I saw a great article today by Thomas Hoffman from CIO.com’s RSS feed (it was written by Hoffman in June 2008 and originally published in Computerworld). The title is “Narcissists at work: How to deal with arrogant, controlling, manipulative bullies”. In it, Hoffman documents his interview with Jean Ritala, the co-author of “Narcissism in the Workplace“.
In the post (and related book), Ritala doesn’t deal with narcissism as a garden-variety swollen ego, but rather deals with it as a significant, and corporately problematic, emotional disorder defined as “…a condition characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with one’s self.”
The NIH lists the following as the symptoms of a narcissistic personality disorder:
- Reacts to criticism with feelings or rage, shame, or humiliation
- Takes advantage of others to achieve own goals
- Has feelings of self-importance
- Exaggerates achievements and talents
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal love
- Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment
- Requires constant attention and admiration
- Lacks empathy
What struck me is this list is a behavioral primer for almost every “mostly-successful” entrepreneur, C-Level and senior consultant with whom I have ever worked.
I’ve found that these people are “mostly successful” as they generally receive significant financial rewards or advancement, but are considered high maintenance to work with or less than desirable to work for. For entrepreneurs, they tend to never get a business beyond 50 people or about $20 million. For C-levels, they tend to hit the VP (often sales), CIO or COO slot in their 30’s, but never get to the CEO seat and often change jobs every few years. For consultants, they tend to be VERY product knowledgeable, but I usually see a recurring pattern of two-year job shifts combined with significant contract work. Overall, I generally see these people peak in their 30’s and 40’s and never do much beyond that.
Exceptions exist of course. And, not everyone that has some of these characteristics is a narcissist in its strict definition as an emotional disorder.
You may now ask, “So what? They’re assh*les. Move on”. The problem isn’t them, its what they do to you and the organizations for which you work.
In a consultancy, these people kill project teams results, guarantee write-offs, destroy customer trust, and foster peer level conflicts via being critical, lying, taking credit for other’s work, and pointing the finger when things go wrong. If you see this behavior, DON’T excuse it as the price we pay for finding skilled people or driving high billed hours – get HR involved, document the behavior and correct it or get rid of the person doing it.
In a client, this kind of person will make your life a bleak living hell as your ability to manage to scope is limited by their particularly self-involved world view. Every issue will be your fault, every problem your’s to solve, every success their’s to claim. My usual course of action is to document (and document and document), find another champion inside the client to help me manage the person, and, if I can’t work around them, I pull our team. If I can’t, next chance I get I jack their hourly rate as a “jerk fee” but then get us out as quickly after that as I can. I’d love to say that confronting them with the behavior, esp. in an intervention-style environment works, but my experience shows that it doesn’t when they work for the client.
Inside your own leadership team, this behavior will manifest itself in very clear ingrained behaviors. Managers will point fingers rather than accept responsibility, accountability will become impossible, and your best people will leave, particularly those that report to the person manifesting the narcissistic behaviors. Those that are left behind will either be stuck for personal reasons (usually financial) or will be the second tier who are not energetic enough to find the best solutions to problems (if they could, they’d quit). Overall, you team’s performance will decline over time (or at best, never improve). From the top down, follow the same advice I give for consulting staff. However, if the problem is above you (esp. in the CEO seat), your choices are limited since HR will usually be ineffective talking to the owner or CEO. Some people will respond to upward coaching (calmly, thoughtfully and respectfully done) especially when its done from long time trusted staff member or peer. However, if the traits are too deeply engrained, you’ll find that the choice is not how to change them but how you change your job.
By the way, I’ve been accused of 3, 5 and 6. Especially by my wife:).