Personality Disorders: Something You Can’t “Consult Your Way Through”

A quick and dirty definition of neurosis is that condition in which people blame themselves for everything, no matter how unlikely that they are personally at fault. For example, “If I had only provided more incentive, the sales force would have hit its goals.” A quick definition of a personality disorder is that condition in which the individual is never at fault, no matter how conclusive the evidence otherwise: “I’m the only one who knows anything around here, and I’m at the back of the pack because of politics.”

Occasionally—in fact, frequently enough so that I encounter it about once a year—we are dealing with a client with some kind of personality disorder, concealed medical condition (e.g., depression), addiction, or other “non-organizational” problem. While I don’t advocate we all be amateur psychologists (which is exacerbated enough by the often invalid personality profiling so rife in our profession), I do advocate that we be sensitive to and observant of the symptoms of some of these conditions. No amount of consulting, modeling, coaching, or other business intervention is likely to resolve the problem. Usually, a therapeutic intervention is called for.

Now, I’m not talking about the royal pain in the rear who we, ourselves, would like to shoot. These are the people who are generally entrenched in the “not invented here” syndrome, or the protection of their turf at everyone else’s expense, or the enhancement of their incentive plan. They are as obvious as a ham sandwich. Rather, I’m talking about otherwise rational, pleasant, seemingly business-oriented individuals who don’t respond rationally, pleasantly, or business-like on some occasions.

For example, we are all, to some extent, narcissists. However, narcissism becomes a personality disorder when the individual begins applying patently different ethical and legal parameters to his or her behaviors than are applied to colleagues and the community. (We are currently observing this in the White House.) So, when an executive tells you to investigate unethical behavior with clients or cheating on expense reports, and you discover that same executive taking a trip to the Bahamas when the schedule says he or she is in a conference in Chicago, don’t simply conclude you’re dealing with a world-class hypocrite. You may have a client who, for him or her, is applying a quite rational, albeit double, standard.

When continued poor performance is blamed on everyone else, on company policy, on competitive actions, and on just poor luck, there is a distinct possibility that any money spent on performance improvement will be wasted. Check to see whether or not this is constant and continuing behavior, and suggest that counseling might be more in order than coaching. A very few of us are equipped to do both, but most of us aren’t. We need to do what’s right for the individual and the client.

I’ve been in meetings where it became apparent that a key manager was snorting cocaine several times an hour. I’ve seen people attempt to make key decisions while impaired by alcohol. I’ve seen clinically depressed executives attempt—with every good intention and the best possible work ethic—to achieve goals that their illness simply would not allow them to achieve.

Be sensitive to the human condition. As consultants, we all will encounter situations that cannot be resolved through traditional management consulting. It’s best to recognize them and direct them to the proper source rather than try to force your way into them and become a part of the problem yourself.