Someone who typically exhibits narcissistic behavior doesn't do so by accident. Because behaviors we regard as narcissistic are generally offensive or hurtful to others, behaving narcissistically requires violating social norms that most of us recognize as necessary for social peace. To systematically choose these behaviors, one must believe that one is special, and that the social norms apply only to others.
As a reminder, the behaviors and attitudes typically regarded as narcissistic are these:
- 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
The third item is the belief that one is special. It's fundamental in the sense that it's the basis for granting oneself permission to exhibit the other behaviors and attitudes. Without a belief in one's specialness, the sense of shame and guilt about violating common social norms could be overwhelming.
For convenience, in this series, I've been referring to the person exhibiting these behaviors and attitudes as either Nick or Nora. This time it's Nora. Let's now have a closer look at specialness.
- Nora breaks rules of all kinds, because rules are for everyone else. Indeed, complying with the rules puts her at risk of losing her claim to specialness. Nora therefore feels compelled to break rules and violate norms. In meetings, she believes that she has the right to interrupt whoever is speaking to say whatever is on her mind, whether or not it's on topic. She doesn't wait to be called on to speak. Her status reports are late and nearly content-free. Her expense reports are bloated with receipts that she picks up in airports and cafes, and which other customers had discarded. She flies business class instead of the company-mandated coach class whenever she can find a flight that's fully booked in coach. In violation of laws and corporate policy, she asks her subordinates which political parties they support, and "strongly encourages" them to contribute to political causes she favors.
- Narcissistic specialness differs from the "everyday" specialness that's associated with the uniqueness of our roles or our talents. For example, in meetings, the Designated Digression Detector is empowered by everyday specialness to interrupt at any time, even though others are not. The group or the situation confers everyday specialness — not the individual.
- By contrast, Narcissistic rule breaking isn't enough.
One must break the rules within the
awareness of those others who
are subject to the rules.narcissistic specialness is asserted by individuals, usually without a basis in their roles or talents. For example, they demand the right to arrive late to meetings. When they do, they demand that someone "catch me up" with what has happened so far. Typically, as with the catch-me-up pattern, narcissistic specialness also serves to place others in subservient roles.
- Organizational risks
- The risks of permitting narcissistic specialness to persist unchallenged include possible violations of law or regulations, escalating resentments by others, team fractiousness, and wasting organizational resources. It isn't enough for Nora to break the rules; she needs to break the rules within the awareness of those others who are subject to the rules. That awareness enhances the feeling of specialness while it creates resentments about uneven application of enterprise policies and social norms.
- Coping tactics
- As Nora's supervisor, you can try to compel compliance by talking to her and explaining that there will be consequences for non-compliance. But realize that Nora is likely to view this framework as yet another rule to break. Because she's likely to try to circumvent whatever consequences you describe to her, prepare in advance by coordinating your strategy with any parties she might turn to for support in seeking a waiver or in seeking your own dismissal. These individuals include your own supervisor, your human resource representative, and her previous supervisor. Depending on Nora's rank, you might require support at the highest levels of the organization. Unless you receive strong assurances of support, dealing with Nora directly is risky, because she's likely to prevail. This probably isn't her first rodeo.
- As Nora's co-worker, be certain that Nora's supervisor is aware of the unfairness of Nora's special treatment. But if you cannot register your views with Nora's supervisor anonymously, take care. If Nora discovers that you've taken action, she'll very likely to respond by attempting to harm or discredit you. Safety is important. Take no action that places you in danger.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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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.