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Volume 18, Issue 17;   April 25, 2018: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI

Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

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.
Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, Wales

Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, Wales. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, which means that it derives significant nutrients from living plant hosts. These mistletoes are parasitic on trees.

Those who exploit others for their own ends are parasitic on those they exploit. They use others as sources of something they need. What they derive from others can be, for example, credit for producing value. But what they derive from others need not be of value to anyone else. It can also be conflict, suffering, or pain, if the exploiter's need is to see others engage in conflict, or to see others suffer. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

In modern organizations, people working alone contribute only a small part of what their organizations do. For example, most knowledge work requires cooperation. If people can't get along with each other, they're unhappy, and their work usually suffers. One of the more common causes of hurt feelings and disrupted relationships is exploitation of one person by another for personal ends. People who feel they've been exploited sometimes retaliate, sometimes shut down, and sometimes depart for more hospitable and nurturing environments. All these outcomes harm the organization.

As a reminder, the behaviors and attitudes typically regarded as narcissistic are these:

Let's now have a closer look at the sixth item above: exploiting others for personal ends. For convenience in this series, I've been referring to the person exhibiting narcissistic behaviors and attitudes as either Nick or Nora. This time, it's Nick.

Illustrations
A typical A typical form of exploitation
is taking credit personally for
contributions others have produced
form of exploitation is taking credit personally for contributions others have produced, commonly called credit theft or credit appropriation. This behavior has a mate of the opposite polarity: blame shifting. By pre-emptively blaming others for failures, Nick avoids having to put on a defense about those failures. Other forms of exploitation include making others feel stupid and hijacking meetings.
Exploitation at work need not be work-related. For example, by suggesting the possibility of romantic involvement, one person can induce another to provide a favor. The reverse exchange is also possible: by using the power of one's position to provide a favor, or to threaten, one person can induce another to provide favors of a more intimate nature.
Description
The variety of ways Nick can exploit other people for his own ends is breathtaking. The overt acts of exploitation, such as those offered above as illustrations, are unsurprising. Of greater interest is covert exploitation.
Consider a somewhat common situation: contending for promotion. Nick might exploit the other contenders by arranging covertly to create traps for his competitors that might reduce their chances of promotion. He might spread rumors about them. If a contender's project needs the assistance of someone with rare skills, Nick might arrange for that person to be unavailable. Or Nick might charm others into forming a tight alliance that excludes the other contender. By these means he exploits the foibles and weaknesses of the other contenders to increase his own chances of promotion.
Homework: select another situation and work out how Nick's narcissistic exploitation of others to advance his own personal goals can distort the way that situation evolves.
Organizational risks
One common result of Nick's exploiting others for personal ends is distortion of the organization's perception of which people or groups are producing (or failing to produce) value. Consequently, organizational decision makers are at risk of making personnel decisions that are inconsistent with achieving organizational goals.
There are other effects less common but potentially more significant. For example, if Nick attains an elevated level of responsibility for determining organizational goals, he might choose to bias his decisions in the direction of his own personal advantage. When his decisions directly benefit himself or his family members, the conflict of interest is overt and usually preventable. But he can conceal his conflict of interest by conspiring covertly with other similarly situated individuals to "swap" decisions, each benefiting the other. See "Budget Shenanigans: Swaps," Point Lookout for May 14, 2003, for examples of swaps.
These examples of exploitation are less common only because Nick requires the ability to influence the direction of the enterprise. But they can produce substantial benefit for Nick, and substantial harm for the enterprise.
Coping tactics
As Nick's supervisor, two concerns are paramount. First, if Nick has engaged in narcissistic behavior often enough to alert you to the possibility that he exploits others, or the enterprise, for personal gain, wake up your inner detective. Interview Nick's potential targets privately to determine the truth about who creates value for the enterprise and who does not. Second, if Nick has significant decision-making authority, investigate his decisions closely enough to ensure that they are in true alignment with enterprise objectives. And don't rely on the appearance of legitimacy — look carefully for swaps.
As Nick's co-worker, be aware that he's probably much more adroit at exploiting you than you are at defending yourself from exploitation. Be alert to Nick's use of charm and deceit to induce you to make choices you wouldn't otherwise make. Trust your intuition.
As Nick's subordinate, if he's shown an inclination to take credit for the work of subordinates, make sure others know what you're working on. If Nick demands secrecy, or otherwise prevents you from making your contributions public, that's an indicator of elevated risk of credit theft. Make your work so spectacular and so ridden with subtleties that if Nick is asked about particular details, he cannot possibly explain them.

Next time, we'll examine ruthless disregard for the feelings of others. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII  Next Issue

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