Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 9;   March 9, 2022:

Quasi-Narcissistic Quasi-Subordinates

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One troublesome kind of workplace collaboration includes those that combine people of varied professions and ranks for a specific short-term mission. Many work well, but when one of the group members displays quasi-narcissistic behaviors, trouble looms.
Holding a lighted match

Holding a lighted match, something we've all done. You can hold a lighted match for a time, but eventually, the pain will compel you to do something different.

When a quasi-narcissist is a member of a mandated collaboration, things can work for a time, but eventually the trouble will compel you to make a change. The flame is the quasi-narcissist, and the wood of the match is the collaboration, providing fuel for the flame. Flame and fuel must eventually be separated.

If the title of this post sounds a bit ambiguous, there's a good reason. This post is a step into one of the gray areas of workplace politics, where authority relationships are blurry, and where positive contributions are difficult to distinguish from sabotage. It's a place where the conventional rules governing workplace collaboration aren't clear. And even if the rules were clear, there are questions about whether those rules apply. Perhaps the grayest parts of these gray areas are the regions we enter when interpersonal trouble arises. And one situation that tends to lead to interpersonal trouble involves quasi-narcissistic quasi-subordinates.

Mandated collaborations

One structure that inherently produces quasi-subordinate relationships among collaborators might be termed a mandated collaboration. A mandated collaboration is formed when a piece of work requires the experience, knowledge, and effort of a combination of people who don't customarily collaborate; who have different organizational rank; who have varied and non-overlapping areas of experience and expertise; who have different levels of understanding of the goal of the collaboration; and at least some of whom believe that the object of the collaboration is unworthy of their effort.

Typically, mandated collaborations don't form spontaneously. Management appoints group members, though in some cases the appointing authority does seek volunteers. Lines of organizational authority rarely connect group members, because they're drawn from diverse units of the organization. And in some cases, the "Lead" — the person most responsible for the work — is of organizational rank less than or equal to some of the team members. The term quasi-subordinate describes the organizational relationship between the Lead and the other group members. The Lead has no formal organizational authority over the group members beyond the work of the collaboration.

Problematic group members

The second Mandated collaborations lie in a gray area of
workplace politics, where lines of authority
are blurry, and positive contributions are
difficult to distinguish from sabotage
ingredient that helps to produce interpersonal trouble is the problematic group member. These folks come in great variety, but the quasi-narcissist is of particular interest. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is an actual medical diagnosis, but we all exhibit narcissistic traits from time to time. Narcissism is a spectrum; it's a condition that we find in degrees. I'll use the term quasi-narcissist to denote a level of the condition that's somewhat beyond what we find in most of us, but significantly milder than we find in NPD.

Consider the following example scenario illustrating problematic behavior in a mandated collaboration.

Paula has been designated Lead for a proof-of-concept study of a new product idea. David has been assigned to assist Paula with the many administrative tasks and "what-if" models that Sonya, the project sponsor, expects will be required during the six-month effort. David and Paula are of equal rank, but David is less experienced than Paula with this particular kind of work.

David enjoys the what-if parts of his assignment, because they involve guiding a small team in the use of a technology David wants to learn more about. But David doesn't enjoy the more administrative parts of his assignment. So he has adopted a pattern of foot-dragging with respect to the administrative work, while suggesting to Sonya many new ideas and experiments to perform.

David's conversations with Sonya are clearly out of bounds; he should offer his ideas to Paula and let her decide whether to take them to Sonya. But David feels that his talents are "wasted" in that role and he has decided to adjust the scope of his assignment to a configuration more to his liking.

This scenario clearly involves a mandated collaboration — one in which the lines of authority between Paula and David run contrary to their past experiences. With respect to this project, David is Paula's subordinate. But in the organization formally, he is not. He intentionally departs from the conventional communications customs by directly working with Sonya. And so in multiple ways, David is acting as a quasi-subordinate, enabled by the realities of the mandated collaboration.

Moreover, David has decided to adjust his own job responsibilities. He feels strongly enough about his own talents and importance that he can take action on his own to make adjustments, rather than expressing his desires to Paula to seek an accommodation that might work for them both. He has a personal goal regarding a new technology, and finds a way to motivate Sonya to help him achieve that goal, even though he knows that Sonya would be violating organizational norms in doing so. All of these actions are consistent with the definitions of narcissistic behavior, though the behaviors in question are far from adequate to make a diagnosis of NPD. Arrogant, yes. Self-serving, yes. But not NPD. I call them quasi-narcissistic.

A brief review of NPD in the workplace is available in a series of posts from 2018. Below is a list of the nine indicators of NPD-related behavior. They can serve as indicators of quasi-narcissistic behavior.

Last words

Mandated collaborations, with their poorly defined lines of authority, can be fertile ground for quasi-narcissistic behavior. To limit the risk of interpersonal trouble, limit the participation in mandated collaborations of those people most inclined to exhibit quasi-narcissistic behavior.

That seems obvious. Why, then, do we find so many mandated collaborations with quasi-narcissistic members among their people? One possibility is that the managers who create these collaborations are unaware of the risks. Another is that they don't know what else to do with the troublesome quasi-narcissists. Or perhaps they object to the mission of the collaboration, but can't find any other way to stop it. Possible explanations abound. Go to top Top  Next issue: Resolving Ambiguity  Next Issue

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