There is now research to back up what many of us already knew--there are some crazy managers out there. A disproportionate number of C-level executives have sociopathic tendencies, according to a recent study. But what does this actually mean?
I have worked for managers that yell, throw things, and publically demean their people. When one is on the receiving end, it's easy to categorize this behavior as crazy. But when one is delivering, it's just as easy to see it as merited to get the job done.
Because of the way the brain processes perceptual data, our view of any given person or event is at least as much a function of what goes on inside the brain as outside in the world. Our tendency is always to interpret our experience in the terms that are most favorable to us personally.
But now in The Other Side of Normal, Jordan Smoller offers us some insight into sociopathology based on recent discoveries in neuroscience. The human brain has evolved to enable us to manage our relationships with others, and there are two systems at work.
The first, fueled by our mirror neurons, allows us to empathize, and to feel what others feel. The second, involving the executive networks in the brain, is responsible for what's known as the Theory of Mind. This is our realization that others possess minds like ours, but at the same time see things and respond differently.
With dealing with other people, our mirror neurons drive compassion while our Theory of Mind drives calculation. When it comes to getting others to do our bidding, the essence of a manager's challenge, the two work in tandem. But when there is no empathy, we are capable of doing hurtful and counterproductive things.
Smoller's premise is that we can't really draw a line between what is normal and what is not. Behavior is best understood on a sliding scale. We are all a little sociopathic to one degree or another and we are all capable of varying degrees of empathy.
At one end of the scale are managers that mercilessly drive for their interests at the expense of others. At the other are managers that just can't exert the control necessary to get things done.
The mind is very adaptable and can learn. By consciously focusing our attention on others, we can increase our capacity for empathy. By consciously stepping back and taking in the big picture, we can become more strategic in pursuing our goals.
We just need to reason out what we specifically want to accomplish and plan how to encourage people to work with us to accomplish it, with due attention paid to how they feel.
Striking the right balance is the art and science of management, but it requires that we recognize and address our limitations when it comes to empathy and Theory of Mind. So perhaps the first question we should ask is "Are we sociopaths?"