Trouble at the Top: Getting a Handle on Corporate Trust & Betrayal

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Apr 1, 2013

From Enron to the Vatican Bank scandal, there is no shortage of examples of powerful individuals betraying their companies, colleagues, and subordinates to devastating effect.

Although these scandals seem like isolated instances of extraordinarily bad behavior, betrayal in the corporate world may be more widespread.

In February, Hogan Assessment Systems conducted a 15-day online survey that asked more than 700 individuals about trust and betrayal in the workplace. Respondents were evenly divided between men and women, and ranged in age from their early 20s to their mid 70s. More than 80 percent of the respondents said they had been lied to, stolen from, cheated, or treated dishonestly by a co-worker.

4 characteristics of the ideal betrayer

Although these numbers are unfortunate, for anyone who has worked more than a few years, they aren’t necessarily surprising.

But here is where it gets interesting: in the same survey, only 9.57 percent of people said they had committed one of these misdeeds, and an even smaller percentage (8.66 percent) said they would betray their coworkers if it meant advancing their career.

If we take these numbers at face value, it means that a seemingly small percentage of people have had an alarming impact in the workforce. How is this possible?

There are four characteristics that typify the ideal betrayer: charisma, self-absorption, self-deception, and “Hollow Core Syndrome.”

  • Charisma – According to Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, there are three ways to influence others: force, reason, or charm. Force and reason are rational – even when people are forced to do something, they obey for a good reason. Charm, on the other hand, is based on emotional manipulation and has the ability to trump rational assessments.
  • Self-absorption – The second characteristic of an ideal betrayer is an unusual degree of self-absorption, or, more to the point, a ruthless dedication to self-advancement to the extent that other people lose their value as humans and become objects to be manipulated.
  • Self-Deception – A major tenet of psychoanalysis and existentialism is that people are prone to deceive themselves about the reasons for their actions; alternatively, people are reluctant to inquire closely about the real reasons for their actions. Willingness to lie to one’s self is often accompanied by a willingness to lie to others.
  • Hollow Core Syndrome – The final characteristic of the ideal betrayer, and the underlying dynamic that unifies these themes and makes betrayal possible, is a pattern of personality characteristics called the “Hollow Core Syndrome.” The hollow core syndrome refers to people who are overtly self-confident, who meet the public well, who are charming and socially poised, but who are privately self-doubting and unhappy.

Betrayers in the corner office

Unfortunately, this charm, ruthless ambition, and willingness to lie provide these individuals the tools they need to find employment at and quickly ascend the ranks of large, hierarchical organizations, while the private self-doubt associated with the hollow core fuels their pursuit of the money, power, and prestige offered by senior management positions.

That means, as Clive Boddy pointed out, that even though just 1 percent of the general population possesses these characteristics, in corporate America, you’re likely to find most of them in a corner office – a position in which they can inflict maximum damage.

So, what can companies do to prevent these betrayers from infiltrating their top ranks?

Just ask. If organizations want a true assessment of a leader’s abilities, they should ask that person’s subordinates, and they should look at the performance of his or her team.

Employees who have been betrayed or abused tend to fight back in the form of disengagement and lowered productivity.