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:
- 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
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.
- A typical A typical form of exploitation
is taking credit personally for
contributions others have producedform 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.
- 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.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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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.