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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Can you feel the music?

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“Remember when the music
Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire
And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,
For we believed in things, and so we’d sing.”– Harry Chapin, Remember When the Music

Sometimes I wonder why many of the musicians that I really like seem to be dead. I wonder what that means. Poets and musicians as well as other artists sometimes have incredible insights into what we are as a species. The refrain from the song above “And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire” might be quite literally correct if not simply artistically correct. Music, and the emotions that it can stir, plays an incredibly important part in the human makeup. Some music can literally drive you to tears, evoke warm and wonderful memories, stir the spiritual side in us or bring forth nationalistic tendencies. When I am driving in a small convertible I have, there is nothing quite like ZZ Top songs, “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, or “Hotel California” by the Eagles to make the time fly by on a trip (and hopefully not lead to a speeding ticket).

Some insight into music’s place in our brain is made more evident by stories about people who have illnesses or accidents that affect their relationship to music. Oliver Sachs, the noted neurologist, author and educator, in his book “Musicophila” describes a man who had no particular affinity out of the ordinary for music, but a few weeks after being struck by lightening developed an incredible urge to listen to and write piano music. While the etiology of the change is unknown, the man described events and memories from the strike that led Sacks to state that the emotional parts of the brain, the amygdala, the cortex and the brainstem may have been involved.  He further speculates that the lightening strike may have set off temporal lobe seizures. This short circuiting may have effected the higher functioning centers of the brain like the cortex (responsible for self, language, thought, consciousness, memory etc.) and the core components of the brain like the amygdala where emotions seem to germinate and the brainstem responsible for autonomic functions like respiration, sweating and maintaining homeostasis in the body. In other words the higher order functions of his brain were put more directly in touch (my speculation) with the basic core components of the brain and the result was an urge to listen to and create music. Is that a reason why music is sometimes so powerful, so moving, because it more directly connects our higher centers of thought processing with our elemental core components – a sensation that many of us might find pleasurable?

You can learn something about this by not only looking at “normal” people who develop issues, but by also examining the other end of the continuum – “abnormal” people and how the issue around music might play out with them. Paul Babiak and Robert Hare are the authors of “Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths go to Work”. A psychopathic person is someone without conscience, unable to empathize with others (seeing things from another’s perspective or understand another’s feelings), incapable of guilt and are loyal only to themselves. They as a group are responsible for some of the more horrific crimes that get described in the media and generally are not able to show any remorse for their actions as they lack the ability to be remorseful. A significant portion of those in prison are psychopathic. And while many of us may not be surprised that there are psychopaths in prison, we may be somewhat more surprised by some studies that suggest that psychopaths are also found in corporations. The authors repeatedly warn in their book that just because an individual may exhibit a single characteristic that could be labeled psychopathic, without a whole series of other corroborating psychopathic characteristics, you are in all likelihood not dealing with a psychopath. However one study of corporate managers in the UK put the percentage of psychopaths in management at about 3.5% as opposed to 1% in the general population. There is currently no effective treatment for psychopathy.

Hare states in an interview with Fast Company (July 2005), “There are certainly more people in the business world who would score high in the psychopathic dimension than in the general population. You’ll find them in any organization where, by the nature of one’s position, you have power and control over other people and the opportunity to get something.” Babiak as a rationale states, “The psychopath has no difficulty dealing with the consequences of rapid change; in fact, he or she thrives on it. Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.” Entrepreneurs almost by definition are not psychopathic. Entrepreneurs want to build, want to create something that outlasts themselves, psychopaths tend to take advantage of and abuse what already exists.

One very interesting quote from Babiak and Hare’s book jumped out at me. It stated, “Some researchers have commented that psychopaths ‘know the words but not the music’, a statement that accurately captures their cold and empty core”. So, from Sach’s work we now have a situation in which the brain when injured or due to some other circumstance, has some of the higher thought processing areas more in touch, better connected with the emotional core, the result is a desire to listen to, or create music (some experience musical hallucinations). And from Babiak and Hare the notion that psychopaths (including those at work) don’t seem capable of connecting their higher thought processes with the understanding that an emotional component brings, often times at great detriment to the organization or society as a whole.

I have to wonder, and I have seen some research that confirms this, that one marker of psychopathy would be people who when shown disturbing pictures can process the content intellectually but an electroencephalograph (EEG) of the brain would show a lack of response in the emotional centers of the brain. Either they were born with or due to injury or other circumstance their emotional centers of the brain appear to be somewhat detached from the higher thought processing centers. And of course this condition would not be binary but rather would reside along a continuum, meaning that being psychopathic is not necessarily an all or nothing condition. Like almost all other things that effect humans in comes in varying degrees. At some point the person would be far enough away from the average to be considered pathological. Another thought crossed my mind, “Do psychopaths enjoy music as much as the rest of us”? Psychopaths certainly can create or listen to music, Charles Manson for instance who is certainly psychopathic, was an aspiring musician prior to the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson cult, but was there any enjoyment, any emotional connection by him out of the musical experience? My guess is that it is unlikely.

Some managers within organizations can be emotionally challenged, lacking empathy or the ability to see things from the perspectives of others – they literally do not understand the pain they may be causing others or may view it simply as a necessary condition for the businesses to function or thrive. (This does not mean that they are psychopaths). They may understand the business consequences of their actions but be unable to understand the emotional impact on those affected.

