People with a disposition towards extreme paranoia see betrayal and disapproval everywhere. Believing that people are out to get them, they frequently misinterpret situations, seeing hidden meanings and potential threats in ambiguous circumstances. Consumed by their own fears, they fail to read the motivations and intentions of others.
Paranoia exists on a continuum from deluded thinking and pathological behaviour at one end, to reasonable vigilance at the other. Within businesses, paranoia at the destructive extreme among influential personnel can create a climate of fear and blame in an organisation, while those who have a healthy dose of suspicion can help to anticipate potential threats to a company. The deciding factor in placing oneself centrally in the continuum is how much one is able to keep a foot in reality and to manage anxiety and uncertainty.
While some individuals may have a predisposition towards paranoia, organisations can also set the stage for people’s feelings of persecution to spread through a company when they fail to manage staff anxiety at crisis points or at times of uncertainty.
Naomi Landau, director of Mental Health and Management Training Services in London, describes how paranoia can become epidemic when people’s vulnerabilities are not properly managed in work environments.
She explains: “If people feel anxious or inadequate at any level in an organisation, they may immediately try to get rid of these unwelcome feelings by projecting them on to other people – identifying and consequently treating others as rubbish or useless.
“The person under attack will then feel persecuted, which makes them more anxious and likely to retaliate, in which case conflicts and cliques form.” She adds that those who feel persecuted are also likely to underperform – which means the person or group that has been attacking or bullying then feels justified in their attacks.
Given the highly competitive nature of business, top executives may be right to think that some people in their organisations are out to unseat them. But if they become hijacked by paranoid thoughts, and act on them rather than thinking them through, they are in danger of creating a culture of blame and distrust which can seriously limit the staff’s creative performance.
An executive coach told me of an example from a large global organisation, where the chief executive defended himself against his paranoid thoughts by becoming extremely controlling and by micromanaging the board. One of his directors interpreted this behaviour as confirmation that the CEO was against him, and as a result his performance suffered, he could not contain his feelings and endlessly moaned to colleagues.