Good Governance : Corporate Greed and the Syntonic Syndrome


Joan Pastor has worked with both private and public organizations as a consultant, conference speaker and trainer. Her in-depth knowledge reflects over nineteen years of experience in implementation of quality improvement programs, building high performing teams, developing the "customer" orientation within and outside the organization, change management and conflict resolution skills.

Note : The references for this paper have not been added nor finalized yet pending final rewrites. This is a draft paper only. For more information, contact or Joan's web site is at

Throughout 23 years of working with all levels of management in a variety of organizations and businesses around the world, I have discovered a pattern - a syndrome - that is indicative of whether an organization is headed toward an “Enron” meltdown as the result of unhealthy leadership. Enron, and the resulting fraudulent practices that were uncovered, was not the exception, just a symptom of a problem that all companies and organizations face, large and small, public or private, people-oriented or not. 

“Unhealthy” leaders do more than use their power to serve their own self-interests. They exercise a certain combination of psychological and mental traits that lead them to their own undoing and, when the organizational culture permits, the undoing of everyone around them. I call this combination of traits the “Syntonic Syndrome".

The focus of this article then is not the realm of accounting and business practices that is normally associated with corporate wrong-doing; rather, it is the exploration of a psychological syndrome that greatly impacts business conditions. It therefore is necessary to use psychological theory, research and terms when explaining it, which I will punctuate with true stories and examples to demonstrate the traits and manifestations of this syndrome. 

Why exactly is this topic so important ? As a client recently said, “We are not talking about flawed employees or managers; the Syntonic Syndrome refers to ‘fatally flawed’ people.” If executives are to prevent misconduct in those who work with or under them, then they must grasp clearly the psychological and situational factors that invite a particularly dangerous type of problem into their organization.

Let’s begin with a true story about a small but growing brokerage firm brought to its knees by a syntonic person :

He seemed like a sure bet. CEO Bill and his executive team were very pleased with their new hire, a bright and talented broker we’ll call Gil who soon proved himself to be an absolute wizard at building new clientele. Bill believed in integrity and excellent customer service, which were the two key reasons his company was growing so fast. He also believed in a high profit margin, and soon he had Gil helping to train the other brokers. Gil was happy to do so; he seemed to like the recognition. When he made suggestions at company meetings, people listened. Everything was going extremely well - in fact, so well that Bill and his executive team gave Gil a great deal of autonomy.

About four months later, problems began to surface. Gil felt that Bill should make changes ( including changes in his commission structure ). He also wanted a place on the executive team. Bill and the executive team had already rewarded Gil twice, and were not willing at this time to go any further. Gil kept pushing. When Bill finally decided to take back some of the authority he had given Gil, he found to his horror that Gil had been doing a lot more than managing his own clientele. Over the months he had built a clique of brokers who were his “favorites.” Bill had been dimly aware that good brokers had left in the past few months but never really questioned why. Now he knew : they were not part of Gil’s group of favored brokers who got first pick of client prospects ( after Gil ) and they left.

Gil’s favorites also had been getting an earful about Bill for months and they now viewed him with great disdain. Thus, when Bill finally confronted Gil, the whole group of brokers walked. The company was crippled since brokerage services were still their bread and butter. The final blow came when the SEC called a month later with concerns over illegal trades. The company folded.

Over the years, I have encountered enough “Gils” and observed them over a sufficient period of time in a variety of situations to recognize three things :

  1. There are not many of them ( about 5% of a company’s workforce ), but it only takes one to create complete havoc.
  2. There is a pattern or syndrome in both their mental makeup and the resulting actions that can be found across this group of people.
  3. The old saying “One bad apple will spoil the whole barrel” is especially apt for this group – destruction ranges from wasted time, money and resources, and generally culminates in the destruction of the company ( Enron ).


Gil, the main character of our true story, demonstrates all the traits of what I call the Syntonic Syndrome, which is a pattern of traits and behavior that are especially problematic because they are centered in what I call an “ego-syntonic” response to events in one’s life. This pattern is as follows :-

The Person

  1. The person is ego-syntonic, meaning there is a central tendency to re-arrange external events so that they are continually interpreted in one’s favor, often at the expense of another.
  2. The person probably has a personality disorder, a pattern of inner conflict and conflict with people that leads to great distress or impairment and is stable over time. ( See below )
  3. The person has a high IQ.
  4. The person accords differential treatment to people within the company
  5. The person seeks to control the decision-making process.

    In addition, there are certain factors in organizations that tend to encourage the Syntonic Syndrome, if the person has it.

    The Organization
  6. “Cowboy” or “gung-ho” culture, with compensation tied to individual performance
  7. Dangerous performance reward systems
  8. Laissez-faire style leadership

    Methods for Detecting the Syndrome and Managing the Person Out
  9. Develop emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills
  10. Use 360 degree performance assessments to determine “managerial self-awareness”
  11. A step-by-step process for managing the person out of the organization

First we will look at the Syntonic Syndrome in the person, and then the other two areas will be discussed.