While I don’t think of it as a particularly rare case, I remember that a number of years ago I had a fairly senior manager, prior to doing a really terrible thing within his organization, describe to me that what he was about to do was “just business” and had to be done because of, from his perspective, “lost opportunity”.  His actions would disrupt and possibly destroy the lives of many employees. He showed only a surface level of concern to those that would be affected by this event. The “just business” component of the rationale may have been a rationalization within his own head to justify how he could do what he was about to, or it could indicate a real lack of ability to emote with others, a lack of conscience, and a lack of loyalty to those so effected. On the surface what may appear to be a lack of ethics, may actually indicate a deeper pathological illness. I wondered if after the event whether this particular manager felt any remorse, or guilt? My guess is that he did not. And while it is unlikely that this particular manager was psychopathic he was certainly emotionally challenged, most likely narcissistic, and unable to understand how others would “feel”.

“It is just business”. Is that a rationale that should be rewarded? The investment community seems to cheer at times when callous leaders are put into place to shake up an organization. Do you remember what Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap did to Sunbeam or Scott Paper? (His lack of emotion may be epitomized by the fact that he did not attend either of his parent’s funerals).  How about what Paul Bilzerian did to The Singer Company? (He is also known for serving time in prison on charges of corporate fraud.) Did the “Queen of Mean”, Leona Helmsley deserve the title for being emotionally disconnected from her employees or was she simply misunderstood? (She was so emotionally unattached to other humans that she left millions to her dog – the dog being one of the few who stood by her). And of course there is the litany of more current plunderers by executives at places like Enron and WorldCom. Did the executives of those organizations feel remorse or guilt at the employees who lost their life savings or retirement pensions? Is it “just business”, or is it something more than that, maybe something more sinister?

It has been a very long time since I worked in the area of employee selection and in my rather limited, dated knowledge of employee selection, I wonder if anyone has looked at musicality as selection criteria (not for just musicians). Would there be a benefit in evaluating a candidate on whether they can emotionally connect to music? Rather abstract and there are certainly more direct ways and more conventional ways to measure psychopathy or other emotional issues, but never-the-less the results of a study in this area would be fascinating and would potentially tell us a lot more about who we are.

There are some terrific work places out there. All sorts of places strive to get on the “best of this or that list” and it would be interesting to see if we evaluated a list of some of the best places for the role that music plays in the work environment.  An organization where people literally “whistle while you work” may be a signpost of an emotionally healthy workplace, one where the environment has been created that allows people to connect their higher thought processes with their emotional cores. A not uncommon phrase is that “this place really hums” or a manager stating that “this place can really sing”. That simple phrase may be taping into a very deep construct imbedded into the very wiring of our brains and be intimately connected with our emotions.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 26, 2009 at 1:03 am

6 Responses

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  1. I was surfing the internet tonight looking for information on the topic of your interesting article. I too have wondered if psychopaths are capable of enjoying music in light of the fact their emotion, for all intents and purposes, is feigned.

    I have read at least three-thousand pages (including Hervey Cleckley’s seminal work “The Mask of Sanity” and many of Dr. Robert Hare’s books/articles)on the topic of psychopathy in an attempt to understand my superficially charming psychopathic ex-husband.

    Interestingly, my ex did not listen to music. He preferred talk radio (only in the car) that droned on and on. Further, if there was a television in the room it was most certainly on. In fact, he would turn the television on upon entering any room in which one was contained whether he was engaged with a program or not.

    In retrospect of the years I spent with him, I now wonder if the constant chatter of the talk radio and the constant background noise of the television somehow kept him occupied so as not to have to be quiet and still with the demented thoughts going on in his pathology-ridden brain. Just a thought.

    integrity rules

    March 14, 2010 at 12:30 am

  2. I too find the subject of psychopathy extremely interesting – I have wondered for a while whether psychopaths can enjoy music.

    I think you should relax about people who listen to talk radio. It may be a false dichotomy as disliking the music on the radio is not an indicator of pathological behavioural problems. I only listen to BBC Radio 4 and I am definitely not psychopathic. I enjoy thinking but am definitely not emotionally deficient.

    I wonder whether psychopaths are drawn to music that is emotionally simple. There is nothing wrong with extreme metal music – I read a study that said that ‘brilliant’ children are drawn to it – but I wonder whether it attracts psychopaths because of its aggressively brutal and simple emotional landscape. Search for “true norwegian black metal” and “Gaahl Interview” to see what I mean.

    Intellectual Honesty

    August 15, 2010 at 6:10 am

  3. […] know someone with Asperger’s, who is a very talented musician. Jeffrey Saltzman has an interesting blog post about psychopaths in the corporate workplace, that discusses the suggestion of psychopaths hearing […]

  4. I am a psychopath, but I enjoy music as its interesting, seeing how another person describes emotion through song gives me the biggest insight into how their mind really works, and I enjoy jamming too, replicating other people’s emotion through music is a very difficult thing though in my mind other psychopaths are the best people to jam with, they aren’t limited by actually having to feel an emotion to represent it. And we like to move around too, between different emotions. Anyway, I’m just saying, music isn’t just good because it makes you feel, for us its interesting


    September 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm

  5. […] personally know someone with Asperger’s, who is a very talented musician. Jeffrey Saltzman has an interesting blog post about psychopaths in the corporate workplace, that discusses the suggestion of psychopaths hearing […]

  6. When the chord progressions in a piece are appropriately grandiose, music causes the same dopamine release in psychopaths as it does in non-psychopathic people.


    July 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm

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