Organizational psychopathy: career advancement by surfing the debt tsunami

Last updated on June 15th, 2021 at 03:00 pm

During policy debates, some decision-makers and some advocates take positions that offer short-term advantages to the enterprise at the expense of incurring heavy burdens of new technical debt or allowing legacy technical debt to remain in place. Some of these decisions can be strategic, and they can benefit the enterprise. But organizational psychopathy can be the dominant contributing factor when the primary beneficiary of the strategy is the decision-maker or the advocate, and when he or she intends knowingly to move on to a new position or to employment elsewhere before the true cost of the technical debt becomes evident.

The aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, 26 December 2004
The aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, 26 December 2004. Shown is what remained of Meulaboh, Sumatra, Indonesia, after it was hit by the tsunami. The photo was taken on January 10. At the lower left is a Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft vehicle, assigned to USS Bonhomme Richard, delivering supplies. LCACs are capable of transporting more supplies than helicopters in a single trip. The technical debt devastation left behind after an organizational psychopath moves on to further conquests can be just as overwhelming as the physical devastation left behind after a tsunami. Photo by U.S. Navy courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Such decisions can be counterproductive for the enterprise in the long term. But the decision-maker or advocate nevertheless favors the decision, because he or she plans to take credit for the short-term benefits, and then move on to a new career position elsewhere to escape the technical debt problems created by the decision. In effect, the decision-maker or advocate plans to “surf the debt tsunami.”

People who adopt strategies of this kind might be following the pattern of organizational psychopathy [Babiak 2007] [Morse 2004]. Organizational psychopaths compulsively seek power and control over others. They use a vast array of tactics, but the tactic of greatest relevance to this discussion is the use of enterprise resources to advance the psychopath’s career. Technical debt provides a mechanism for borrowing future resources to enhance present performance, thus advancing the career of the psychopath. It’s especially attractive to the psychopath because the harmful consequences of technical debt can remain hidden until the psychopath has long ago moved on.

Psychopaths are better equipped than most to execute such strategies, because they can be exceedingly charming, intelligent, and charismatic. Because they are adept at deception, they are willing to conceal the truth about the technical debt they create, misrepresenting its costs and consequences, or concealing it altogether. Most important, organizational psychopaths seem to lack the internal regulators of conscience and compunction that limit the actions of non-psychopaths. For example, in a debate about a specific technical decision, the psychopath is willing to use any tools available to win the point, including using deception to destroy the career of anyone who challenges the psychopath’s position.

Babiak and Hare estimate that the incidence of psychopathy in senior positions in business is about 3-4%—between 1/30 and 1/25. However, I’m unaware of any studies of the strategic use of technical debt by these individuals. It’s reasonable to suppose that technical debt has been so employed, but the significance of this phenomenon is unknown. Serious investigation is in order.


[Babiak 2007] Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. ISBN:978-0-06-114789-0

An accessible and authoritative overview of organizational psychopathy. Order from Amazon

Cited in:

[Morse 2004] Gardiner Morse. “Executive psychopaths,” Harvard Business Review, 82:10, 20-22, 2004.

Available: here; Retrieved: April 25, 2018

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