Creative Leadership

Why People Act in Destructive Ways

I was talking to an associate the other day about a baffling situation. We were discussing a great non-profit organization with a terrific CEO and huge potential.  But the head of their donor development department is a real puzzle.  In spite of tons of evidence to the contrary, he absolutely refuses to change his strategy on fundraising.  It’s amazing really. Everyone else sees the right direction as clear as day, but this guy apparently lives in a parallel universe.

He’s a relatively new employee, and the CEO isn’t keen on everyone knowing he hired a loser, so the CEO is sticking with him in spite of the flood of contradictory information.  It’s a shame because as long as this person is in charge of fundraising, they’ll never grow.  In fact, my friend has documented a painful death not too far in the future if the organization continues down this road.

After our conversation, I read a fascinating article by Theodore Dalrymple, writing in The Wall Street Journal on how psychopath’s think.  His article focused on how patients who commit acts of violence are convinced it’s not the “real” they, but someone else who committed the awful deed.

Even the perpetrator’s lovers or family accepted this bizarre thinking as well as if he wasn’t really one person, but a Jekyll and Hyde style split personality.  Obviously, the donor development guy at this non-profit isn’t a psychopath – but there are so many unqualified leaders or managers that are literally killing organizations, I think it’s worth a look.

For instance, I could easily point to numerous employees at major organizations who would rather let the organization die than actually admit they’re wrong or incapable of doing the job.  Is it insecurity?  To a great degree yes.  But even deep insecurity doesn’t explain the extremes these people are willing to go to hide their incompetence.

Now back to psychopaths.  Here’s what Dalrymple says:

“The reasons for the popularity of this “real me” psychology are not hard to seek. For a perpetrator, it preserves his sense of being a fundamentally good and decent person. 

A man who threw acid in his girlfriend’s face in a fit of jealous rage once told me that he intended to plead not guilty (though he acknowledged that, physically-speaking, he had done the act) because “I don’t do things like that.” By the word “I” he meant “the real me”; and the fact that he had done it once before did not affect his sense of his own beautiful and innocent essence. Someone else inhabiting his body did it. As for the victim, she often accepts that it was not the real “him” who did it, because she still loves him, does not want to acknowledge that she has made a bad choice, and needs an excuse to continue to consort with him without losing her self-respect.”

At the organizational level, a leader or manager can go to incredible extremes to save face, even at the cost of the organization itself.  They’re often obsessed with looking good, and many are consumed with an outward show of loyalty and integrity.  As a result, on the outside they look like the best employee possible.  But on the inside, they’re slowly feeding the organization poison.

Call me crazy, but a few of these folks might be working for you.

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  1. A fascinating book along similar lines is –  Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

    I don’t agree with all the conclusions in the book, but the description of the psychology behind certain strange behaviors is nonetheless both interesting and compelling.  Here’s a description of the book from Amazon:

    “Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they screw up? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell?

    Backed by years of research and delivered in lively, energetic prose, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-deception—how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.”

  2. Is there any chance that he is on the right path and everyone else has accepted the status quo. What happened to the person before, was he following the herd or taking a different approach?

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