1. The person is ego-syntonic

Being ego-syntonic refers to the aspects of a person’s behavior, thoughts and attitude that are viewed by the self as acceptable and consistent with their total ( American Psychiatric Glossary ). The term goes as far back as Freud and is often contrasted with “ego-dystonic,” which refers to aspects of a person’s behavior, thoughts and attitudes that are viewed by the self as repugnant or inconsistent with the total personality ( American Psychiatric Glossary, p. ).

Being ego-syntonic is not necessarily a bad thing. If I help a little old lady to cross the street, I can feel proud of my altruistic behavior, and I see it as consistent with my core values, one of which is to be of service to others.

But what if the little old lady didn't want to cross the street ? If you are engaging in activities that you think are good for others but they do not feel are good for themselves, we have a problem. Your deed might appear harmless at the moment and indeed your intentions might be good. But the outcome, because you missed important facts in the situation, caused you to think and do something that could come back to haunt you when the lady starts screaming at you and a police officer happens to be nearby.

The vast majority of people would certainly stop at this point and apologize profusely, realizing that they had somehow missed important cues ( i.e. the lady seemed resistant when I took her arm but I really wanted to make that traffic light ). In other words, you now shift to being ego-dystonic, being mad at yourself ( or feeling guilty ) for not acting in accordance with both your and the other person’s wishes. Your values do not allow you to engage in behavior that would knowingly hurt another.

There are people, however, who would not be able to make this shift. It’s not that they lack a value for helping others, but they would not be able to stop, take stock of their behavior, see where they made the error in interpretation and take responsibility. Instead, there is a tendency to take the data - the hard facts so to speak - and re-interpret them so that their original point of view is maintained. Thus, the little old lady screaming clearly that she does not want to cross the street is turned around in this dangerously ego-syntonic mind to mean that this old lady is the one who is confused or wacky, that it is she who has the problem, and that she doesn’t recognize that this is for her own good. In other words, this person can view their act as nothing but good, and if others don’t see it or the end results don’t warrant it, that is their problem.

2. The person has a personality disorder

This true story is an example of a person who exhibits signs of a borderline personality disorder. It is just one of ten different types of personality disorders officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association ( See Table 1., pp. 5-6 ). There is still a great deal of research needed to be done to accurately map out and define the extent of the disorder we will be discussing, but enough is coming to light that it demands to be considered in the business world.

I had done training for the retail operations department at the US headquarters of a large international department store chain for several years. This organization has one of the healthiest organizational cultures I have ever known. Not only do people love to work there, but it has achieved, and continues to achieve, phenomenal success in a relatively short period of time.

One man in the department - I'll call him Jay - latched on to me during my first visit when he discovered that we both grew up in the same town. He immediately confided that it was very difficult working for those not from the US; they "iced" him out. Also, when he had to speak to people within the company for not doing certain tasks they were supposed to do, he received feedback that he was too confrontational. I made several suggestions but, in each instance, he gave the same reason as to why the suggestion would not work : the "foreigners" were unwilling to include him. Further, he knew he came on strong, but did not show any inclination to want to change. He felt "they" should be the ones to change.

A year later I went back to work with this group. The situation had deteriorated. The managers bent over backwards, even bringing in several of Jay’s peers and mediating a few sessions. But Jay still complained, even when managers witnessed his peers being more inclusive. When the managers began to point out to Jay that perhaps he needed to consider his own behavior, he agreed.

Shortly afterwards, Jay went around them to the director of the department who did not know about the problems and complained. Not knowing the whole issue, he not only supported him, but Jay talked the director into promoting him ! The other managers were aghast ! But a few months later, the director was promoted to a position in another part of the company and one of the managers, who knew all about Jay, took his place. Jay immediately put in for a transfer, knowing the "gig" was up. However, he did not get it. All of a sudden, Jay started getting along with everyone, as nice as can be. For the past six months he has been a model employee.

As I have said, Jay demonstrates a pattern of borderline personality disorder, that is, instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, affect ( how the person expresses himself emotionally ), and marked impulsivity. There are several other aspects of his situation worth pointing out. First, it is important to notice how he continually blamed his problems with people on the culture, citing the differences between people from another culture and his own. Do cultural differences sometimes cause conflict in organizations ? Of course. But no one else in the division expressed this problem. Important : people with personality disorders are often adept at pulling up one true fact and then generalizing it so that it now applies as the explanation to all their problems.

The second thing to note from a corporate standpoint is how much time and energy was spent trying to make Jay happier. By the time he put in for transfer, the department, all the managers - and many of his peers - had been pulled in. Finally, because Jay happens to be very bright ( see next section ), he was able to talk a person higher up ( and removed from the problem ) into his point of view. He also miraculously shaped up when the director left. How long this will last is anyone’s guess ( It is rare that people with a personality disorder permanently change, but with age, it can soften. ). In general, people with borderline personality disorders take up a great deal of other people’s time and energy, with little awareness or concern that they are doing so.

