How to cope with narcissists at work is a popular topic on the Interwebs these days. Which is interesting, because the term narcissist serves as both a lay and clinical designation. The two usages differ. And it can be difficult to know which sense pertains when we hear the term in use. The clinical sense implies that the person in question is afflicted with what psychologists call Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Because few of us are equipped to make such a diagnosis of our co-workers, even if they're willing to submit to examination, I prefer to focus on behaviors and attitudes rather than the person exhibiting them.
In this and coming issues, I'll examine a set of narcissistic behaviors and attitudes. For each one, I'll provide illustrations, a description, an indication of its organizational risks, and suggestions for coping with the behavior until management finally intervenes. Here are the behaviors and attitudes I'll examine:
- Expresses exaggerated self-importance
- Preoccupied with superiority fantasies
- Believes that he or she is special and that only special people or institutions can fully appreciate that specialness
- Constantly demands attention and admiration from others
- Expects and demands favorable treatment
- Exploits others for personal ends
- Displays ruthless disregard for the feelings of others
- Envies others or believes that others envy him or her
- Is Off-the-charts arrogant
For convenience, I'll refer to the person exhibiting these narcissistic behaviors as either Nick or Nora. Let's begin this time with "Expresses exaggerated self-importance."
- Nora insists that all meetings, whatever their agendas, be scheduled at times when she can attend, because a meeting without her can't possibly reach any valid conclusions. If an important task is assigned to a subgroup, that group must include Nora. If it does not, she insists on reviewing their results, and then adjusting them as she sees fit.
- Feeling Because few of us are equipped to
diagnose clinical narcissism in our
co-workers, it's safer to focus on
behaviors and attitudes rather
than the person exhibiting themthat oneself is more important than someone else in a given situation is a common sensation; feeling that oneself is more important than everyone else in all situations is probably narcissistic.
- Organizational risks
- Behaviors and attitudes like Nora's are inimical to organizational survival. Even if Nora is often justified in her assessment of her own capabilities, nobody is always right. Letting her views prevail consistently in these ways exposes the organization to high risk of catastrophic blunders.
- Merely expressing the belief that one is more important than anyone else — let alone acting on it — is dangerous to the organization and constitutes a performance issue. Management must intervene and deal with it as such. If management doesn't intervene, others compelled to accept the presence of someone like Nora will learn that there's little opportunity for them to contribute or for their contributions to be recognized. The more capable among them will seek opportunities elsewhere, and those people are the very people the organization should nurture and develop.
- Coping tactics
- If you supervise Nora, your duty is to take corrective action. Your Human Resources representative can guide you.
- If you aren't Nora's supervisor, alert Nora's supervisor to the problem. If no effective action results, you can consider filing a formal grievance, but beware: Nora is unlikely to tolerate anyone who stands against her. If she learns of the action you've taken, the consequences for you could be seriously unpleasant. In some situations, your best option might be finding an exit — for you or for Nora — and keeping your head down until you do.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Stonewalling: I
- Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction used by those who wish to stall the forward progress of some
effort. Whether the effort is a rival project, an investigation, or just the work of a colleague, the
stonewaller hopes to gain advantage. What can you do about stonewalling?
- The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste
- Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of
the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities
just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
- Kinds of Organizational Authority: the Informal
- Understanding Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority found
in organizations. Here's Part II of a little catalog of authority, emphasizing informal authority.
- Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants
doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
- Allocating Airtime: II
- Much has been said about people who don't get a fair chance to speak at meetings. We've even devised
processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.