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Volume 18, Issue 21;   May 23, 2018: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX

Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX

by

An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it?
Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals Service

Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals Service. Former CEO of Enron, and a longtime advocate and architect of the company's aggressive, complex accounting practices, Skilling's activities eventually led to the implosion of the company. He believed that the only effective motivators of people are money and fear. He was an advocate of the "rank-and-yank" model of performance management, in which the bottom 15% of performers annually are terminated if they cannot find alternative employment within the company within two weeks. Emphasizing ranking people according to his standards, Skilling lost sight of the more fundamental need to keep the company healthy.

Disaster ensued. When Enron filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on December 2, 2001, it was valued at $65.5 billion. Within weeks, its shares were worthless. On January 25, 2002, former Enron vice chairman J. Clifford Baxter was found dead in an apparent suicide. On May 25, 2006, Skilling was convicted on dozens of fraud and conspiracy charges. Kenneth Lay, Enron Chairman, was convicted on 11 charges. Lay died of a heart attack on July 5. Skilling is in prison, due for release in 2019.

Off-the-charts arrogance is arrogance so far beyond garden-variety arrogance that most people don't recognize it as arrogance. They simply can't believe that anyone could say such things and truly believe them unless what they said was actually true. The extremism of off-the-charts arrogance is therefore what prevents us from identifying it as arrogance. And that's why off-the-charts arrogance is perhaps the most dangerous of all the narcissistic behaviors I've been exploring over these past three months.

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

Let's now have a closer look at the ninth item above: off-the-charts arrogance. 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.

Illustrations
When Nora enters a room, she expects to be acknowledged, not by a simple "Hey," or "Hi Nora," but by everyone present turning their attention to her. Even better, anyone who's seated should rise to greet her. Her contributions to conversations are invariably about herself, and they're always positive. Many of her self-aggrandizing comments serve double duty by simultaneously insulting others, or by advancing her own agenda at the expense of others' agendas. She accomplishes these feats by relying on a fairly impressive ability to charm people.
Perhaps the most revealing Of all narcissistic behaviors,
off-the-charts arrogance is
perhaps the most dangerous
to the organization
illustrations of Nora's off-the-charts arrogance are her responses when people point out inaccuracies or inconsistencies in her assertions. She usually finds a way to deny having made the disputed assertion, or she refutes the claim as inaccurate, or derails the exchange by raising unrelated issues, all while attacking the personhood of the claimant. She targets for ultimate destruction any repeat "offenders."
Description
Assertions about her own capabilities might be mere expressions of confidence if Nora's focus were comparing her capabilities to what might be needed to actually accomplish the task before her. But her focus isn't the task; her focus is asserting that her capabilities are superior to others' capabilities. (See "Is It Arrogance or Confidence?," Point Lookout for March 14, 2018, for more) Those who exhibit run-of-the-mill arrogance are annoying individuals. But Nora's off-the-charts arrogance makes impossible the task of determining whether or not she actually believes she can achieve the objectives to which she has committed herself and others. She effectively ignores the tasks before her until disaster looms, at which point she casts about for an escape or for someone weak enough to serve as a scapegoat. Acknowledging her own errors or deficits is beyond her capability, which shortcoming can lead ultimately to her own undoing.
Organizational risks
Most narcissistic behaviors provide fuel for toxic conflict. Arrogance is very effective as such fuel, and it presents significant organizational risk. But Nora's off-the-charts arrogance, combined with her charm, can lull the people of the organization into believing that she can accomplish impossible feats. Or it can lead the organization's people to commit to objectives that are actually beyond their reach, and which might be beyond anyone's reach. These delusions expose the organization to the risk of committing itself to impossible budgets and schedules, or worse, to goals unattainable with any budget or within any schedule.
Coping tactics
As Nora's supervisor, coping tactics for the toxic conflict generated by her arrogance are similar to those suggested in previous installments of this series. See "Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VIII," Point Lookout for May 16, 2018, for an example. More important is the risk that Nora has persuaded the organization to commit to unattainable objectives. Carefully review any initiative Nora has energetically advocated, even if she's no longer involved — actually, especially if she's no longer involved. To determine feasibility, seek the advice of dispassionate experts.
As Nora's co-worker, be aware that expressing skepticism about Nora's capabilities will probably make you a target of hers. To protect her view of herself, she'll do what she can to reduce your influence, permanently if possible. Expressing doubt about her capabilities is therefore a risk to your career. Do so only if you've prepared defenses, including interventions by very powerful players in your organization.

This issue brings to a close my series on narcissistic behaviors. These nine behaviors interact and reinforce each other in ways that might not be evident at first read. Even if you've been reading the pieces in this series issue-by-issue as they became available, reading them again can provide fresh insight. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I  Next Issue

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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