Personality Disorders

The formal criteria for all ten specific types of personality disorder are as follows :-

A. An enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture. This pattern is manifested in two ( or more ) of the following areas :

  1. cognition ( ways of perceiving and interpreting self, other people, and events )
  2. affectivity ( i.e., the range, intensity, lability, and appropriateness of emotional response )
  3. interpersonal functioning
  4. impulse control

B. The enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.

C. The enduring pattern leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

D. The pattern is stable and of long duration, and its onset can be traced back at least to adolescence or early adulthood.

E. The enduring pattern is not better accounted for as a manifestation or consequence of another mental disorder.

F. The enduring pattern is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance ( e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication ) or a general medical condition ( e.g., head trauma ).

Personality disorders are also grouped into three “clusters,” based on descriptive similarities.

Cluster A :

Paranoid Personality Disorder is a pattern of distrust and suspiciousness such that others’ motives are interpreted as malevolent.

Schizoid Personality Disorder is a pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of emotional expression.

Schizotypal Personality Disorder is a pattern of acute discomfort in close relationships, cognitive or perceptional distortions, and eccentricities of behavior.

Cluster B :

Antisocial Personality Disorder is a pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.

Borderline Personality Disorder is a pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, affect ( how the person expresses themselves emotionally ), and marked impulsivity.

Histrionic Personality Disorder is a pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.

Cluster C :

Avoidant Personality Disorder is a pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation.

Dependent Personality Disorder is a pattern of submissive and clinging behavior related to an excessive need to be taken care of.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder is a pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and control.

There is also a category for people who meet the general criteria previously outlined but who do not meet all the criteria of any one of the ten disorders above, or who meet one of the other personality disorders not included in the central ten. For example, there is a passive-aggressive personality disorder wherein the person shows a pattern of going along with one’s wishes as a mask for resistance, resentment or hostility. Also, people can have more than one personality disorder; in fact, it is very common to find combinations.

Note that a person with a personality disorder generally will be at odds with their culture in some way, will have difficulty functioning in it, and will have difficulty relating to others within it ( Millon, with Davis, 1996; Livesley, 2001 ). Thus, the distress and impairment can apply just as much to those who interact with this person, especially those who have ongoing contact ( Mattia & Zimmerman, 2001 ). Also, it is very easy to see your obsessively talkative aunt or whiny sister - and anyone else you do not personally like - in some of these descriptions, but you have to be careful. People ( including you ) often portray personality traits that may be similar to one or more personality disorders, but it is only when a sufficient number of personality traits are inflexible and maladaptive, cause significant functional impairment or subjective distress, and meet further specific criteria that they constitute a personality disorder.

Cluster B Narcissistic and Antisocial Personality Disorders

From 9-15% of the population in the United States is considered to have a personality disorder ( Mattia & Zimmerman, 2001 ), which is a significant amount of people. The prevalence of any specific personality disorder ranges from 1-3%, which are small numbers until you consider that most people with this problem have multiple personality disorders. While a person with any personality disorder can create problems for others in the workplace, the ones that seem to do so as part of the Syntonic Syndrome, creating the most damage, are in Cluster B. This might be especially true because these people often seek leadership positions, especially when they are bright.

“What a horror story it was ! This doctor was active in our association for quite a while and was so charming. In fact, even though we could see that he was slowly positioning himself to one day be elected president, we didn’t mind since he seemed like he would be great to work with. His fellow colleagues seemed to feel the same way and eventually he achieved his goal as president of the association.

But once elected, everything changed. He immediately took control and started dictating to the Board how things were going to be. He told me how I was going to do my job and made it clear that I was to do whatever he wanted. He was like this with everyone. It became so bad that the Board, being made up of other equally successful and powerful people, pulled together, and for the first time in the history of our association, a president was booted out of office ! He thought he was the victim and that we were simply all jealous of him, and he immediately sued. He paralyzed the whole organization for a while there. Even though we had just cause for removing him, we eventually paid a lot a money to shut him up and get him off our backs.”

People with narcissistic personality disorder are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance, and will often see the business world as the place to make those fantasies come real. They might also be obsessed with being admired by others and are prone to exaggerating their self-importance and their accomplishments. It is not that this person cannot be a hard worker and actually accomplish a great deal. But if they do, you can bet they will make sure they are recognized for it early on by those they care most about- others in positions of achievement, power and/or visibility. They see themselves as superior to most others, and demand compliance in return from “underlings.” In American culture, it is not uncommon for people like this to move quickly in decision-making and taking action, and to gather around themselves those who share similar traits. Anyone who expresses concern for the soundness of decisions being made is rejected.

