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:
- Currying Favor
- The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though —
it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
- Hostile Collaborations
- Sometimes collaboration with people we hold in low regard can be valuable. If we enter a hostile collaboration
without first accepting both the hostility and the value, we might sabotage it outside our awareness,
and that can render the effort worthless — or worse. What are the dynamics of hostile collaborations,
and how can we do them well?
- Reframing Revision Resentment: I
- From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks,
an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration,
and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
- Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict.
These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series
we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends.
- On Ineffectual Leaders
- When the leader of an important business unit is ineffectual, we need to make a change to protect the
organization. Because termination can seem daunting, people often turn to one or more of a variety of
other options. Those options have risks.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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