Is Procurement Full Of Psychopaths?

If one in five procurement managers are psychopaths, how should you manage them?

A recent study of senior managers found that one in five procurement managers are psychopaths.  No, this doesn’t mean they are likely to wear clown makeup and brandish a chain-saw.  But it does the organisations which employ them need to exercise caution if they value their reputation.

The study, published in 2016, was conducted by Simon Croom, a professor of supply chain management at the University of San Diego in collaboration with two researchers from Bond University on the Gold Coast. It consisted of a global survey of 261 supply chain managers working in industries with an average price negotiation budget in the range of US$50 million.

The survey was based on a questionnaire widely used to identify psychopathic personalities.  If found that 55 (about 21%) of the procurement managers surveyed had clinically significant ratings in traits which would classify them as psychopaths.  That’s about the same levels as similar surveys produce in prison populations.

Largely thanks to Hollywood, most of us think of a psychopath as a violent serial killer. And while some of them probably are, there is a much more dangerous version that we are more likely to encounter every day in the workplace. You might call them bullies, or micromanagers, or narcissists, or sociopaths.  I don’t feel particularly charitable towards them, so I go with psychopath.

They all share a common set of personality characteristics.  They can be among the most charming people you’ll ever meet.  They are also fearless and focused.  So far so good, but then it gets tricky.  They take big risks on impulse, feel absolutely no remorse, are callous, lazy, have a very high opinion of themselves, will always take credit for good outcomes and blame others for bad outcomes.

Psychopaths are drawn to careers that give them power over others, so jobs towards the top of an organization are inherently attractive to them.  And they will find those jobs easier to get because they are extrabodily good at telling employers exactly what they want to hear and will happily lie about everything including their experience and education.

If you want a go-getter procurement manager who could charm a dog off a meat wagon, then you might be wondering what the downside is.  A psychopath will shoot first and won’t even bother to ask questions later.  They are completely amoral, will lie and cheat compulsively and will leave nothing on the table. They are deal-makers. You might even be thinking these characteristics make psychopaths fantastic assets in the cut and thrust world of supply chain management.  Given that, the surprising thing about this study is not that 20 per cent of procurement managers are psychopaths, it’s that 80 per cent aren’t.

A psychopath may well be fearless but they will only look after themselves. Yes, they will face down a mugger but they will not protect you against that danger unless there is something in it for them. Yes, they will charge into battle but military units depend on every soldier being able to trust the man beside them. You cannot trust a psychopath to act in your best interests, only their own. They won’t be taking a bullet for anyone, no matter how fearless they are.

And this applies just as strongly to your corporate reputation.  A psychopath does not care how your company is perceived in the market unless it directly affects the deal he has on the table today.  They will not plan strategically and they are motivated by nothing but self-interest.  If he behaves dishonestly and trashes your reputation then that is your problem, not his.  If you are in an industry where you will only ever do one deal with any other counter-party and none of them ever speak to each other, then I guess you could get away with employing psychopathic procurement managers.

But reputation matters.  Yes, you could be the fisherman that takes every fish out of the sea, but if you want to be able to do that next year, you’d better leave a few behind.  There is always short term gain to be had from counter-parties in a weaker position, but if you let a psychopath exploit that party because they can, your reputation will be mud and you will miss out on the longer term gains that fair dealing and honesty can deliver.

If your procurement manager is in the 20%, then for the sake of your own long-term welfare, make sure you have strong systems in place to ensure they act fairly and honestly or you will ultimately be paying the price.