Divisiveness, jealousy, and openly toxic conflict are the almost inevitable results of accommodating narcissistic behavior at work. Although accommodation might seem to be the easiest and quickest way around the misbehavior, the immediate "advantages" of accommodation are overwhelmed by its less immediate but far more costly disadvantages. 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. In this part, it's Nora.
Let's have a closer look at the fifth item above: expecting and demanding favorable treatment, which is often the immediate precursor to accommodating behavior on the part of others.
- Most of us believe that we deserve some level of respectful treatment as human beings. That sense of entitlement crosses into the narcissistic when we feel that we deserve a special level of respectful treatment — at all times and in all circumstances beyond what others deserve, solely because of our own specialness.
- For example, when Nora presents her work to her team, she resents any attempt by others to comment upon it or evaluate it. Her attitude is that she produced it, and therefore it isn't subject to comment by anyone else. She even resents comments like "Nice job, Nora," because she holds that her teammates aren't qualified to judge her work. Nobody really is.
- At performance review time, many of her reviews of her subordinates are late and perfunctory, because she's "too busy right now" with more important work. Her own performance review is a different matter. After her supervisor presents it to her, she demands that some material be added and other material be revised or deleted. And when her supervisor objects, she presses hard over several meetings until her supervisor finally relents.
- Favorable treatment is perhaps too weak a term for what Nora expects. She wants to be treated as if there were special rules and policies that apply only to her. When she feels the need for exceptions even to those special rules, those exceptions should be granted. These demands transcend formal policy. They extend to all personal relationships. For example, she demands the right to interrupt anyone who's speaking, and the right to enter any conversation between other people whenever she wants to.
- She makes these demands and has these expectations because she does actually want what she says she wants. But it's more than that. By gaining favorable treatment, she confirms her view of her own specialness. When favorable treatment isn't forthcoming, she interprets that as an assault on her specialness. Her response seems disproportionate to most people, because they tend to gauge her demands with respect to what she's demanding. But what matters most to Nora isn't what she's demanding — it is validation of her view of her own specialness.
- Organizational risks
- Accommodating By gaining favorable treatment,
Nora confirms her view of
her own specialnessNora's demands for favorable treatment inherently produces unfair treatment across the group population. Accommodation creates problems at two levels: personal and organizational.
- She demands more than she receives, and she regards as worthless anyone who fails to accede to her demands. In some cases she seeks retribution for these failures. On the other hand, she briefly lavishes attention and favors on those who do meet her demands, not as repayment, but to demonstrate to others that meeting her demands is preferable to failing to do so.
- At the organizational level, Nora's favorable treatment creates problems for data management and for personnel management. Any data management process that must deal with Nora's anomalous data deliveries produces unreliable output. Her data deliverables arrive out of sync with the deliverables of others. They differ in quality and format. Most maddeningly, her deliverables might arrive in media that differ from the expected form: verbal instead of email, or MS Word instead of the standard Oracle form. These variations make data compilation difficult.
- When Nora's co-workers learn of Nora's special treatment, resentments are almost inevitable. These resentments are fuel for toxic conflict, by processes analogous to the results of her demands for attention and admiration. But they do something more. Upon learning of Nora's favorable treatment, some of Nora's co-workers try to reduce the gaps and non-uniformities in treatment by demanding favorable treatment for themselves. One consequence is increasing incidence of non-uniformities in data deliverables.
- Coping tactics
- As Nora's supervisor, you're the most likely target when Nora seeks favorable treatment. If you've been accommodating her, immediate cessation is likely to cause real trouble. She might file grievances against you for any kind of mistreatment that she feels might be credible. For your own safety, be certain that your house is in order before you make any changes. When you do end the favorable treatment, be prepared with sound reasons based on her performance shortcomings. If you haven't yet accommodated her demands for favorable treatment, don't start.
- As Nora's co-worker, if you notice that she's receiving favorable treatment from others, there isn't much you can do. If you choose not to accommodate her demands yourself, be prepared for attacks. When attacked, keep in mind that counterattacks are more likely to deter future attacks than any defensive moves would be.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
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