narcissists at work

The following series of tweets by @HoarseWisperer is an incredibly good examination of how people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) control those who work for them. I am sure many of us have witnessed similar behaviours in toxic workplaces. Naming and understanding these behaviours can help us deal with them. I have expanded some abbreviations and highlighted what I think is the key insight.

I worked for a severe narcissist for a while. I just realize I’ve never written specifically about that experience. Not sure why I haven’t since I’ve written endlessly about narcissistic personality disorder. May be relevant given everyone in the White House has a narcissistic boss.

I was recruited by an impressive-seeming firm for a specific job. I passed on it. They approached me about a second. Passed on that one too. The more I rejected them, the more interested the CEO became. Courted me. Took me out to dinner. Flattered the crap out of me. I took the third job he offered — in truth, against my better judgment at the time. As soon as I arrived, I discovered some pretty insane things. One of the big clients I was supposed to work on … didn’t exist. The company existed. They weren’t a client.

What I came to learn was that the 20 partners had all devised strategies to manage their abusive, manipulative, severely narcissistic boss. I eventually came up with names for them. One was ‘Proclaim and Disclaim’. The partner would boldly announce something that would please the CEO and then immediately begin walking it back. Would announce he landed a big new client … and then say the deal was in process … and then hitting some obstacles … and then sidelined … but coming someday. The non-existent client I was supposed to inherit was one of those ‘Proclaim and Disclaim’ deals. The CEO truly didn’t know that the partner was just blowing smoke up his a** each and every day as a strategy. It worked.

Another strategy was the ‘Kick the Can’. Most partners used that one. They would appear to readily agree to things the CEO wanted and then give the appearance of pursuing them while actually doing nothing other than managing that appearance. Narcissists are easily manipulated by people who they believe admire and respect them. The CEO had dual Ivy degrees. So did most of the partners (not me!). This was a ‘smart’ guy being manipulated by smart people. Narcissists are easy to manipulate despite being manipulators.

The more sycophantic and admiring someone seemed to be, the more the CEO loved them and the less their manipulations were scrutinized. The ‘Proclaim and Disclaim’ dude was a senior partner despite none of the things he proclaimed ever materializing. It was … wild. Partners who questioned the CEO or pushed back on his demands became targets. The CEO would separate them from the flock. He’d run a little whisper campaign to let the other partners know that he was ‘disappointed’ in the target. The partners would then distance themselves from the target while privately agreeing with them. The partner would go through a period of trying to handle the increasing pressure put on by the CEO. They would be tormented, stressed, suffering — and out on an island. Eventually, the target would be fired. They would go through a bruising, damaging, hurtful downward spiral first though. The survivors knew the cycle. As soon as someone was marked, they were done. Questioning the CEO was a death warrant.

I knew I had made a mistake as soon as I landed. I’m a sycophant for no one so the CEO quite predictably went from love-bombing to souring on me quickly. Unlike his other victims though, I understood his deal. Straight narcissistic personality disorder. So, I countered his efforts to put me under additional pressure and eventually checkmated him by putting him in a position where keeping me around threatened his facade but so did firing me. I backed him into a corner where he knew I could either leave happy and his facade would be safe … or I could leave unhappy and become a public detractor in places where he couldn’t control the narrative. Protecting the facade is a narcissist’s kryptonite.

He eventually, very begrudgingly ‘pushed me out’ on my terms. No joke, getting there was the best strategic work of my career. The other partners … the survivors … those folks with dual Ivy degrees … he screwed every last one. Sold the company. Cheated them all.

Shortly after reading this Twitter thread, I came across an interview — How to deal with a**holes — with the actor John Cleese who is in a new movie — Assholes: A Theory

Fast Company — You feature money management company Baird as being a possible antidote to what’s happening. [Baird has a “no-assholes” policy for its employees.]

James Aaron [movie director] — The problem is that we reward assholery. I found that in Silicon Valley, there’s a huge tolerance for the asshole genius. Everyone wants to be Steve Jobs. What we provide in the film is the alternative to that model. A company like Baird is beating the competition three to one in terms of profit. [Baird chairman Paul Purcell] says, “We can take the long view because we are our own shareholders. We don’t have to be greedy.” I pose the question, “Do you have to be an asshole to be a great artist, architect,or whatever?” And the answer is, “No.”

Let’s collectively stop celebrating and tolerating assholes.

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