Most are not serial killers – in fact psychopaths are more likely to find their way into politics, boardrooms or media organisations than be jailed for murder.” Will Black
In this post, I want to show how some of the behaviours that have become standard or accepted in the world of social media communications, share qualities with what might be seen as indicators of psychopathy.
I don’t want to offend or dehumanise those who have this serious personality disorder or hurt their unfortunate victims.
This is an attempt to look at the traits associated with the condition of psychopathy and to consider how we might learn from these human behaviours and what we can more effectively do as organisations.
It’s called social media, not corporate media
For those of us working using social media, it’s telling to see that some behaviours we classify as being ‘standard communications ‘techniques’, in fact mimic the behaviours of a person with an anti-social personality disorder. Is that how we want to represent our organisation?
I think it’s useful to check ourselves every now and then – is this social media or corporate media?
It’s not so odd to suggest that an organisation, or discipline, displays these characteristics. I recently re-read Will Black’s book ‘Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires’ and one of the main arguments he makes is that the practices, processes and habits in an organisation can be completely dysfunctional because of the legacy of charismatic, exploitative and powerful psychopaths who have previously been in charge.
Indeed, research shows that CEOs can be inclined towards these traits with 1 in 25 business leaders possibly being psychopaths.
I’d argue that the structures and environments we work in can push communicators towards more psychopathic output. And we need to push back.
If you want to be a social business, or you have designs on making your organisation more relevant to people’s lives (AKA ‘reputation management’ for you PR types) – we need to ensure we don’t display these traits too often.
It’s only in the past few years, I’ve felt less awkward suggesting that communicators aim to answer all comments and questions from their audiences. Not doing so can be interpreted by onlookers as not caring about complaints or what people are saying – a callous lack of empathy.
Most good communicators now agree that this may well be hard to manage but it’s a credible and worthwhile aim, even if they’re not resourced well enough to answer everything.
However, when I bring up the idea of sharing and commenting on posts from our communities (citizens we serve, customers, tenants, whatever you want to call them), it still makes people uncomfortable.
‘We’ll just share information from partner organisations and ‘important people’ – it’s the professional, quick, easy way to curate content”. But it’s not the right way.
Your organisation has a grandiose sense of self-worth to think that in conversations, people only want to talk about you and your corporate chums.
How many people do you know who only ever talk about themselves and what they do, and they’re not interested in what you say unless it relates to them? Do you think that’s social behaviour?
Yet on behalf of your organisation you share your own content. Links to your website. You make your own videos. All about the organisation. It’s not social.
The way people are spoken to is also an issue. In my chart on answering people, it’s highlighted that the best way to deal with angry people is to try to understand the issue from their point of view. Otherwise your words will be emotionally shallow.
The chart also tries to encourage the use of an apology. Blame shifting and not resolving complaints is a failure to accept responsibility for own actions and shows lack of remorse or guilt.
This might seem obvious but each day there are still examples of companies wriggling out of saying sorry and rectifying problems they caused.
Trying to wriggle out of mistakes (which every organisation will make) or cover things up will also account for pathological lying – what I have come to know as ‘spin’. The profession of PR and communications has been tainted by the few spin doctors who use disingenuous, deceptive, and highly manipulative tactics.
That’s not us. We help organisations connect with communities, we don’t lie for them.
In defence of us communications people (and psychopaths)
It’s well known though that people often find psychopaths attractive, and exciting. They have superficial charm.
Charisma is attention-grabbing whether superficial or not. They do some things right. And so do we, as an industry.
Psychopaths can also be cunning. Being strategic and having a strong focus on what you’re working to achieve – amazing traits in a communications team.
But, let’s be a bit more sociable – keeping these excellent and professional skills while also playing down the less social parts.
We don’t do spin
In-house communications teams and those who have organisations as clients must adapt to our surrounding. And we often fall into the ways organisation.
We are not spin doctors – our communications are the product of the reality of how these places run.
But we can hopefully use our powers and skills to lead the organisation toward more social organisational behaviours. Because we are ace at influencing and all that stuff. We have the skills and the charm but also – a heart.
If you’re intrigued by this concept, of cultures and structure being messed up by anti-social leaders and employees, read ’Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires’.
Traits mentioned are from the first two facets of the Psychopathy Checklist – revised (PCL-R).