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On the face of it, business would have little to learn from the worlds of James Bond or George Smiley. But what of the real world of spies? Professor Adrian Furnham and John Taylor have written an authoritative book, “The Psychology of Spies and Spying” which describes in detail the real world of spies. It is rich in its insights and description of skills which are useful for people in business. Here are three.

Assessing People

There are two kinds of spies – the professional intelligence officer (IO), usually employees of government agencies such as the CIA, SIS and DGSE. These people go through thorough selection and vetting procedures which are among the most rigorous assessment centres in the recruitment world.

Then there are the agents, the human sources. These people are recruited for one reason only – they have access to secret intelligence. Their work with the intelligence agency is illegal and if discovered they will go to prison for a long time and in many countries, they face execution. The job of the intelligence officer is to assess the personality and the motivation of the agent.

Agents are not given sophisticated personality questionnaires, demanding written and practical exercises nor a structured interview. The intelligence officer must make the assessment during a ‘cultivation’ involving social meetings and conversations in restaurants. If the IO is lucky there will be an online presence on Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media.

During a cultivation the IO will collect information on six dimensions of their ‘target’. Insights into their cultural background, their early years, intellect and personality all help to understand the individual.

Potential dark side behaviours and motivations are critical. Businesspeople, just as Intelligence Officers need to know if their recruits or potential business partners suffer serious personality disorders such as the toxic trio: narcissism, sociopathy or Machiavellian.

The presence of these or other personality disorders does not necessarily mean the recruitment will be dropped. Some of our greatest business leaders suffer all three. And it’s the same for some of the greatest intelligence agents. Intelligence officers learn how to identify these characteristics and to manage them.

Agent motivation is no less important or complex. Rarely does an agent work for one reason. Usually, it is a mix.  Material motivation (money) is often present but on its own is difficult to manage. Ideology (caring about the company’s vision and mission), respect and liking for the intelligence officer (McClelland’s ‘affiliation’), excitement (stimulation) and a desire to change the world (achievement) are often significant parts of a motivation picture.

There is another motivation which often drives agents – ‘disenchantment’ with their leaders. We discuss this later in the article.

Influencing others

The task of an intelligence officer is formidable. Having assessed a potential agent, they then have to ‘recruit’ him or her. This is not putting a business proposal together with inputs and outputs, costs and revenue or the description of how a project might be managed. The IO has to persuade a foreign national to commit treason; if discovered they will go to prison for a long time, some will be executed.

IOs will use all the techniques familiar to businesspeople, for example the six influencers described by Cialdini in “Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion”. In addition, they have to establish trust and, in most cases, a significant degree of liking for the intelligence officer and subsequently the agency itself. Agent handlers often move jobs and posts, so they have to ‘handover’ the agent to a colleague. The initial respect and liking must be transferred to someone else in the same agency.

George Smiley’s world is dominated by betrayals and suspicion.

In the real world of espionage trust dominates the mindset.

There is much for business leaders to learn from this approach.

The Insider Threat

We mentioned the role of disenchantment earlier as a significant motivator for agents. An intelligence officer roaming the diplomatic cocktail circuits, international business meetings or even in these electronic days the Internet is looking for potential recruits. If they come across someone who extols the virtues of their country and the wisdom and excellence of their boss, they will not linger long with that individual. If however they come across someone who is likely to have intelligence and who is unhappy with their lot at work or with the actions of their leaders, the IO will explore and if promising, befriend the unhappy person.

Disenchanted workers are the kindling for insider threats. The question is whether this is the result of bad apples or toxic bosses?

Furnham and Taylor have conducted research on this over many years and developed tools to measure disenchantment in organisations. This shows that there are people, with personality characteristics which are more likely to result in actions against their employer.

The temptation is to select these people out at the recruitment stage. The problem with that approach is that many potential leaders and drivers in an organisation will also be selected out!

More interestingly Furnham and Taylor’s research shows that those who are disenchanted are often grouped together in departments or sections where the boss is toxic in one way or another.

Furnham identified five reasons for such disenchantment:

  • Corporate/Organisational Lying – belief that the way the company presents itself is hypocritical, saying it values one thing but never adheres to it.
  • Perceived Inequity – belief that others in the organisation are treated differently; favouritism; that getting far is more about networking than working hard/showing loyalty.
  • Respect – belief that colleagues are callous and bullies, putting others down and making it difficult to do your job.
  • Broken Promises – the company has let you down; not giving the promotion/development opportunity/time off that was promised in exchange for hard work.
  • Distrust – the company does not trust its employees to work without unnecessary scrutiny.



This is the stuff of what an intelligence officer is looking for. Business competitors and head-hunters will be sensitive to these as well.


The world of espionage is full of insights and solutions. We have identified three aspects with direct relevance to the business world. There are many more described in Taylor and Furnham’s book ‘The Psychology of Spies and Spying.

Bond and Smiley may not be role-models for those of us in business, but they certainly entertain. The real spies may be secretive and hard to decode, but this book points the way and contains more insights into their world and how we can all benefit from their experience.

The Psychology of Spies and Spying is available in electronic and audio formats from all the usual sources. It is also possible to buy the hard copy through the website

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