How to limit – or prevent – the effects of morale-damaging employees
By Kathy Schnure
Imagine that you are a fresh-faced youngster, recently graduated from college and ready to take the corporate world by storm. This was me at age 22. Having taken my first job, I worked endlessly to make a good impression and prove my worth to the higher-ups. After about a year, a particularly difficult project came down the pike. One of my many bosses passed the project off to me, pitching it as an opportunity to advance my career. I worked harder than ever. Months later, I completed the project successfully, and I felt as if I’d put in some of the hardest and best work of my life. Proud of my accomplishment, I was eager to share the positive results with the rest of my company at our weekly staff meeting.
When the staff meeting began, my boss, who did virtually no work on the project, announced, “Yes, I’ve successfully completed this difficult project. It was hard work, but I got it done, and our client is very pleased.” Angry and deflated, I later confronted this boss about taking credit for all my work in front of the entire office without so much as mentioning my involvement. “What are you talking about?” my boss replied, looking at me with a confused expression, “I did do all the work.”
If the above sounds familiar, you may have dealt with a narcissistic leader or co-worker at some point during your career. Though the base rate of narcissism in its true form is relatively low, even one narcissistic individual in your organization can devastate morale, sometimes leading to turnover and other personnel-related issues. Because of this potential for creating problems, managers must have an understanding of what “narcissism” means, how to identify it, and how to cope with a narcissistic individual within an organization.
The term “narcissist” comes from Greek mythology’s tale of Narcissus. Narcissus was a handsome young man who caught his reflection in a spring. He spent most of the day staring at the person he saw in the spring, and eventually, he decided to reach out and try to touch the beautiful figure. Upon reaching his hand out, instead of connecting with the person he saw, he fell into the spring and drowned, and his body was transformed into the yellow flower that now bears his name.
The study of narcissism as a psychological construct largely began with Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. Freud showed great interest in the topic, and he described narcissism as the relationship between the libido and the ego. Today, pop culture tends to use the term “narcissist” loosely, bestowing the label on anyone who appears deeply vain or excessively arrogant. While elements of arrogance are involved in narcissism, the definition used in psychology goes much deeper. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, used to identify and define a broad spectrum of psychological disorders and issues, states that those with narcissistic personality disorder are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, believe they are special and unique, require excessive admiration, have a sense of entitlement, are interpersonally exploitative, lack empathy and exhibit high levels of arrogance.
These traits can be seen at levels that would warrant a psychological diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, but they also can exist at varying levels within the population, and some would call high levels of each of the traits mentioned (but not high enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis) “subclinical narcissism.” While it is more likely to be immediately obvious that someone with narcissistic personality disorder operates differently than most people, a person with subclinical narcissism, harboring narcissistic tendencies, likely will operate well within society, and it may take longer for their darker tendencies to become apparent.
The most notable difference between the pop culture idea of narcissism and the definition used in the psychological world is the emphasis on the inherent lack of empathy, the unhealthy sense of entitlement and the willingness to exploit others. In the workplace, arrogance is often called narcissism, and while excessive arrogance and self-absorption can lead to conflict, in order to consider an individual truly narcissistic, he needs to exhibit those toxic traits. It is these same traits that can make an employee with narcissistic tendencies catastrophic in the workplace.
Step into the shoes of a narcissistic individual and you can understand that someone who has high levels of narcissism processes information and events differently than others. Narcissistic individuals believe that they truly are better than other people in all areas and, therefore, deserve more. Because of their sense of entitlement, they will do anything to ensure that they get the things they want. So if you are in the way of what they hope to achieve, they use all their power to get you out of their way, regardless of the consequences for you. Furthermore, if they do something cruel, they feel little remorse or empathy for the situation they’ve put you in. After all, you were keeping them from what they deserved. For example, a boss who gives you a project thinks that any positive accolades, praise or credit associated with the project deserve to go to him, not you. It’s not your project; you’re just borrowing it.
This mindset also could lead narcissistic individuals to be paranoid and feel constantly threatened by those around them. Because they constantly worry that others may get in the way of what they feel they deserve, narcissistic individuals are likely to respond to any perceived threat to their ego in an exaggerated way. In their research on narcissism in the early 1980s, authors and Drs. Mardi J. Horowitz and the late Ransom J. Arthur coined the term “narcissistic rage” to describe the tendency of narcissistic individuals to respond to even minor situations with hostility, extreme anger and hypersensitivity.
For example, one relatively well-known CEO who was to speak at a charity event instructed a co-worker to print the speech onto a particular sized note card. The office printers didn’t have settings that allowed printing on that sized note card, so the co-worker went with the next best thing: printing the speech on paper, cutting out the paragraphs and pasting them onto the note cards. When the CEO saw this, he became enraged and screamed, “What is this? This will not work!” The co-worker explained that printers do not have a setting to print directly onto that size note card. Despite that logical argument, he accused her of trying to ruin his speech and make him look like a fool. The co-worker left that job after about six months.
