Psychopathy among bureaucrats is a bigger threat than corruption

Psychopathy among bureaucrats is a bigger threat than corruption

The glaring absence of psychological assessments in civil service recruitment processes renders the system perilously open to infiltration by unsuitable individuals

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Last Updated : 06 April 2024, 05:01 IST
Last Updated : 06 April 2024, 05:01 IST

In the corridors of power, where the destinies of billions are by the decisions of a select few, a silent yet toxic malaise has taken root, growing unchecked and malignant. This affliction is not the usual suspect — corruption, but the ‘psychopaths’ breeding within the bureaucracy. Little acknowledged and less understood, psychopathy, a mental illness manifests through a deficit of empathy and a proclivity for manipulation, easily degrading governance into an activity of self-aggrandisement.

The previously known definition of psychopathy can be found in DSM-5 as a symptom of ASPD (antisocial personality disorder), i.e. ‘pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others …’ and clinical observations have suggested four possible subtypes of psychopathy: narcissistic, borderline, sadistic, and antisocial.

Accomplished villains

A psychopath embodies an egocentric, occasionally antisocial persona, marked by a chilling indifference to the repercussions of one's deeds, an absence of empathy, and a penchant for behaviour that is barely legal. Eminent criminal psychologist Robert D Hare coined the term ‘snakes in suits’ to describe such workplace predators. They are characterised by narcissism, an alarming deficiency in self-regulation, remorselessness, and a conspicuous absence of conscience — traits that are the hallmarks of bullies and psychopaths.

These individuals exhibit behaviours that corrode the very foundations of a healthy workplace: humiliation of subordinates, remorseless dissemination of falsehoods to further their agenda, a capricious manipulation of emotions to dominate others, and a Machiavellian strategy of division to consolidate power.

Their repertoire includes claiming the achievements of others as their own, sabotaging the work of peers, shirking responsibility for their mistakes, and, in a display of brazen audacity, and engaging in amorous dalliances with subordinates to cement their authority. They often have an aversion to attending meetings with more than one person and are control freaks. Exhibiting disproportionate strictness to those who are weaker in power structure is their hallmark. The above description looks like a portrait of a villain, but it might shockingly be attributed to individuals celebrated as accomplished leaders!

Charming predator in the office

Why study results on psychopathy should worry us is that several research papers have revealed that the incidence of psychopathic traits among corporate and bureaucratic leaders could be as high as 21 per cent, whereas such traits are present in merely 1 per cent of the general population. International management consultants and behavioural researchers have delved much into this phenomenon, but in India, we are yet to wake up.

This is particularly disconcerting when it comes to positions held by the All India Services and Central Services framework, given its extensive purview over public policy and welfare. Imagine what a vindictive district magistrate or a manipulative police commissioner could do to the citizens!

The meteoric rise of such individuals through the bureaucratic hierarchy exemplifies the paradox wherein psychopathic behaviour is not merely tolerated but rewarded within the government system. Despite numerous complaints about their manipulative, unethical conduct, their mask of charm and strategic cunning ensure their ascension through the ranks, with their Machiavellian traits often misinterpreted as hallmarks of leadership.

Their adeptness at sowing discord ensures their dominance, employing a divide-and-rule strategy, while maintaining a facade of equanimity amidst the chaos they orchestrate. ‘Managing’ those who are higher to them and instilling fear in those subordinate to them are their forte — no wonder, while nice guys finish second, psychopaths definitely finish first! Naturally, such manipulative leaders tend to grab powerful positions through deft calculated moves. Political leadership is easily manipulated by such shrewd minds.

A culture of toxicity

Simon McKenna, an expert on organisational behaviour, highlights a disproportionate representation of individuals with psychopathic traits in leadership positions, particularly within the public sector. The disastrous impact of such personalities on organisational culture cannot be overstated. Surveys show a direct correlation between psychopathic leadership and an increase in workplace dissatisfaction and employee attrition. This toxicity, adeptly camouflaged by a veneer of scapegoating, allows these individuals to steadily ascend the bureaucratic ladder.

