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Last month I took issue with the Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog post entitled “How to Work for a Narcissist”. This month I look for perspectives and insights from colleagues here at Optimum Talent to address this issue. In this post, you’ll hear from:
Larry Cash, Ph.D Psychology, co-creator and founder of the SuccessFinder Career System.
Carlos Davidovich, M.D., MBA, Vice President & Executive Coach, Neuromanagement.
Jocelyn Berard, M. Psychology, MBA, Practice Leader for Leadership, Assessment, and Development.
When speaking to Larry, Carlos and Jocelyn, they all began with the same question. ‘Are we truly talking about a Narcissist, which means a person with a mental disorder? Or are we talking about a self-centered person?’ Terms are important because they define the approach to the issue under discussion.
Larry, who has over 40 years of experience in clinical psychology as well as coaching, offers the following insights.
Narcissism is a clinical diagnosis. This means the narcissist is dysfunctional and that their behaviour is dysfunctional in a significant way.
The only reason for hiring a narcissist is because the hiring manager believes they need this specific person in the role, typically for a high stakes initiative or project. The hiring manager is dependent on the narcissist to achieve something she/he cannot. Narcissists, who are extremely talented individuals, are the means to this end. The hiring manager will tolerate the narcissist as long as possible in order to achieve a goal. The cost will be that the most competent people will begin to leave the organization.
In reality, narcissists are very unhappy people. In fact, they are incapable of being happy, have no self-respect and think they are losers because no one can stick with them for long. Yet, everyone experiences the narcissist as arrogant, intimidating and a person keen to make others feel incompetent and inadequate.
When coaching a person reporting to a narcissist, Larry offers three possible outcomes: leave, get fired, stay and become ill. Do you really need this particular job? The best course of action for employees is to stand up for themselves. The narcissist will either fire you or respect you enough to tolerate you. The employee is taking a 50/50 chance. If the narcissist needs the employee then there will be no leadership as the relationship will be one of indifference. Essentially, the employee will be ignored and will have to get on with the job the best they can. In Larry’s experience, narcissists don’t remain in their roles for more than a couple of years as the organizational cost is too high.
Carlos, whose first career was as a medical doctor, reinforces Larry’s perspective with insights for the employee.
The advice in the HBR post is too simplistic and therefore not realistic. This is a bandage solution and any bandage is fragile. It doesn’t fix the problem, just covers it.
The psychological impact of a narcissists is profound. The narcissist garners results from an organizational point of view, so why change what works? A person who works for a narcissist must have a very strong personality. People need validation for what they think. The narcissist gets this from others who benefit from them and want to be like them. No one can work for a narcissist without damage to their self-esteem. A narcissist will never provide any validating feedback and the employee will be psychologically affected.
In order to cope, the employee needs supporters within the organization, including HR. We are always checking ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) through others. The problem is that a healthy person will be in a power relationship with a narcissist, creating a Catch 22 situation for the employee. If the employee stays then they will be damaged or their career will be damaged. In either case, their life is no longer a reflection of reality. If they leave then they often feel like a failure because narcissists can deceive many people.
A person needs to be mentally healthy enough to say that, while the boss is a high performer, the boss is also a narcissist, therefore the only positive outcome in this situation is for one of us to leave. Ultimately, an employee must be mentally healthy enough to self-validate their decision to leave.
Jocelyn offers a different perspective. As a narcissist is incapable of being coached, his advice is based on an individual with narcissistic characteristics.
The HBR post is missing a big component regarding the role of leadership and HR in the organization.
Some senior leaders can also report to leaders with narcissistic tendencies, we all report to someone – but where is this person’s leader and where is HR in this scenario? A person with narcissistic tendencies is a personality derailer. What can appear to be strengths or attractive ‘high performance’ qualities can be too much of a good thing. It’s essential that HR and leadership recognize that this person needs help. HBR has forgotten that someone has to intervene because this behaviour results in negative consequences.
What needs to be done to address narcissistic tendencies?
A problem can only be fixed if it is recognized as such. Narcissistic personality traits have an impact on others. While people recognize this person’s positive characteristics, it can’t be all about “Joe”. There are other people who need to be recognized too. Derailers in this case can lead to attention-seeking and it’s their self-awareness that needs to be increased in relation to the resulting negative consequences. A method of raising self-awareness is with a powerful/rigorous psychometric assessment, paired with feedback from others, such as a 360 assessment. The goal is to ensure that perceptions and consequences are clearly understood and articulated.
What can we do?
This is about changing a person’s behaviour and that’s not easy. The person needs to do things differently. In this case, examples of behavioural change might include:
This feedback and coaching must be limited to a few key behaviours so that the person isn’t overwhelmed or becomes frustrated. This has to be achievable.
This person needs constant and consistent encouragement and feedback in order for this program to work. It also requires ongoing recognition of derailing behaviours and their consequences in order to reinforce good behaviours.
Can you work for a Narcissist? No, you can’t. No one can and remain healthy.