As was seen by the example of the doctor, these people are capable of being quite charming and charismatic, which as we will see is also true for those with antisocial personality disorder. A person with narcissistic personality disorder might not be using their charm consciously to deceive, but they are very sensitive as to whether others are impressed. It is easy to see how a person with narcissistic personality disorder ends up in positions of leadership- the visibility reinforces in their mind how exceptional they are.

The goal is to get what they want and if others are harmed in the process…oh well… They can be very seductive when it comes to getting others to believe in their schemes, mainly because they truly believe in them themselves. They have a great capacity for self-deception.

Most people with personality disorders lack self-awareness. This is not however the case with the person who has an antisocial personality disorder, who’s private goals are often to obtain complete control or to dominate others. The average person knows this person as the psychopath and many in the medical profession would consider this personality disorder as potentially the most dangerous. Why ? They lack remorse. Among other things, a person with antisocial PD is willing to break the law and/or deliberately hurt and deceive others in order to get what they want. They can be irritable, aggressive, and impulsive and generally do not plan ahead. However, if they are bright, then meticulous planning and patience can result in the most heinous crimes. In fact, there are passive and active psychopaths ( Simon, 1996 ). The passive psychopath tends to be exploitative of others and will attach themselves like parasites, while the active psychopath is the one who commits the major crimes. There has to have been signs of serious misconduct by the time they are 15 years old, and substance abuse is often a problem for these people ( drugs and/or alcohol; Dolan-Sewell, Krueger & Shea, 2001 ).

Very few people in the psychiatric or psychological profession have written about the connection between the psychopath and the businessperson, though people in general make anecdotal comments regularly about ruthless business people who have no remorse in their business dealings. It is important to note that not all criminals are psychopaths. The actual percentage of people with this disorder are small ( Community samples in the normal population indicate about 3% in males and 1% in females; DSM-IV-TR, p. 704. ), but these people may truly be “wired” differently. Peter Lang ( 1995 ) of the University of Florida, for example, has been able to show how psychopaths reflexively respond to visual stimuli the opposite of those who are not psychopaths. For example, when confronted with something that is emotionally unpleasant, most people usually defend themselves against it unconsciously because it is unpleasant. When they perceive or experience something that feels good, defensive reflexes go down. However, the exact opposite response occurs for psychopaths : they open up more to aversive experiences and defend themselves more against pleasant ones !

Consultants on leadership behavior have noted Machiavellianism ( or “Mach” ) could be a critical personality characteristics of leaders ( Deluga,2001; Ferris et al., 1995 ), or on a less offensive note, that successful business leaders tend to not have many social needs and instead are more attracted to achievement and power. Deluga ( 2001 ) notes that “Mach” leaders often use charisma, and others have also noted the tendency of followers to confuse charisma and Machiavellianism. But this is simplistic. People with antisocial personality disorder certainly have used charisma to dupe others ( as have any people who have any of the Cluster B disorders ). But charisma can also be a positive attribute, helping people through organizational turbulence and adversity for example ( Bass, 1998 ).

Simon ( 1996 ) warns that it is important to make a distinction between professionals such as the entrepreneur, doctor or lawyer who often are required to be ruthless in the pursuit of business goals, and the person with antisocial personality disorder who are motivated by their need to express hostile impulses or to get even. His perspective needs to be reconsidered, especially given recent developments in the business world in recent years. Tickle, Heatherton and Wittenberg ( 2001 in Livesley ), three researchers whose expertise is in personality disorders, believe that people actively select environments that suit their personalities and that support their basic behavioral tendencies ( p.251 ). While I do not think every strong businessperson has the Syntonic Syndrome, clearly we are seeing many instances where business people are running companies into the ground using accounting procedures and many other tactics that they know are illegal. Of course, this has been going on for decades, as legal loopholes ( and cultural complicity such as maximizing short-term gains over long-term rewards ) made it extremely enticing for people both with and without Syntonic Syndrome to take advantage.

Before we leave this section, it is important to note that a healthy person may also behave in ways that are harmful to others- we all have dark and devious impulses inside us that we sometimes cannot quell. But this person will have an opposite reaction : they will become ego-dystonic. They will :-

  1. experience the intense anxiety but they will also be repulsed by their own behavior,
  2. be able to shun the limelight and embrace humility ( Collins, 2001 ),
  3. they will be able to step outside themselves, so to speak, and see how their behavior hurt others,
  4. they will be able to take action to remedy the situation,
  5. they will be able to gain awareness if this negative behavior is chronic, and
  6. most important of all, they will work hard to change the behavior, especially if it is hurting loved ones or if it makes themselves a danger to the organization.

