In recent years, coping with narcissistic behavior at work has attracted increasing interest, perhaps because many believe that some world leaders, prominent individuals, and historic figures have exhibited narcissistic behaviors. The full list of behaviors and attitudes examined in this series is:
- 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've been referring to the person exhibiting these behaviors as either Nick or Nora. Last time, I explored expressions of exaggerated self-importance. In this installment I examine preoccupation with superiority fantasies.
- Nick always insists on the most sought-after assignments and the largest and most pretentious office space with the best view. He demands remedies when he isn't satisfied. Even though the workplace is rather casual, Nick, who has a Ph.D., demanded that ", Ph.D." be appended to his name on his cubicle nameplate.
- Since Nick requires that his role be superior in every way to the roles of his co-workers, his fantasies about it sometimes appear as embellishments of history. He asserts fictions about the past. He claims that he warned about a risk when he didn't, or that he predicted a solution's success when he actually predicted failure. He couples these claims about his stellar contributions with disparaging claims about the contributions of others. Although all these claims are untrue, they aren't mere lies. They're points of conflict between reality and Nick's superiority fantasies.
- Perhaps Nick's most debilitating fantasy is that his fantasies of future glory aren't fantasies. He regards them as realistic objectives.
- Typically we regard fantasies as private, but narcissistic fantasies can be ostentatiously public displays, such as emblems of success, power, credentials, and organizational status, especially if they're overblown relative to reality — or totally fraudulent. In the more personal dimension, examples include exaggerated regard for one's own attractiveness, intelligence, or romantic conquests.
- Fantasies can Keeping large numbers of
heavily embellished truths
straight in one's mind
can be difficultbe pure, in that nothing about them is true or factual. Or they can be based on reality, but embellished in fantastical ways. Keeping large numbers of heavily embellished truths straight in one's mind can be difficult. Nick therefore is frequently caught contradicting past embellished stories or positions.
- Organizational risks
- Nick's ability to distort his own perceptions and recollections of reality enables him to convincingly represent his fantasies to others as realities. Nick can recruit others to his cause when he wants to isolate someone, or damage someone's career, or cause his team to adopt or reject a strategic option, or ignore a very real risk. At times, he can distort the views of people around him so as to cause groups to make decisions inconsistent with organizational health and safety.
- Coping tactics
- As Nick's supervisor, recognize that you probably can't talk Nick out of his pattern of fantastical distortions of reality. Temporary improvement is possible, but relapses are nearly inevitable. There's no question of establishing the right performance goals, or devising a performance improvement plan that will lead to a permanent change of behavior. Make plans for replacing him. And if you discover that he misrepresented his experience or qualifications when you hired him, termination could become a very practical option.
- As Nick's co-worker, skepticism is a helpful defense. It's difficult to justify relying on his word for anything. Get his promises and claims in writing, by taking minutes at meetings or asking him to put his promises in email. But recognize that despite whatever evidence you later show him, he might very well deny what the evidence is supposed to show. Evidence doesn't prevent him from rewriting history; it serves only to narrow the basis on which he rests his rewrites. By collecting evidence, you might be able to cause his behavior to become so outrageous that management might no longer be able to refrain from action.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- On Organizational Coups d'Etat
- If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed
your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
- Management Debt: II
- As with technical debt, we incur management debt when we make choices that carry with them recurring
costs. How can we quantify management debt?
- Suspense Is Not Your Friend
- Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes
we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated
ideas effectively, avoid suspense.
- 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?
- Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for
familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's
Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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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.