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Manfred Kets de Vries


Managing Thrill Seekers

Not your ‘normal’ office employees

Published: Tuesday, August 2, 2016 - 15:14

Thrill-seeking employees’ addiction to risk can create havoc in the workplace. Managed correctly, however, their fearlessness can be a great advantage to any organization.

People who knew Lawrence Devon, a VP of sales in a large retail group, viewed him as the quintessential sensation seeker—a person who liked taking risks. At times, his colleagues wondered how he was able to manage such a tumultuous lifestyle. He seemed to be able to tolerate 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 for him, he let everyone know that he was bored and looked for ways to stir things up. Many believed that his bosses only tolerated him because of his stellar record in sales. Devon had always been among the best (if not the best) in acquiring new customers. He was well known for thinking outside the box and was considered one of the most creative people in the firm.

Outside the office, Devon had the reputation of being a fun-loving, chain-smoking, heavy drinking gambler, known for his wild parties and womanizing. His adventurous vacations would include extreme activities like hang gliding, parachuting, and bungee jumping. His passion for race cars almost killed him. If that wasn’t enough excitement, his two short, stormy marriages were something else. Rumor had it that he had always been into high-risk sexual behavior. He seemed to be following Lord Byron’s credo: “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.”

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

Type T personalities

Psychologist Frank Farley has labeled people like Devon—those searching for novel, complex, intense experiences—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 behavior, will they obtain the exhilaration that they need.

Long before the Type T personality was recognized, psychiatrist Michael Balint distinguished between two kinds of people: the ocnophils, and the philobates. Ocnophils are the nonadventurous type. In their inner world, the fear of abandonment plays too big a role. They prefer to clutch at something firm when their security is at risk. In contrast, the philobates are more confident, more independent, and seek out thrills. These two different behavior patterns can be seen as extreme positions on a spectrum of neurotic conflict.

Unlike Balint, some neuroscientists have suggested that the question of whether an individual is a thrill seeker isn’t just a developmental issue but could be genetically based, linked to various hormones and neurotransmitters. (We should keep in mind that although the basic architecture for what we will become is in place when we’re born, the outcome very much depends on environmental exposure.) According to these neuroscientists, the brain structure of high-sensation seekers might be somewhat different from people who generally avoid risks. For example, Type T individuals, like Devon, 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 levels of endorphin activity. Their level of testosterone, a hormone that seems to correlate with non-inhibitory behavior, may also influence their thrill-seeking lifestyle.

Given what we know about hormonal behavior, we can describe these people as real adrenaline junkies. They like to live on the edge. Some of these thrill seekers use their personality for good, while others use it for bad, even engaging in sociopathic behavior. They may turn to 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?

In answering these questions, we should keep in mind that thrill seekers, like Devon, will always have problems with more regulated society. Their behavior is bound to cause a certain amount of conflict. At the same time, given their knack for adventure, many of these people will have the ability to attain the highest levels of creativity and innovation in science, business, government, and education—but people who decide to hire them should be cognizant of what they’re in for.

These Type T personalities can cause havoc with organizational processes. The people who employ them must be careful in selecting work that will fit them. Because thrill seekers are quickly susceptible to boredom and dislike repetition, routine, and dealing with people who aren’t stimulating, managers need to find creative solutions to channel their considerable energy into constructive paths. They are best suited for positions involving novel, stimulating, and unconventional activities—unstructured tasks that require a high degree of flexibility.

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

Enlisting the help of co-workers with complementary skills can make a difference, effectively creating an “executive role constellation” whereby the sum will be greater than the parts. It’s also a good idea to limit their responsibility in managing others—an activity that isn’t necessarily their strength.

Whatever efforts are made, however, senior executives should realize that Type T people will never turn into “normal” office employees.

A final comment concerning Devon: Despite his many aptitudes, his position in his present company may no longer be salvageable. But he should view his likely dismissal as a learning opportunity—as the beginning of a journey to combine his considerable talents with a modicum of organization and common sense. Meanwhile, future employers would do well to keep in mind that his ability to adapt easily to changing situations and roll with the punches, as well as his knack for dealing with difficult people, could be used to great advantage.

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. © INSEAD 2016.


About The Author

Manfred Kets de Vries’s picture

Manfred Kets de Vries

Manfred Kets de Vries is a clinical professor of leadership and organizational change; an author, co-author, and editor of 35 books; and a consultant and educator on organizational design/transformation and strategic human resource in more than 40 countries. A recipient of The Lifetime Achievement Award from The Leadership Legacy Project of the International Leadership Association, Kets de Vries is viewed as one of the world’s six founding professionals in the development of leadership as a field and discipline. Kets de Vries founded INSEAD’s Global Leadership Center, and is founder and program director of INSEAD’s Challenge of Leadership Program.