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:
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting
decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be
constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- Managing Pressure: The Unexpected
- When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this
happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing
- Snares at Work
- Stuck in uncomfortable situations, we tend to think of ourselves as trapped. But sometimes it is our
own actions that keep us stuck. Understanding how these traps work is the first step to learning how
to deal with them.
- How Pet Projects Get Resources: Abuse
- Pet projects thrive in many organizations — even those that are supposedly "lean and mean."
Some nurturers of pet projects abuse their authority to secure resources for their pets. How does this happen?
- Why Others Do What They Do
- If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly
why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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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.