Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare is a partnership between an I-O psychologist (Babiak) and a clinical psychologist (Hare). In the preface, they state that their primary goal is to assist us in protecting ourselves and our organisations from falling prey to these predators. In that way alone, this book is interesting, informative, and entertaining.
Psychopaths make up a very small percent of the general population (about 1%) in strict diagnostic terms, though the authors believe that they may be disproportionately represented in workplaces, maybe as high as 10%. These people infiltrate our organisations and are surprisingly successful in reaching their goals and ruining the lives of those around them.
For those who have some influence over management assessment and selection, there is a whole section called ‘Enemy at the Gates’ that provides guidance on how to design systems to uncover this type of person before they become embedded in the organisation. For example, many leadership assessment processes include multi-method assessments, such as structured interviews, assessment centres, panel interviews, and 360 degree feedback. These multi-perspective methods are designed to guard against any one person being put in the position to totally determine the fate of a candidate, because individual decision makers are easy prey for the psychopath.
Part of the problem is that psychopaths do especially well in times of great change or chaos when a take charge person can be valuable and when communication breaks down, the best friend of the deceiver. Successful psychopaths can sometimes even reach a position of formal or informal power and influence where they can hijack the very human resource systems designed to discover them and render them useless.
By their very nature, psychopaths rely on our naive trust, unwillingness to rock the boat, inability to talk to each other, and willingness to rely on instincts that can totally mislead us. We need to be aware of our own tendencies to trust and, in turn, to be deceived, manipulated, bullied, cheated, and abandoned by people such as ‘snakes in suits.’