Work Personality Series: The Snake

The third in our Work Personality series, this piece covers the subversive Snake.

In 30 years of working with a wide variety of businesses, we have developed a simple model of three kinds of people found in organizations. Rarely, but consistently, we come across individuals whose aim is to harm the organization that employs them; this is the third in our Work Personality Series.

Just like the mythical view of the snake, these people are deceitful, vengeful, vindictive and sly. The identity of these people and their negative impact may be well known by HR and other senior people in the organization but they are clever, devious, and cunning. Because there is little evidence to convict them of subversive behavior, they tend to be moved sideways or upwards rather than out and so get to infect even more of the organization. They should be dealt with firmly and swiftly but rarely are.

 “If you see a snake, just kill it – don’t appoint a committee on snakes!”

Rose Perot

What sorts of things do these subversive snakes do?

You might ask James, a Snake whose subversive nature is unknown to you, to research some information that you need to make an important presentation. You ask this on Wednesday and need the information Monday morning. When you come into work on Monday, the information is not there and James is away on holiday. Your presentation, without the essential data, is a disaster. When James returns the next week you ask him what happened. His reply: ‘Oh, sorry! I left a note on your desk on Thursday to say that I was not going to be able to get the stuff together in time and suggesting that you ask Jane instead. Didn’t you see my note? Maybe the cleaners threw it away!’  Of course you did not see it because it never existed, but you now have the reputation of being badly prepared for important presentations.

Similarly, a typical Snake excuse for not doing what you requested is the classic ‘Oh, sorry! I didn’t get your e-mail.’ Of course he did, but chose to ignore it.

How do people become Snakes?

There are three routes: the psychopathic personality, the severely stressed, and the disaffected.

The psychopathic personality:

Many business leaders are among the most talented, commendable and well-intentioned people. However, our research indicates that occasionally, psychopathic personalities achieve a leadership role. These people have huge potential to damage the organization and should be removed firmly and swiftly, but this rarely happens.

The psychopathic personality is narcissistic, egocentric and lacking in remorse or concern for others. They can also be charismatic, captivating and clever at manipulation. Such people who rise to the top in business are able to ‘empathize’ with others. They can ‘read people’ and identify their motives, needs, susceptibilities and vulnerability. This might sound very positive but the psychopath then uses this insight not to support but to destroy the individual and potentially the firm – for the enjoyment of the exercise of power over others. They are excellent ‘role players’ – able to give an impression totally at odds with their intentions and to modify their approach to exploit the situation and turn it to their advantage.

The severely stressed:

Pressure can be enjoyable and energize resilient people to achieve a higher level of performance. Recent thinking has put emphasis on the beneficial aspects of stress – likening the stress response to the surge of adrenalin occasioned by a roller coaster ride or the excitement of watching a good thriller. But long-term stress is detrimental to health, well-being, and performance. The least positive results in Engagement Surveys come from highly stressed individuals. This kind of stress destroys an individual’s well-being.

hfi stages of stress

The Snake’s subversive response kicks in at about Stage 3 when energizing pressure becomes debilitating stress. This is when commitment becomes a vindictive desire for revenge on the organisation that is blamed for causing this stress. Straight thinking is distorted and leads to inappropriate decision making.

The disaffected:

The disaffected subversive is the third kind of the Snake Work Personality. Former high performers become disaffected if they are passed over for promotion, if their ideas are rejected or if they do not receive the reward and recognition that they expect.

How many subversive work personalities are there in most companies?

Our findings over a period of over 30 years, suggest that in most companies subversive Snakes make up about 2% of the organization. If the organization is failing, this number rises significantly.  Our findings are backed up by research carried out in 2010 by Paul Babiak, Robert Hare, and Craig Neumann.  They had the opportunity to examine subversive work personality tendencies in a sample of 203 individuals from numerous companies’ management development programs. The research showed that approximately 3% of those assessed in this management development program study scored in the subversive range.

How can we guard against hiring or promoting subversive Snakes?

  1. Use data. Use objective, data driven assessment methods such as psychometrics for both recruitment and promotion. These give detailed and reliable information about capability, potential performance and the motivation and character of a candidate. Do not rely on interviews where candidates can impress with their personal charm and persuasive communications skills – they could well be a Snake!
  2. Use a framework. Utilize a robust unified talent acquisition and talent management framework to underpin recruitment, development and succession planning decisions.
  3. Focus on accomplishments. When hiring from the outside, focus on real substantive accomplishments that can be verified – more than on personal charm and force of personality. Be sure there is a solid foundation of actual accomplishment to support all claims.

Have you worked with a Snake? Do you know where the Snakes are in your organization? The best way to spot a work personality before hiring is by taking an assessment. Dive into our on-demand assessments here.