Also, many unhealthy syntonic people will feel very strongly that they have values and morals. Indeed, many can also feel genuine guilt and self-repugnance, though usually for much shorter periods of time than the ego-dystonic person. Some make a great display of “owning up”, almost always when caught and there no longer is any way out. The remorse and tears are often heartfelt for that moment only, and because their mental schema consists of changing the facts to avoid the pain of self-awareness, actual behavior change does not occur. As soon as there is a reprieve, the denial of reality once again takes precedence and there is simply an inability to take responsibility for their behavior.

Some will even take their battle-and blame- to the streets, not realizing that what they cannot see in themselves is immediately transparent to most others. Michael Orvitz, once the king of Hollywood, apparently became so difficult to work with that he eventually derailed ( a common phenomenon for syntonic people in the business world ); no one wanted to do business with him anymore. That’s saying a lot considering the egos in Hollywood ! Against the advice of everyone he consulted, he gave a complete sob story to Vanity Fair ( August, 2002 ), pointing fingers and spilling dirt at the other big boys in the business. Did he point the finger at himself at all ? Yes- he was mad at himself for not selling his business sooner when he could get more money for it !

In the long run, the person has to be ego-dystonic enough that they can truly see the harm their behavior is causing themselves and others, and can project into the future and hold the results of their current actions. If the end result of clearly self-recognized harmful behavior is not in behavioral change, then it is important to ask if the person is ego-syntonic, at least surrounding their intentions of that behavior.

3. A high IQ

It was the first day of class in the new semester for my doctoral program in psychology. The course and the professor teaching it were both popular, and the class was full. The professor was talking about some theories when suddenly a tall young man began to disagree with him. The professor – we’ll call him

Dr. Durston - patiently began to clarify the theory when the student became quite agitated, complaining of the professor’s bias towards the particular approach. The professor tried to explain his perspective, but the student became quite aggressive and accusatory, forcing Dr. Durston to simply listen and summarize the student’s concerns. It was apparent to everyone else that what the student was hearing was not at all what the professor was saying, but when the professor tried to say this, the student continued to attack. Finally, the professor became quite short, telling the student that he had a choice : to listen to the material being taught, or not. The student chose to leave, accusing the professor of forcing this choice on him.

Dr. Durston was not the only one who had this problem with this young man. Within a few weeks, the school asked the student to leave the doctoral program. He sued, and they reached a settlement out of court. What was amazing to both faculty and administration, however, was how this student came to be accepted into a highly competitive program that turns down many applicants. Apparently he had scored extremely well on the entrance exams and also had done well in his interviews.

So far, the picture painted of a syntonic person makes one wonder if these people wouldn’t in fact be pretty easy to recognize - either during the job interview or pretty early on in their tenure. In fact, many of these people are transparent and thus never get hired, or they don’t last long on the job. Many end up in jail.

This all changes, however, when the ego-syntonic person has a high IQ. Although there is much debate over what exactly the IQ measures, extensive research does indeed support its connection with actual intelligence. There are also signs that the IQ greatly impacts how ego-syntonic persons act in the workplace, for better and for worse. First, bright people generally interview extremely well, due to their ability to read the cues of interviewers and then tell them what they want to hear. Thus, right away we can see a major difference between being simply ego-syntonic, and ego-syntonic and bright. The former will miss the cues, and when they repeatedly do not get hired or can’t perform if they are hired, will blame society/HR/whomever. The latter will know they have to “play the game” and will learn the game. As we have already noted, people with certain personality disorders will especially understand the importance of this. They will tell you whatever they perceive you need to hear because it will serve their own ulterior motive. In fact, as long as they need you, they can be extremely charismatic. Once they no longer need you, or they perceive you as turning on them, you are dismissed, abused or blamed. What is the ultimate strategy of the bright person with syntonic syndrome ? They sue !

The bright IQ does a lot more than get the syntonic person in the door. Being bright also tends to increase the self-delusional quality of the syndrome; the person believes they can do all the things they say they can, and that belief makes them sound very confident and convincing. This belief that they can do anything gets them far in organizations, especially if they have training in the field in which they claim expertise. Furthermore, bright ego-syntonic people can be quite gifted in some areas, and as we showed in the case of the broker Gil, they can often go quite far on their actual talents. As we saw with Jay, they can also behave themselves for a period of time if the personality disorder is not too severe, or if other factors mitigate it such as age.

Many successful, bright people who do not have syntonic syndrome ( i.e., who are ego-dystonic ) also take leaps of faith and try to innovate, to go where no person could go before. ( They also are most vulnerable to being influenced by ego-syntonic people. ) However, an ego-dystonic person will know when they are pushing the limits, either legally, morally or in personal ability. Most will stop at this point because they can perceive that the risks are beginning to outweigh the rewards, and that they are the ones who will be held accountable if they push too far.

But, the bright ego-syntonic person lacks awareness. Thus, they either will not recognize when they go too far, or will think they’re superior and will not get caught. The latter is true especially if success brings them greater prestige, authority or control. Ego-syntonic bright people have a way of blinding themselves especially to anything related to financial risks since financial savvy brings the greatest accolades in the business world.

