Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Surviving the narcissist

Attention-seekers exploit, discard colleagues

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WITH the pranks of April Fool's Day still fresh in our minds, it reminded me that the world is, indeed, made up of all kinds of people -- including fools.

And, of course, so is the workplace. Let's face it, there are just going to be some people who are harder to deal with than others. As well, there'll be some people whom you will meet that you absolutely dislike and couldn't ever work with.

So, what kind of fools do we encounter in the workplace? While workplace bullies are often pointed out as today's king of fools, people with narcissistic personalities, on the other hand, are often overlooked. Unfortunately, they too can wreak havoc in the workplace. In fact, we've been seeing a bit more of this type of personality lately as high-profile companies and organizations collapse and their leaders are subject to investigations and even court.

These so-called fools are individuals who often have fantasies of extraordinary success and attempt to portray themselves as the biggest or the best. They constantly seek attention and admiration. They have an excessive sense of entitlement, continually seek opportunities to be recognized and display their trophies in any way possible.

They are the type of people who have an over-inflated image of self-importance and who continuously exaggerate their accomplishments. They love to be associated with high-status people and speak these individuals' names as though they were best friends, yet in truth they are bare acquaintances. At the same time, these fools are very arrogant and not only treat colleagues with disdain, but exploit and then discard them with ease.

Dr. Sam Vaknin, a well-known author on the subject of narcissism, says that an individual with this type of personality is an exceptionally good actor who is adept at charming others, persuading, manipulating or influencing. But, in actual fact, the individual has low self-esteem, a lack of confidence and a strong sense of envy.

Unfortunately in the work world, these individuals can do a lot of damage. They always try to engineer situations where they will be the centre of attention. They stomp their feet and demand the world change to meet their needs. They believe they're so special that normal company rules or regulations do not apply to them. They'll even try to destroy others whom they see as more popular or more successful. As well, these individuals are typically control freaks who can be very disruptive, are poor team players and are generally quarrelsome. Finally, they never take responsibility for failure; it is always someone else's fault.

Even more unfortunate, these grandiose yet unrealistic fools are often the folks that get the promotion. They are such good liars that their ideas are easily adopted and subsequently become corporate policy. Not only that, since they only care about external appearances, they'll go out of their way to orchestrate the illusion of success using all the sparkle and glamour they can muster as they climb the corporate ladder.

In their hurry to reach those grandiose goals and because they don't accept personal or corporate boundaries or have a conscience for that matter, they'll often take irregular or illegal shortcuts.

As with some of the high-profile corporate frauds we've encountered during the last few years, this type of company is typically all smoke and mirrors. Behind the scenes, their company is close to collapse and their corporate leaders have become nothing more than masked bandits in three-piece suits.

But understanding this personality style, be it your business leader or a colleague, is just one part of the bigger picture. A more critical concern for employees or colleagues is what to do about this behaviour, especially when you have to come to work every day. Unfortunately, you will have to realize that while these people are experts at fooling others, in most cases you don't have any influence to do anything and you are a fool to try. Not even psychologists can work effectively with these type of people.

So, if you are strapped with a boss or colleague who is so self absorbed to be dangerous, you must look at the situation as one of survival. Remember, you can't fix them. You simply have to get out and find another place to work. In the meantime, the following strategies might help while you are looking to get out of your current situation:

* Don't try to reform the individual by reasoning or appealing to their better nature; they don't have any empathy;

* Avoid disagreeing or contradicting the individual and avoid making comments that will directly or indirectly impinge on the individual's self-image

* Do not in any way take actions to restrict the individual's freedom;

* Don't point out faulty thinking or start sentences with, "I think you overlooked"...;

* Avoid creating any sense of competitiveness with this individual and don't get involved in discussions which compare the individual to others;

* Avoid criticizing the individual and don't join in when criticism is waged against other people;

* Walk away from the individual if they begin to spew insults, abuse or threats and/or tell them you will not listen to the verbiage;

* Avoid the individual, do not return their calls for help and do not rescue them from their dilemma; you'll only end up doing it all yourself;

* Avoid making jokes, you'll only open yourself up for sarcasm;

* Avoid getting caught up in their negative, pessimistic outlook; stay positive;

While you might think these tactics result in letting the fool "get away with bad behaviour," they are actually solid survival strategies that will protect you from the narcissist's wrath. Remember to stay positive and be sure to refrain from blaming yourself with respect to not being a better communicator or team member. The problem in this case is the narcissist, not you.

The old saying "what goes around comes around" certainly applies in this case. Some day this individual's brilliant career will be cut short and they will fall long and hard and in many cases, they will never get up again. But as an employee, there is nothing you can do but move on.

Sources: Narcissism in the Workplace, HealthyPlace.com; Narcissism in the Boardroom, Sam Vaknin, 2002; Narcissistic Leaders, HealthyPlace.com.

Barbara Bowes, FCHRP, CMC is president of Bowes Leadership Group, a vice-president of the Women Business Owners of Manitoba and author of the Easy Resume Book: A Transferable Skills Approach. She can be reached at barb@bowesgroup.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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