Given the propensity of narcissistic individuals to lie, cheat and steal if necessary, one easily can guess their detrimental effect on organizations. A study conducted by University of Florida professor Tim Judge and colleagues in 2006 found that the subordinates of narcissists did not find their superior’s leadership effective. Though little work has been done to study the effect of narcissistic co-workers on turnover, one can listen to friends or colleagues describe a particular job within a company that has a constantly revolving door, as “no one wants to work with that guy.” Furthermore, incidents of exploitation and narcissistic rage can wreak havoc on morale, as nobody wants somebody to use and abuse them or scream at them repeatedly for no real reason.
One of the more complicated facets of the construct of narcissism is its paradoxical nature. Narcissists thrive on receiving praise from others, using recognition of their successes to build their self-esteem and further reinforce their egos. Yet another common practice of narcissists is to exploit those around them to get what they feel they deserve, alienating co-workers. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle, where a narcissist will work to attract colleagues to elicit praise, subsequently alienating them.
The first part of that cycle has clear implications for narcissists’ ability to make a strong first impression, as their need for praise necessitates being viewed positively in the eyes of others on first meeting. A recent study conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz and published in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined a group of college freshmen in an introductory psychology class. In the study, higher levels of narcissism led to higher levels of popularity during first interactions. The findings backed up previous research that shows narcissists can draw people into their inflated self-image, earning respect and admiration quickly.
Within the work world, a narcissist’s ability to master the first impression often is best exemplified during job interviews. Narcissists likely exhibit confidence, speak well of their previous work, exhibit creativity and appear to be decisive and proactive. These attractive qualities for leaders or team members make it easy to see how people with high levels of narcissism are hired into organizations. In fact, research completed by this author found that those who scored most highly on a test scale that measures narcissism were given significantly higher ratings of leadership potential by an interviewer than those with low-to-average scores on the same scale.
You can do a few things during the interview process to stop a narcissist at the gate. First, listen for “I” language. We work in increasingly collaborative environments, and it is now rare that people work in a vacuum with no experiences on teams. If all you hear is “I did this,” or “I completed that,” and the word “we” does not appear in their outline of experience, it probably means something. Ask questions that help you determine whether many of those “I” statements actually should be “we” or “they” statements, or whether the person is more of a “lone wolf” worker.
If it seems the person really is working individually much of the time, ask why. Maybe the person does her best work on her own, but it could mean she historically has not worked well on teams and therefore no longer is included in team projects. Statements like, “The team didn’t understand my vision,” or “The team was just holding me back from my potential,” without any concrete examples supporting such a statement could be red flags.
Second, on a related note, remember what your mother once told you: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” When your interviewee is talking about his experience and an accomplishment that he is highlighting as a solo effort sounds as if it would have taken 20 people to achieve, dig deeper. This person may be taking sole credit for a group endeavor, so ask pointed questions about his specific role in the process, whether others were involved and what the roles of the others might have been. If you can’t get the interviewee to say anything detailed and concrete, you may have cause for concern.
Last, try to conduct as many references as you can within legal bounds. Someone with narcissistic tendencies, like people who aren’t narcissistic, probably provided you with a reference list of people certain to give a glowing referral. Look for anyone who reported to the person or worked with him. Check with your human resources representative to be sure you’re staying within legal bounds. But if you have concerns about an interviewee, information you can get from outside that person’s carefully orchestrated presentation can be invaluable.
Research abounds on the behaviors and potential effects of narcissistic individuals, but little in the psychological literature provides tips on how to deal with a narcissistic co-worker, boss or subordinate. Some of the best advice comes from those who have navigated this working relationship in the past or have learned from their mistakes in dealing with a narcissist on the job.
In dealing with a narcissistic peer or supervisor, tread carefully. It may be beneficial to try to determine whether others are having similar experiences before making accusations to the narcissistic employee’s superior. Because narcissistic individuals tend to be good at “managing up” and ensuring that supervisors maintain positive images of them for as long as possible, you may find yourself in a situation where those with authority have not seen the person’s “dark side” yet. This may mean your concerns fall on deaf ears, and you run the risk of making it appear that you are the difficult one to work with. In my experience with a narcissistic supervisor, the individual who previously held my job complained repeatedly about the supervisor and was brushed off. The narcissistic supervisor’s bosses believed this individual to be competent, sociable and a promising up-and-comer. Instead, my predecessor was viewed as being difficult and uncooperative. It took nearly two years and the complaints of three subordinates and a number of the supervisor’s peers for upper management to realize that there probably was something to all of the complaints.
