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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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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.