Narcissistic behavior at work is far more then merely annoying. For those subjected to it, the behavior is so maddening and angrifying that it can set up ripples of abusive behavior at work and at home. Some people respond by finding jobs elsewhere if they can. If they can afford to leave the organization without first finding alternative employment, many do. 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
For convenience in this series, I've been referring to the person exhibiting narcissistic behaviors and attitudes as either Nick or Nora. This week, it's Nick.
Let's now have a closer look at the fourth item above: constant demands for attention and admiration. To satisfy Nick, attention and admiration need not be sincere, but they must be plentiful, overt, and unambiguous. A parade every morning, complete with confetti, would almost be enough.
- When the team accomplishes something significant, it's Nick who claims to have provided the critical insights, whether he did or not. Assignment to a task force isn't enough for him. He demands designation as Task Force Lead. And when the team reaches an important milestone, a celebration isn't enough for Nick. He demands that star performers — by which he means himself — be recognized.
- In ordinary Responses to narcissistic demands
for attention and admiration need
not be sincere, but they must be
plentiful, overt, and unambiguousconversation, Nick dominates. Unless he senses that he's doing most of the talking, he ups his game until he's certain that he is. And when he talks, he talks about his projects, his successes, and his opinions. He feels no obligation to ask, "And what do you think about it?" or, "And how have you been?"
- People experience narcissistic demands for attention and admiration as expressions of Nick's insecurity about his superiority and specialness, which, of course, they are. But they're much more than that. Nick's demands serve to elicit behaviors in others that satisfy his deep need for validating his superiority fantasies. Attention and admiration also help Nick gauge the effectiveness of all of his other tactics. And by arranging for others to pay attention to him and express their admiration for him, Nick might actually consolidate his position of superiority and specialness, in two ways.
- First, there are only so many hours in a day that can be devoted to lavishing attention on — or expressing admiration for — individuals in any given group. By taking up as much of the available time as possible, Nick prevents the spotlight from lingering on anyone else. To Nick, the metric of success is spotlight-minutes. He must acquire more of those than anyone else.
- Second, let me offer a speculation. When others express admiration for Nick, the act itself increases the degree to which they admire him. This happens even if they're lying only to placate him. This phenomenon, if it's real, would work in a way analogous to the way smiling makes us happy [Layton 2009].
- Narcissistic demands for attention and admiration are sometimes indirect or difficult to identify. For example, in a tactic known as backdoor bragging Nick boasts about his own talents or accomplishments by concealing the boast in a subordinate clause. Or in a discussion of difficulties in some task that's underway, he'll mention his success in accomplishing something similar but unrelated, as if he's offering a helpful suggestion, when he and everyone else recognizes that he's doing no such thing. In these examples, Nick chooses to interpret the silence of his audience as concurrence.
- Organizational risks
- Narcissistic demands for attention and admiration can be satisfied only if they exceed — sometimes dramatically — what would normally be provided on the basis of Nick's talent or performance. Unfairness is inevitable. That unfairness triggers Nick's co-workers' experiencing jealousy, frustration, and anger. These feelings are fuel for toxic conflict. Moreover, because some people are angry, the conflict need not involve Nick directly. Conflict can erupt anywhere. The general atmosphere in the group becomes extremely unpleasant. Absenteeism rises. Some people head for the exits.
- The most significant effects on work quality are likely to involve decisions in which Nick plays a role. Because he so dominates discussions, and so energetically pursues credit for anything of value, some participants become more inclined to hold back, asking themselves, "What's the point of trying?" [Brenner 2015]. When the organization relies for decision quality on people who choose not to contribute at expected levels, decision quality suffers.
- Coping tactics
- As Nick's supervisor, or as a team leader of Nick's team, you've probably tried the usual interventions that are so effective when ordinary misbehavior is afoot. Sadly, they don't work so well with narcissistic behaviors. But those standard interventions might have alerted Nick to the fact that you've noticed his narcissistic behavior, and he might have become more adept at using his tactics outside your awareness. In this way, he continues to affect the team or group, even though it might appear to you that he has "cleaned up his act." You might then conclude — mistakenly — that someone or something else is causing the troubles in the team. Beware. Pay closer attention.
- As Nick's co-worker, recognize that there isn't much you can do to convince him to be less demanding and more respectful of others. Attend to your own responses. Anger and frustration are understandable and not very helpful. Be certain that you don't bring them home with you after work. Find someone to talk to about the situation: a spouse, a significant other, clergy, counselor, or therapist. If management continues to tolerate Nick, find a way to put distance between you and him.
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