However, you can do things to get upper management to see what you’re experiencing more quickly and concretely. For one, log in detail on paper every negative experience you have with the person. Keep track of any and all instances of “narcissistic rage,” exploitation or lying, and carefully note your specific contributions to any group project. Save any e-mails or voicemails that contain elements of toxic behavior. If you’re working on a group project with this person, try to make sure at least one other team member reports to upper management about the progress of the project. Try to ask that the group be copied on all e-mails going to any higher-ups regarding the project. Try to do anything you can to be sure that the sole line of communication to those above you and the narcissistic individual is not the narcissist himself.
If, however, you work in an organization with a rigid chain of command and do not have opportunities for open communication between levels, practice avoidance. Do not volunteer to work on projects with the narcissistic individual. If forced onto projects with the person, try to divide the work in such a way that the narcissistic individual is given free reign on part of the project without having to work with others or give much input on other parts of the project. Try to avoid the person socially. Remember, narcissists subsist on a cycle that draws people in and then exploits them and spits them out. Avoiding becoming a part of that cycle altogether will be beneficial to both your career and your state of mind.
Avoidance obviously will be easier if that person is a peer rather than a supervisor. If a situation is such that you have one supervisor with whom you interact constantly, you have no way around that supervisor in terms of upward communication, and that supervisor appears to be a narcissist, the easiest way to deal with the situation may be to request to be reassigned or to leave your job. In these circumstances, it truly becomes a matter of how much you’re willing to put up with and whether you’re willing to take the risk of this supervisor throwing you under the bus at the first opportunity, inevitably tossing your reputation under there with you. Trust your instincts. If you believe you’d have more to gain elsewhere, going elsewhere might be your best option, as narcissists are extremely unlikely to change.
If you find yourself managing a narcissistic subordinate, you’re likely to have more definitive options. Though a discussion about the employee’s behavior likely will go nowhere, alternatives can help keep your group’s morale and cohesiveness intact.
If the employee is uniquely skilled at the job but exhibits signs of narcissism and causes problems when faced with teamwork, you may consider altering the structure of that employee’s job to allow him to operate like an island. Because narcissism and talent are not mutually exclusive, you may have good reason to keep a narcissistic employee on board. If the job is such that the narcissistic employee can do what he excels at more or less on his own, it may help to limit the forced interaction the employee has with others.
If a narcissistic employee excels at a job that requires interaction, acknowledge your understanding of the narcissistic employee’s toxic behavior on co-workers. Keep yourself open to their concerns, and be sure to solicit multiple versions of a story if the narcissistic individual claims credit for a project or complains about a colleague. Though it may not make working with the narcissistic individual any better, reassuring team members and those reporting to the individual that their jobs are not in constant jeopardy may make them happier with their job overall. Ideally, the narcissistic individual then becomes a difficult nuisance rather than someone who could end their careers on a whim.
If a narcissistic individual has done tangible damage within an organization or has openly or publicly taken credit for another employee’s work (or has taken full credit for the shared work of a team), termination may be a viable option. If the employee has a history of displaying narcissistic traits, and instances of her exploitation or cruelty have been documented, there likely are legal grounds on which to terminate the employee. Keep in mind that the toxic behaviors already engaged in are likely to occur again, potentially increasing in frequency and in severity, as narcissistic individuals tend to do whatever it takes to get what they want.
Kathy Schnure is a doctoral student in industrial and organizational psychology at Georgia Tech. Her dissertation research is focused on narcissism in the workplace, looking specifically at how narcissism relates to toxic leadership and toxic work environments. Her work on the subject has been presented at national conferences and has been featured on NPR. Prior to attending graduate school, Schnure spent several years at a multinational consulting firm working with clients ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. She graduated from Bucknell University with a B.A. in psychology and political science and earned her M.S. in industrial and organizational psychology at Georgia Tech. She is pleased to report that she is not working with any narcissistic individuals at the moment.
SIDEBAR: Bullying workplaces beware
Managers and executives soon might have added reasons to worry about narcissistic employees. Several states, along with Parliament in Canada, are considering laws that let workers sue their employers for any suffering received from toxic bosses or workplace bullies. The New York and Illinois senates recently passed such laws, and 15 other states have introduced similar legislation. But by mid-June, none of the bills had been passed by both legislative houses and signed into law.
A study published in the March 2010 Journal of Applied Psychology found that workplace bullying can be more damaging than racial or gender harassment. The authors said that unlike ethnic or gender harassment, general workplace harassment is more subtle and not easily attributed to bias. And a study released by Queen’s University in 2008 also found workplace harassment to be more harmful than sexual harassment because of a lack of recourse for victims, according to The Vancouver Sun.
Stories about workplace bullying have appeared recently in other newspapers, including the Calgary Sun in Canada, The Wall Street Journal in New York and The Gladstone Observer in Australia.
Here are some signs as to whether you are running a toxic workplace, compiled at www.leadership-and-motivation-training.com: