In small organizations, as in small towns, respecting others is essential to social survival. People who are consistently disrespectful of others are soon caught at it, and the rest of the population collaborates to either eject offenders or bring them to heel. Larger organizations are different. In larger organizations, those who disrespect others are able to move from place to place rapidly enough to avoid enforcement action and sometimes, even to avoid recognition of their pattern. Larger organizations can be fertile ground for narcissistic behaviors, especially behaviors that would be recognizable if exhibited repeatedly. In this sense, the organization plays a role in the genesis and incidence of narcissistic behavior.
For example, consider the condescending remark. Condescension is one way to elevate oneself by denigrating others. Used in private, it's nasty enough. But in public, it can be devastating, especially if the target of the condescension feels unable to respond in defense — or counterattack — perhaps because of lesser organizational status than the condescender, or some other constraint.
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 seventh item above: ruthless disregard for the feelings of others. 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 Nora.
- Narcissistic behavior in children seems to adults to be harmless, though children do experience it more intensely. That might be why it provides such a useful template for understanding the adult pattern. Name-calling is one of its simpler forms, but it also includes bullying and cyber-bullying, deprecatory nicknames, condescending or patronizing remarks, insults, rumormongering, isolation tactics — anything that might make the target feel bad or defensive.
- Whether in Whether in adults or children,
the offender's objective is
inflicting pain on the target,
as publicly as possibleadults or children, the offender's objective is inflicting pain on the target, as publicly as possible.
- Although I (following many others) have described this behavior as disregard for the feelings of others, it's possible that disregard isn't quite the right term. To disregard would be to ignore. What actually happens is more like directed effort to eliminate a perceived threat, which requires focused attention, rather than inattention or ignoring. People who exhibit this behavior do so with consistency and passion to attain and then maintain the view of themselves that they seek.
- For example, suppose Nora encounters a confident and popular individual I'll call Cora. Assessing Cora's social status, Nora perceives Cora as a threat, most intensely if Cora challenges Nora or even if she simply declines to subordinate herself to Nora. To neutralize the threat, Nora begins with indirect or subtly dismissive tactics, but she'll escalate to whatever level is necessary to defuse the threat she perceives from Cora.
- Nora's targets sometimes regard these attacks as personal, in the sense that they believe that Nora might harbor some ill will toward them. That might be true in some cases, but the primary motivator for Nora's attacks is not animus; rather, it is the need to assuage her own concerns about the threats she believes these targets might represent.
- Organizational risks
- Nora's behavior has undesirable effects, both direct and indirect. Among the direct effects, her treatment of Cora (or anyone she perceives as a threat) creates or contributes to a toxic atmosphere. Teamwork and cooperation suffer. Among indirect effects, her treatment of Cora intimidates others, who then avoid Nora, or limit their interactions with her. They might even limit their contributions to avoid conflict with Nora. This withholding behavior deprives the organization of information and contributions that might at times be important. It can be just as destructive as any of the more common forms of holding back.
- Coping tactics
- As Nora's supervisor, recognize that her behavior could increase turnover among your more capable subordinates. Tolerating it is therefore risky. Because intervening to alter her behavior is unlikely to succeed, the most effective alternatives are termination, transfer, or isolation. Terminating Nora or transferring her must be done with care and advice from Human Resources representatives. Isolation might be more practical, because it need not be total. It's sufficient to isolate her from anyone she regards as a threat.
- As Nora's co-worker, your chances of being targeted are correlated with Nora's perception of your social status. In time, she'll either move on to another position voluntarily, or management will reassign or terminate her. But that time might not arrive soon. In the meantime, you must choose to either assume a less visible, less respected role, or accept her attacks, or counterattack so effectively that she will voluntarily exit. If she is especially adept, the choice to become less visible might be the wisest.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Devious Political Tactics: Cutouts
- Cutouts are people or procedures that enable political operators to communicate in safety. Using cutouts,
operators can manipulate their environments while limiting their personal risk. How can you detect cutouts?
And what can you do about them?
- Kinds of Organizational Authority: the Formal
- A clear understanding of Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority
found in organizations. Here's Part I of a little catalog of authority classes.
- Coercion by Presupposition
- Coercion, physical or psychological, has no place in the workplace. Yet we see it and experience it
frequently. We can end the use of presupposition as a tool of coercion, but only if we take personal
responsibility for ending it.
- Much of what we call backstabbing is actually just straightforward attack — nasty, unethical,
even evil, but not backstabbing. What is backstabbing?
- Bad Trouble: Coping strategies
- When Bad Trouble develops at work people make choices about coping. If they cope constructively, they
have choices about how to do that. Even those who don't cope constructively have choices. Here's a survey
of the wide range of choices people make.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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