Managing Thrill Seekers (2016)

Manfred Kets de Vries

"How to manage brilliant but tumultuous leaders"

Lawrence Devon, a VP of Sales in a large retail group, was the quintessential sensation seeker. His colleagues wondered how he was able to sustain such a tumultuous lifestyle. He tolerated more chaos in his life than most people and possessed the enviable ability of keeping his cool when things got tough. Unfortunately, the way he behaved made him very difficult to manage.


When life in the office became too predictable, he let everyone know that he was bored, looking for ways to stir things up. Many believed that his bosses only tolerated him because of his stellar record in sales. Lawrence had always been among the best in acquiring new customers. He was well known for thinking “out-of-the-box” and was one of the most creative people in the firm.


Outside the office, Lawrence had the reputation of being a fun-loving, chain-smoking, heavy drinker and gambler, known for his wild parties and womanising. His was into extreme activities such as hang gliding, parachuting and bungee jumping. His passion for racing cars had almost killed him.


Recently, things had come to a head. Many of his co-workers were at a loss when one of their colleagues made a scene about Lawrence’s involvement with his wife. The incident got the attention of the CEO who was now wondering how to deal with Lawrence. Should she let him go?


Type T personalities


Psychologist Frank Farley has labelled people like Lawrence as having a thrill-seeking or “Type T” personality. They are addicted to stimulation, excitement and arousal. Only by taking extreme risks, by engaging in disinhibited behaviour, will they obtain the exhilaration that they are looking for.


Some neuroscientists have suggested that the question of whether or not an individual is a thrill seeker could be genetically based, linked to various hormones and neurotransmitters. According to them, the brain structure of high-sensation seekers might be somewhat different from people who generally avoid risks. For example, Type T individuals may have fewer dopamine receptors in their brains to record sensations of pleasure and satisfaction. To feel good in their skin, they may need higher than average levels of endorphin activity. Testosterone levels, a hormone that seems to correlate with non-inhibitory behaviour, may also influence their thrill-seeking lifestyle. In many ways, Type Ts are like adrenaline junkies, constantly living on the edge. Some use their personality for good while others engage in sociopathic behaviour, such as crime, violence or terrorism just for the thrill of it.


Not your “normal” office employee


The question is how to deal with these people? How can we channel the positive aspects of their character and lessen the negative aspects? How can we get the best out of them?


One important thing to keep in mind that thrill seekers will always have problems with regulated society and people who decide to hire them should be cognizant of what they are in for.


Type T personalities can cause havoc in face of habitual organisational processes. They are often prone to boredom and dislike repetition, routine and dealing with people who are not stimulating. As such, managers need find creative solutions to channel their considerable energy into constructive paths that involve novel, stimulating and unconventional activities with a high degree of flexibility.


People who manage thrill seekers also need to accept that, just as some people are good at being organised but aren’t very creative, others are very creative but completely fail at being organised. The challenge is to help the Type T individuals to better structure their lives, while allowing space for the more spontaneous parts of their personalities.


Enlisting the help of co-workers with complementary skills can also make a difference, effectively creating an “executive role constellation” whereby the sum will be greater than the parts. It is also a good idea to limit their responsibility in managing others – not necessarily one of their strengths.


Whatever efforts are made, senior executives should realise that Type T people will never become  “normal” office employees. Lawrence’s position in the company, despite his many aptitudes, may no longer be salvageable. But he should view his likely dismissal as an opportunity to combine his considerable talents with a modicum of organisation. Meanwhile, future employers would do well to keep in mind that his ability to adapt easily to changing situations, to roll with the punches, and his knack of dealing with difficult people could be used to great advantage in any organisation.

INSEAD Knowledge, 2016

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