisma and good presentation styles and negatively associated with ratings of responsibility and performance.
Consequently, Boddy contends, corporate psychopaths tend to be promoted because their 'persuasive charm and manipulative ness' disguises their lack of managerial ability.
What seems to be clear is that given the damage we know has been inflicted to the economy by corporate bankers who, at best, were egotistical and fuelled by greed and hubris, we should do more to either spot these people or, better still, to ensure that organisations are run by senior managers who have a greater sense of morality.
That way we might at least avoid the potential for another global financial crisis. We might also have organisations and businesses that are managed on the basis of consensus and for the greater good.
The trouble is, whether corporate psychopaths are less likely to be promoted to senior positions in organisations is questionable.
Ultimately, there is no simple or straightforward answers as to what is normal behaviour and therefore what constitutes the social norms that an organisation may wish to encourage?
What does seem a little irksome is that the so called 'behavioural scientists', an expression I find problematic, should be seen as having the ability to create easy answers. Nonetheless, there are many who put great faith in what they suggest in terms of persuasion techniques and techniques such as NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming).
Should you be interested Steve Martin has co-authored with a Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive (Free Press, 2008).
Perhaps social norms hold the power to achieve really incredible things. Alternatively they may simply be just common sense.
Worse, maybe it may be that a good deal of what passes for organisational psychological theory is suspect.
I'll leave it for you to decide what you think is important in your organisation and what methods are most likely to influence people's organisational behaviour.
It might be interesting to use the test for spotting corporate psychopaths see if you can spot those in your organisation who display traits that suggest they are likely to engage in misbehaviour.
Be warned, though it might seem like fun to start off with, you might not like what you discover!