When Does “Mean” Become a Personality Disorder?

In last week’s post, I talked about how crucial my time at the Austen Riggs Center was for me in terms of making sense of my research about entrepreneurs, and understanding the true impact that mean men can have not only on the organizations they run but on anyone who crosses their path, especially their children. It was an awakening to the deeper question of who these men are and, frankly, what is wrong with them. In a much earlier post, I discussed the ten traits that entrepreneurs share. In moderation, these traits aren’t necessarily problematic, but if taken to extremes, this cluster of traits can add up to a personality disorder.

Take Noel*—a patient of a clinical-psychologist colleague of mine—a senior executive who was forced to resign from his position in a large company. Persistent difficulties with top management compromised his ability to perform effectively, and his long-standing interpersonal problems grated on many who crossed his path. Superficially charming, he manipulated the affections of others to get what he wanted and withdrew his attention when he found them no longer useful. Friends and colleagues eventually came to avoid him.

“All is fair in business” was Noel’s rallying cry. Asking subordinates to manipulate the sales numbers to increase his bonus was in keeping with another of his mantras: you are guilty only if you get caught, and the law is for losers.

Noel was the only child of wealthy parents, an Ivy League frat boy who drank heavily while underage, used illegal drugs, vandalized neighbors’ homes, hired hookers, and bragged that all the while he was never caught. He eventually married a family friend because “it was good for business.” Over the years he had a number of extramarital affairs for which he never expressed remorse.

After he was fired from his executive position, he fell into a depression—which he eventually overcame. Back on his feet, he moved into an arena where men like Noel often thrive, up to a point: entrepreneurship.

Noel wasn’t just your run-of-the mill jerk, however. My colleague went on to diagnose him as a Psychopathic Type: having a sense of inflated grandiosity and a pervasive pattern of taking advantage of—and manipulating—other people, disregarding ethical considerations and moral norms, and showing little if any remorse for his actions.

So what’s the difference between a guy like Noel and a more “normal” person who has the traits that Noel had in extremes? In normal individuals, these traits tend to be more adaptive. Normal people may have an intense level of ambition or drive, but they also have an ability to rein it in, to adapt those traits to circumstances when it’s prudent. Not so for the disordered personality. Their ambition or drive doesn’t adapt to reality or convention. The internal censor or sense of restraint just never kicks in.

Being adaptive allows us to size up situations with greater objectivity. And it makes us easier to work with or for, too. Normal, adaptive people don’t gift their female employees vibrators—as yet another lawsuit against Dov Charney of American Apparel alleged that he did—or say things like: “I frequently drop my pants to show people my new product.”

Characterizing and cataloging personality disorders was the life work of Theodore Millon, former Harvard and University of Miami professor and author of nearly a dozen books on the subject. Millon was among the most influential psychologists in the world, taking complex disorders and distilling them down to understandable traits. Equally important, he conceptualized the notion of personality disorder in a way that’s clearer than any I’ve examined.

Millon showed how personality disorders are made up of maladaptive traits, and he offered two explanations for the severity of a disorder as one moves along the continuum from health to pathology. First, specific traits can be more intense in the ways they are expressed, or have a higher dimension. Second, the number of an individual’s maladaptive traits can increase along that continuum.

For most people, coping strategies are diverse and flexible. When one strategy or behavior doesn’t work, we just try something else. But those with personality disorders tend to practice the same strategies repeatedly with only minor variations in outcome. When things fail to improve, their stress level keeps rising—which further amplifies their sense of vulnerability—and, ultimately, they find themselves in crisis mode. Their perception of the world becomes increasingly distorted. Though oversimplified, the throwaway cliché of craziness defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result has a kernel of truth here.

Psychologically healthy people know when to change something in their lives and also know how to adapt to what the world offers them. If, for example, the boss wants something done in a particular way, most people will follow directions without much fuss. In many ways these situations are almost scripted; we know what to do and how to behave in a seemingly limitless number of situations.

But personality-disordered people are limited by having far fewer alternative strategies in their repertoire. To make matters worse, they impose strict, irrational conditions for implementing these alternatives, almost as though factors (and this often means other people) in their environment will somehow knowingly conform to their needs. Ultimately, when the environment cannot be arranged to suit the person, a crisis erupts. Unlike normal people, who often find new experiences enjoyable and seize opportunities to learn new and more adaptive strategies, the disordered individual derives far less enjoyment in these circumstances. In fact, new situations that require rather quick adaptability can be a living hell for them, and they react with seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Seen through this lens, I began to wonder if some of the most extreme mean men I was studying—the Dov Charneys and Peter Arnells of the business world—weren’t quite beyond help. And what of the society that made them heroes?


*name has been changed