I had done a lot of work for this one association in the past. Then they hired this new president, Carol. Carol walked on water in their eyes : she was so bright, and had interviewed extremely well. Even though there were many other pressing, even serious issues that needed her attention, the first thing she did was fire a lot of vendors ( and managers ) and bring in her own people. I was out.

I found out later that my misfortune was nothing in comparison to the damage this woman did to the organization. She had claimed to be completely knowledgeable about matters of finance and budgeting- as she had claimed to be able to do a lot of things the association wanted. But critical priorities were not getting done. After months of wrangling with this woman, the Board demanded to see her records. That took more months. To make a long story short, they eventually fired her for repeated incompetence, and by the time they got a hold of the accounts, everything was in such a disastrous state it became clear she didn’t know anything about managing the finances either. It had all been a show.

4. Differential Treatment of People

There is yet a fourth mark of the person with the Syntonic Syndrome, and it often doesn’t begin to emerge until the person moves into a management position. Along the way this person changes his or her allegiances, focusing on those who can help them up the ladder. You might well say : “Isn’t this what most people do to move up the ladder ?” Yes, but in the syntonic person, there is a pervasive need to focus only on those who can help, and/or only on those who will agree 100% with him or her. Thus, it is a common sign in the shifting of allegiances for the person to consistently chum up to those higher in the chain of command, and with those peers with whom an alliance might also be strategic. If there is someone at an upper or peer level who does not agree with the bright ego-syntonic person, because of their position or potential influence they will either work hard to win them over, ignore them, or go around them.

Thus, a real clue to whether or not a manager has syntonic syndrome is to observe how he or she acts with those who cannot help his or her career in any conceivable way.

I recall one manager – I’ll call him Sam - who traveled to conferences ( on the company’s dime ) 50% of the year and then attended meetings with his peers and superiors another 20% of the year. When his subordinates tactfully brought up their one request, that they needed him to be present and available more frequently, he blew up at all of them. He blew up at me, the facilitator, for allowing them to “abuse” him. Sam showed signs of having Avoidant Personality Disorder, and his frequent excuses for travel conveniently allowed him to avoid facing any sensitive issues of any kind in his department.

In the meantime, upper management may not know what is going on. Or, they hear about “Sam’s temper,” but minimize it. They think “Sam is wonderful; he’s fun, he’s bright, and he certainly gets the job done !” What upper management hasn’t noticed is that there is also a higher turnover in Sam’s area. But, even if they did notice and actually said something to Sam, there is a strong desire ( because, gosh, Sam is really productive ! ) to believe whatever Sam tells them. They like him and they don’t really want the glowing perception of reality Sam has painted for them to be changed. So when he tells his bosses the reason for the turnover is because it is harder to find and keep qualified people, but it’s not a problem, they believe him without checking further or monitoring the situation more carefully.

5. The person controls the decision-making process

People with syntonic syndrome want people around them who will agree with them. Thus, there is a tendency to surround themselves with :

  1. other syntonic people who are equally deluded,
  2. syntonic people who privately disagree but are going along because they plan to take the limelight once the current leader crashes and burns
  3. mediocre workers who are too afraid to speak up and too afraid to look for a job elsewhere.

This all leads to groupthink and collusion in decision-making, unless the syntonic person simply makes the decision without input at all.

Groupthink occurs when group members go along with the leader even though they know he or she is wrong. They fear the consequences of speaking up. An excellent example of groupthink occurred a few years ago when a pilot with Singapore Airlines mistakenly steered the plane at night down a lane closed for repairs, crashing the plane when he tried to take off. Others in the cockpit saw that he was making a mistake, but two powerful cultural forces came together to keep them from speaking up. First, in the aviation world, the pilot is king ( or queen ). Traditionally, you do not oppose him. Secondly, Chinese Singaporeans belong to a collective culture, where seniority is king ( or queen ). You do not dare to speak out against the elder if you are a part of a group, as that would cause a serious loss of “face.” As a result, the others in the cockpit were willing to take the risks rather than break groupthink Losing face in front of people you care about is a big issue in most societies.

Collusion is when people truly feel their perspective is correct, especially because others feel the same way. Thus, if I perceive Millie to be moody and unreliable and you perceive Millie to be moody and unreliable, then that confirms my opinion is correct. Collusion can often arise quite sincerely. After all, I have confirmation that others see the situation the same way.

There are two major problems with collusion. First, confirmation from others often leads to behavior that fits my opinion. We all agree Millie is this way, and this increases the chances that we will in turn treat her rudely, and feel justified to do so. Secondly, collusion tends to cause people to do less research into why that behavior is occurring and instead to jump to conclusions. We see Millie as “difficult,” which is why we now are being less than civil to her. It could be that Millie is normally quite a happy person, but for the past few months she has had to work for a syntonic boss. Not being one to gossip, she keeps her problems to herself, but her unhappiness is apparent. Meanwhile, the bad news about her boss hasn’t leaked out yet, so we don’t understand the root of the problem.