Just as profit drives the private sector, compassionate distribution of public welfare should be guiding the governments. However, envision a scenario where a government office, funded by the public exchequer, degenerates into a fiefdom dedicated to pandering to the whims of a senior bureaucrat, its staff running around to satiate their ego. The obnoxious Mai-Baap culture of bureaucracy playing havoc with our citizens for ages, that every successive government has struggled to tame, is deeply entrenched in a psychopathic bureaucracy.  What we mistake for ‘colonial mindset’ is the manifestation of symptoms associated with psychopathy. Hence, I reiterate, this perversion of purpose triggered by a psychopath represents a threat far more insidious than corruption.

Compassionless decision-maker

The ramifications of decisions made by senior civil servants in their official capacity reverberate across society. Policies conceived without empathy, guided by ulterior motives, fail to meet the needs of the populace, thereby eroding public trust and welfare. Workplaces turn toxic with ‘control-freak’ bosses and flagrant sadism, thus relegating compassion and empathy. Decisions become more ego-centric, in the nature of empire building and detrimental to public welfare.

According to a 2017 study conducted in the United Kingdom, the presence of a high-ranking psychopath can catalyse a domino effect, prompting lower-ranked staff to exhibit increasingly toxic behaviour as a form of counterproductive work behaviour. Have you ever wondered why some government officials, especially lower-ranked staff behave arrogantly to the public? Check out the behaviour of their boss for an answer.

Global context and reform

Across the world, Human Resource Management in the corporate sector has psychometric assessment as an integral and important component. Sweden's pioneering integration of psychological evaluations within the public sector recognises the critical need for assessing psychological fitness alongside professional qualifications in governance.

In India, the glaring absence of psychological assessments in civil service recruitment processes renders the system perilously open to infiltration by unsuitable individuals. A 30-minute formal interaction with the interview board during the UPSC selection process, though pompously titled as ‘personality test’ is hardly a scientific method to assess an individual’s personality or psychological health.

Remarkably, institutions like the National Defence Academy in India have already embedded psychometric evaluations within their recruitment protocols, offering a blueprint that could be adapted for civil service recruitment and in-service assessments. The right attitude, commitment to service, intellectual honesty, and compassion are the most important psychometric assessments that should form the core selection criteria parameters. Creating, validating, and updating psychometric tools is not an easy task, but it is worth the effort and expense, considering the huge impact it could have on India’s governance. Periodic in-service testing for detecting serious psychotic deviations can help the government to objectively assess, treat, and if required, redeploy them. Many deviations, including psychopathy are treatable conditions. Without proper treatment, the condition of patients of psychopathy in positions of power tend to deteriorate for the worse. Undoubtedly, those who are medically incapacitated to exhibit empathy deserve clinical intervention for their own sake and for the sake of their family and the society at large.

Towards a healthier bureaucracy

The imperative for implementing comprehensive psychometric evaluations and ongoing mental health assessments within the civil service cannot be overstated. Such initiatives could forestall the entry and ascent of individuals with psychopathic tendencies, ensuring a cadre of leaders distinguished by empathy, integrity, and an unwavering dedication to public service. The anecdotal evidence and many news reports wherein civil servants have displayed overtly abnormal behaviour would only further emphasise the importance of assessing mental health in the higher civil service.

A true Karma Yogi as envisioned by the Capacity Building Commission would essentially have a healthy mind in a healthy body. Periodic profiling and upkeep of data on the mental health, attitude, aptitude, and biases of individual officers through a medical board would make available a fair and objective assessment of an officer. This can be part of the annual health checkup and be made into a confidential portion within the Annual Performance Appraisal Report (APAR), accessible to the final accepting authority.

The international movement against psychopathy in bureaucracy transcends the mere preservation of institutional integrity; it is a quest to ensure that governance serves the public good, guided by compassion rather than caprice. The fictional portrayals of characters like Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler (2014) or Advocate Mukundan Unni in Mukundan Unni Associates (2022) serve as cautionary tales of ambitious individuals driven to extreme lengths by their psychopathic tendencies. They would do just about anything to win their battles, and ensure their career and social growth. We surely do not want to recruit a Mukundan Unni into the IAS and the IPS. It is high time we took steps towards preventing it.

(Prasanth Nair is a civil servant and author. X: @PrasanthIAS.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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