Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work
December 21, 2008
We all work and live with other people. But do we really understand other minds, other personalities, other people? It seems not.
The people who trusted Bernie Madoff lost billions of dollars. How could he have done such a thing, they ask themselves. He was so charming. Many have even rationalized Madoff's conduct.
Some are theorizing that Madoff didn't initially intend to cheat anyone. Wall Street writer Henry Blodget speculates:
I suppose that's possible. Or it could be that Madoff is a psychopath. Strong word? Not really.
People gasp when I refer to someone as a sociopath or psychopath. "You can't be right, Mike. So-and-so has never killed anyone." That people associate sociopathy and psychopathy with criminal acts reveals the ignorance we have of abnormal psychology. One need not kill, rape, or maim anyone to be a psychopath - indeed, most don't. Instead, they make our lives miserable in more mundane ways.
In Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (Amazon.com link) the authors examine the psychopaths we encounter daily. Not in prisons or courtrooms - but in the home and office.
Calling someone a psychopath refers to his mental state. Some psychopaths will kill, though most won't. Some will rob, though most won't. Psychopaths tend to be more mundane, making your life miserable at work, stealing credit for your projects, cheating on you, taking away business opportunities. Most psychopathics aren't criminals. Rather, they walk the streets with you and me.
A psychopath lacks an emotional core. They don't feel empathy, or remorse, or shame. If they tortured you, they'd be repulsed at seeing blood stains on their clothing. "How will I remove this spot," would be a greater concern than your screams. A psychopathic co-worker would be gladly steal credit for you work.
In Snakes in Suits, the authors give advice on how one can spot a psychopath. Using narrative, they show a psychopathy in the office - from hiring to firing. Their narrative is is illustrative and thus effective.
While educating the reader on how to spot a psychopathy, amazingly, the authors stress that one must never label another person a psychopath. But why?
They gives no reason other than we lack qualifications to do so. While I may not have a Ph.D., I read Snakes in Suits for practical advice? I'll read Plato if I want something abstract. Like most educated people, the authors have knowledge but lack wisdom.
Failing to label someone a psychopath could ruin your life. What's the worst that would happen if, in your own mind, you falsely labeled someone a psychopath? You might miss out on a good friend? I suppose that's a loss. But how likely is that loss?
The psychopath's chief tool is charm. How many truly charming people do you know who are also good people? Not many, I suspect. Most philander, float from job to job - producing little but somehow making out like bandits.
Charm is usually not a virtue in itself, but is a cover. The most charming people I've known were also the worst people I've ever known. If you're a good person, do you need to be charming? Of course not. Your goodness will show through in your actions. Unlike a charming person, a genuinely good person builds a record of reliability and good deeds.
Most good, legitimate people have quirks, real quirks. They can be charming at times, but they aren't Frank Sinatras. Someone who is too charming is someone to avoid.
Wisdom would thus counsel one to not go around telling everyone you've spot a psychopath, but to liberally use the label for your own benefit. Life is a probability game. Falsely labeling someone a psychopathy will not harm you as much as failing to label someone a psychopathy.
Despite the book's flaws, Snakes in Suits is higly recommended. It's readable and enlightening. People too often focus on abnormal psychology within the context of murderers and rapists. Most of us won't be raped or murdered. But we will nonetheless encounter psychpaths. Snakes in Suits will help you see reality for what it is. As the metaphoric title suggests, look deeper than the suit if you want to spot the snake.