Bright, syntonic people often manipulate other people’s opinions of yet various other people, taking advantage of collusion. It is not uncommon for a web of deceit to be built leading in many directions as the syntonic person increasingly needs to cover up their tracks. In meetings, a “we vs. they” mentality is often cultivated, so that many people get caught in the trap. It is only over time, when the facts begin to fit the syntonic leader’s assertions less and less, that people begin to question the person.

In the long run, a person with full syntonic syndrome is generally going to want to be the final authority ( the exception is the psychopath, who might deliberately set the trap for someone else to take the fall ) and take the recognition. All of the above indicates that senior management must monitor how critical decisions that impact the whole ( or a critical part ) of the organization are being made. It might be necessary to even sit from time to time in meetings where critical decisions are being made in order to watch how people interact in the meeting. You need to see if the managers under you are dominating the decision-making, or conversely, letting another person dominate too much. Does that person actively encourage and explore new ideas ? Can you see that decisions that the group eventually come to are the product of several people’s ideas and active discussion, or is there little debate, with the person with the most authority continuously taking over ? It is always senior management’s responsibility to know how critical, major decisions were made, and to seek alternative opinions when the actions being decided are particularly risky.


One of the most frequent questions I am asked is whether or not the Syntonic Syndrome is genetic or learned. The old nature vs. nurture question, and of course, it is not solely one or the other, but both. The Syntonic Syndrome is tied to the combination of our unique traits that make up our personality, and situational factors help determine what aspects of our personality we choose to express at any given time. Tickle, Heatherton and Wittenber ( 2001 ) write : "Though there is evidence that some personal aspects change over time, there is general support for the stability of trait factors over the life course ( p. 248 ). These researchers and experts in the area of personality also wrote : "There is ample evidence that personality is determined in part by genetic mechanisms... environments support continuity by reinforcing tendencies and dispositions ( p. 251 )."

If this is so, what might particularly attract this type of people to a particular organization, or a particular group within the organization ? In what type of organizational cultures do Syntonic Syndrome people flourish ? While a number of factors have an influence, I have found three to be especially important :

6. “Cowboy” or “gung-ho” culture
7. Dangerous performance reward systems
8. Laissez-faire style leadership

6. Cowboy cultures

Cowboy cultures tend to exist in more wildcat and adventurous types of industries where the risks ( and payoff ) are very high, and where managers are there not because they know how to manage, but because they like the glamour of the industry, present or past, and they have gotten results. Oil companies, brokerage firms, airline industries are examples of three such industries in the U.S. that usually have at least pockets of the cowboy culture within their company, if not corporate-wide. Many companies used to fit this profile, and many in the field of entertainment can fall in here due to the constant need for creativity, change and action required. However, contrary to misconceptions in these industries, it is not necessary to be this way to be successful. On the positive side, there is usually a pervasive "high energy" in the organization, which can make it a fun place to work if you can stand the pressure to perform.

So why should senior management be concerned ? First, since there is little planning or monitoring, problems crop up and an increasing amount of crisis management occurs, which eventually becomes the modus operandi for management. Second, the organization is reinforcing people’s external motivations without equally reinforcing more intrinsic ones. Thus, people are loyal to the company only as long as it keeps giving them more money/power/ recognition ( external motivators ), which don’t bring long-term satisfaction, and thus require continual replenishment, especially if the work itself is not intrinsically rewarding. There is little loyalty to the organization itself.

A second concern is that people with syntonic syndrome tend to be especially attracted to these types of cultures and, remember, these people can be very bright. Thus, you may find more syntonic leaders in these and related industries. Or you may find syntonic people with narcissistic personality disorder attracted here because the flamboyant aspect of their nature fits the more flamboyant culture.

Having said this, it is important to note that your organizational culture can be very ethical and conservative and you will still have syntonic people knocking on your door. However, they will tend to be noticed much more quickly, as the incongruencies of their behavior are in greater contrast to the desired mores of the company and the behavior of others who work there

7. Dangerous performance reward systems

An airline decided to bring in a consultant to address some customer service problems, specifically delays that reduced on-time departures. Executive management for the most part did not get involved, but there were a number of middle managers and front-line employees who welcomed the opportunity to get a clearer picture of where they were going wrong. What was uncovered not only addressed the customer service problems, but it went much further.

Briefly, the cause for the poor customer service had to do with extremely poor communication between various departments that had to work together in critical functions on a daily basis to get passengers to where they needed to go. But, why were these departments not cooperating with each other, especially when it resulted in the complete breakdown of core business processes for moving passengers through the terminal ? The reason was that each blamed the other for the problem.

