Long ReadMar 6 2023

Greed, power, shame: the psychology of criminal managers

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Greed, power, shame: the psychology of criminal managers
Photo: twinsterphoto/Envato
ByBrian Bloch

There is certainly no shortage of scandals in which managers turn to crime in various shapes and forms. 

Wirecard, Fyre Island, Elizabeth Holmes and many others are reported extensively in the press, and many others presumably get away with it, at least for far too long.  

However, much less attention is paid to the underlying psychology, especially in a business context.

A German forensic accountant by the name of Benjamin Schorn has devoted his new book – Greed, Power, Shame? Explaining the Psychology of Criminal Managers – to just this issue: the heady mixture of greed, power and perhaps some half-hearted (rationalised-away) shame too, that leads managers into the depths of truly horrendous financial crimes. 

Writing such individuals off as 'a bunch of psychopaths' is simplistic and fundamentally incorrect.

Furthermore, the lessons learned apply to many lower-profile crimes that affect so many of us, such as crooked bicycle dealers, phoney plumbers and a host of other activities that literally or de facto constitute crimes.

Finally, there are managers who are not criminals in the legal sense, but distinctly dishonest. They too are well captured by Herr Schorn.

No easy categorisation

The essence of the matter is the complexity and black-box nature of the psychology, mindset and associated motives that have various practical, legal and regulatory implications.

A simple good-and-evil dichotomy, or writing such individuals off as 'a bunch of psychopaths' is simplistic and fundamentally incorrect. 

There is no easy categorisation of such people, who are driven by a compound and multifaceted range of factors, some of which are inherent and some of which are acquired or learnt. 

These in turn are shaped by external corporate, economic and other societal factors, such that outsiders are constantly amazed that these once-trusted business leaders can perpetrate such massive and catastrophic crimes. Furthermore, early detection and prevention are thus extremely difficult.

Schorn divides the psychology at its basic level into a mix of narcissism, Machiavellian rule-breaking and classic psychopathology.

But this is just the beginning, and the list of what constitutes each of these is long and involved. 

Superficial charm, an exaggerated sense of self-worth, emotional coldness and impulsive behaviour are just a fragment of the whole.

Such managers are generally, but not always, about forty years old, male, do not have a criminal record (yet), well-educated and inconspicuous (so far).

But sorting out these perpetrator types meaningfully remains a major challenge. 

There is a long history of attempts to do so, ranging from early misguided efforts to figure out what such people look like, to much more sophisticated analyses of background, emotional and career development, skills and ambitions, interactions with others, organisations and legal systems. 

And all of this in the context of situational opportunities, pressures and expectations.