Can psychology predict who will go off the rails?

November 22, 2013

So the former chairman of the UK’s leading ethical bank has been revealed as having an illegal drug habit and a colourful private life not entirely in-keeping with his image as an upstanding member of the community and man of the church. Naturally questions have been asked about just what kind of assessment or vetting process the Co-Op and the Financial Services Authority put him through prior to approving his appointment. My guess is that the “rigorous interview” didn’t involve a psychologist.

Now I’m not suggesting that a psychologist could – or even should – identify criminal, or other ‘undesirable’, activity (offensive tweeting, political extremism, gambling addiction) in someone’s private life.  If a person’s public reputation is really critical, then rigorous background checks and references would seem to be called for.  But what an in-depth psychological profiling exercise can do is highlight risk factors in people’s personalities and identify who might be in danger of going off the rails.

A journey to the dark side

There is now over a decade’s worth of solid research into the ‘shadow side’ of personality – that’s the bit that drives us to do things which are irrational, unhelpful or risky. When we’re too stressed, tired, complacent or drunk to keep up a socially acceptable façade, the mask slips and the less attractive bits of our personalities emerge. Some people have a little bit lurking in their shadow side, some have a lot; a few have nothing at all. But what does the shadow side actually look like?

People’s shadow sides are often their strengths taken too far, which can make it difficult for people to recognise that their behaviour is inappropriate. After all, they’re just doing what they do well. Robert Hogan, who pioneered this work, identified 11 shadow side tendencies, grouped into three clusters, describing how people respond to others under pressure.

Moving towards

First there are the ‘moving towards’ types. They are diligent and loyal, good corporate citizens who don’t rock the boat. Under pressure, however, they turn to others for reassurance, guidance and permission. They may be cautious about acting independently and concerned about getting everything just right. These people don’t so much go off the rails as grind to a halt, where they risk being steam-rollered by more ruthless, competitive colleagues.

Moving away

Then there are ‘moving away’ types. People with these characteristics are independent, shrewd and objective but under pressure they move away from people, either literally or emotionally. They’re not supportive of colleagues in a crisis and may be uncommunicative and stubborn. They may be suspicious for no real reason or drop people whom they believe have let them down. They often get a reputation for being difficult to work with but, to stretch this metaphor, they don’t so much go off the rails as disappear off the train.

Moving against

For a really spectacular derailment, we generally need to turn to the third category – the ‘moving against’ types. These are bold, competitive risk takers. Often charismatic or charming, they generally make a fantastic first impression, so they do well in job interviews.IMG_2549 Under pressure, however, they will do whatever it takes to regain control of the situation. If charm, flattery and persuasion don’t do the trick, then they may resort to manipulation, bullying or ‘bending’ the truth. They may over-reach themselves – perhaps applying to run a bank despite having no banking experience – or take breath-taking risks. ‘Corporate psychopaths’ fit into this category*, as do arrogant narcissists who are never wrong and take the credit for others’ work and vivacious attention-seekers for whom everything is always about them.

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that there are more ‘moving against’ types near the top of organisations because their good points – influencing skills, confidence, appetite for risk – are exactly what organisations look for in senior executives. But as Oliver James described in his recent book on office politics, they can create a toxic environment.

Identifying risky personalities

So in, for example, a recruitment situation, how do you know if you’re dealing with a dangerous maverick? Naturally, I’m going to suggest that psychological profiling will give you a much better understanding of the person you’re interviewing. It’s not just a question of putting someone through a test; it’s knowing how to ask the right questions about the results of that test to find out how and when these risky behaviours might play out – such as the guy with very strong ‘moving away’ tendencies who told me his resignation from his previous organisation (admittedly under some provocation) had involved him telling the CEO precisely where to stick his job and then slamming the phone down. I’m not sure he’d mentioned that to the head hunter.

The limits of profiling

So returning to the Rev Flowers, could I have identified that he (allegedly) had an appetite for cocaine and rent boys. No, I couldn’t. If you want to know about reputation, do your due diligence.  And if you fancy asking interview candidates about their sexual behaviour or drug habits, may I introduce you to a good employment tribunal lawyer.  But could I have told you there were risk factors in his personality which might play out in unpredictable ways, perhaps necessitating more background checks? Well, obviously I have never seen his profile, so can only speculate. But despite having little appetite for risk, I’d be willing to bet good money that I could.

If you’d like to talk about taking some of the risk out of selection for key appointments in your organisation, do get in touch:

*Disclaimer – by no means all people with ‘moving against’ tendencies are psychopaths. But 1% of the population have psychopathic tendencies and they are certainly not all in Broadmoor.

Added Feb 2014 – well, well, well. It seems I may have been wrong in my opening assertion and some form of psychometric assessment was used in the selection of Paul Flowers.  I’m guessing it didn’t include a shadow side profile. Whatever was used doesn’t seem to have been put together with his apparently erratic career history and anything which might have been revealed by reference checking to create a cohesive picture of his risk profile.  We don’t actually know what kind of psychometrics were used or how, but that hasn’t stopped the press having a field day with headlines like ‘Passed the test but failed in his job’, much of which was staggeringly ill-informed. Click here to see my response to this.

Photo credits:

Siddharth vishwanathan


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One Comment

  1. Cath Jowers November 4, 2014 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    Just because some psychometric assessment was used in the process doesn’t necessarily mean any attention was paid to it in the decision-making process!

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