But wait ! Is this just ego-syntonic behavior on a collective level ? As it turned out, not at all. Rather, assigning blame was a requirement ! “You, and your department's performance, will be measured by the number of delay codes on your record.” In other words, the party found guilty for any plane delay was assigned a "delay code." You did not want a delay code on your record. For one, your boss' performance bonus was based on how few or how many delay codes your department had ! Thus, individuals and departments alike fought hard behind the scenes to avoid anything that would cause them to stand out and take responsibility, while passengers fought to make connections, and planes tried frenetically to get off the ground. Given the amount of delays that occur on any given day, you can imagine what life was frequently like for these people.

It gets worse ! One senior manager decided to take advantage of what was apparently a well intentioned but defective performance reward system. He made it clear to the subordinates in his department that they would not be found responsible for causing a delay. The threat was never explicit, but it was obvious to every employee in that area. And, the manager did not want to know what they did to avoid those delay codes. Thus, they took "shortcuts" that bordered on compromising safety. In the meantime, their boss got all sorts of positive recognition for the fine job he was doing in his area. His people, meanwhile, kept their mouths shut.

One’s first response to the above situation is to think that it is an anomaly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Individual performance systems that are not monitored and do not equally emphasize collaboration are deceptively and silently menacing. As seen above, in the hands of a syntonic leader, they can cripple an organization.

Equally as crippling is an organization that has no performance management system. How many of us work in companies where mediocre people are promoted out of the department only because it is too difficult to get rid of them ! A proper performance management system does not have to be the albatross that many make it to be, and it is critical in order to differentiate within a reasonable period of time whether a particular person is suitable for the position or not. It also keeps an organization focused on the right goals, catches unreasonable risk earlier, and forces management to do one of the key jobs they are paid more money to do : give constructive feedback to people and build a team that, together, will synergistically give a higher level of performance than any one individual could do alone. Excellent managers consistently know and do this. ( FOOTNOTE-IOMA ).

8. Syntonic syndrome people look for laissez-faire style leadership

This leads us to a special type of manager that is particularly ineffective, and tends to encourage syntonic syndrome behavior. Laissez-faire managers are usually considered extremely ineffective when it comes to actively managing their people and staying on top of problems ( Bass and Avolio, 1994 ). They tend to let people manage themselves because they do not want to face anything that is unpleasant. Thus, even if they are not actually absent a lot, they are emotionally and mentally absent. They are often fence-sitters, afraid to make a decision, putting it off until the people requesting one finally give up. A syntonic syndrome person who falls into this situation will be quick to take advantage. They will quickly start taking charge or at least try to ( how they do so and the degree of success depends on the type of personality disorder and degree of intelligence ), and start surrounding themselves with those who will agree with them. The cliques and "we vs. they" attitude we saw with Gil, the broker who had been granted a lot of freedom, emerges in this situation too. The laissez-faire manager is secretly delighted because someone else is taking charge and doing their job for them.

I was facilitating a two-day workshop with a group of engineers and their laissez-faire manager on improving work performance and noticed increasing resistance whenever the topic of cross-training came up. On the afternoon of the second day, an engineer in the group exploded. Seated at the end of the "U" shape of the tables, he stood up, pointed his finger at a man, Phil, who was sitting smack in the middle of the head of the "U", and made it clear that cross-training- nor anything else- would occur because Phil did not want it, and Phil ran the show. He went into great detail pointing out all the ways Phil had taken over running the department, as well as indicating the other select few in the group who were Phil's cronies ( and therefore got the plum job assignments ) and who were not. The cronies all radiated out from Phil along the back of the "U"; those not in "the inner circle" were relegated to the sides. When I asked Phil if he wanted to speak in defense of himself, he looked me straight in the eye and quietly said, "He's right." 

Amazed at his brazen response, I turned to the shocked manager and said to him, "Well ?" At first he said nothing, but I simply waited until he knew he had to respond. Finally the clueless manager threw up his hands and said, "I thought people wanted Phil to run the show."


Recognize that it is possible a person with syntonic syndrome is knocking on your door or is already operating in your organization. This person would be ego-syntonic, meaning he or she has a central tendency to re-arrange external events so that they are continually interpreted in their favor, often at the expense of another; he or she probably has a personality disorder; it is very likely that he or she is extremely bright, exhibits a pattern of according differential treatment to people in your company; and seeks to control the decision-making process.

The most frequent question I am asked at this point is a simple one : what can be done once I suspect a person with syntonic syndrome is operating in my organization ?

There are two ways to answer this question. First, there are some tools that capable people can use in their organization that will help detect this person earlier rather than later. I will discuss these first. Finally, I also give a step-by-step process for actually managing this person out of the organization.

12. Use emotional intelligence and critical thinking skills

There may be two factors that could prevent upper management from getting sucked in. The first is in the field of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence has received a great deal of interest from the academic and

blog comments powered by Disqus