Neutralizing narcissists – Dealing with controlling, manipulative bullies in the workplace

Five years ago, Jean Ritala was dating a businessman who started to demonstrate Jekyll and Hyde-like behavior. Well-spoken, charismatic and successful, he could also be manipulative and bullying, telling her that it was “his way or the highway.”

It wasn’t until someone told her she had been “stung by a narcissist” and shared books and Web sites with her on the topic that she fully appreciated what she had encountered.

Now, Ritala, the IT support services manager at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, educates and coaches others on how to deal with narcissists in the workplace.

Narcissism, defined as a personality disorder by the National Institutes of Health, is a pattern of behaviors that show a pervasive need for attention and admiration, as well as a lack of concern or empathy for others.

In the workplace, says Ritala, narcissists tend to be successful and goal-oriented, with no concern for others who get in their way. They feel a need to control co-workers, projects and situations around them, and they can be manipulative, spinning situations and facts to make it appear that others around them are the problem, not them.

According to Ritala, narcissists often display the following traits at work:

  • Arrogant and self-centered, they expect special treatment and privileges.
  • They can be charismatic, articulate and funny.
  • They are likely to disrespect boundaries and the privacy of others.
  • They can be patronizing and critical of others but unwilling or unable to accept criticism or disagreement.
  • Likely to be anxiety-stricken or paranoid, they may exhibit violent, rage-like reactions when they can’t control a situation or their behaviors have been exposed.
  • They are apt to set others up for failure or pit co-workers against one another.
  • They can be cruel and abusive to some co-workers, often targeting one person at a time until he quits.
  • They may need an ongoing “narcissist supply” of people who they can easily manipulate and who will do whatever they suggest – including targeting a co-worker – without question.
  • They are often charming and innocent in front of managers.

As you might imagine, narcissists can be highly disruptive to a workplace, creating a traumatic environment with high turnover, Ritala says.

Eventually the narcissist is caught in action enough times that he is fired, but this does nothing to change his behavior or protect the organization from other narcissists.

Have Your Say

Recognizing the problem, Ritala, former president of the IT Service Management Forum &ndash US, teamed up with management consulting partner Gerald Falkowski to write a booklet for IT managers called Narcissism in the Workplace (Red Swan Publishing USA, Sept. 2007).

She spoke recently with Computerworld‘s Thomas Hoffman about dealing with narcissism in IT organizations.

Does narcissism play out any differently within IT organizations versus other parts of a company?

IT is more competitive than some parts of the business, much like sales is competitive. I think you’re seeing it more now in IT because IT has become more focused on relationship-building and nurturing relationships.

The types of behavior people turned their cheek to in the past, they’re now less willing to.

People are getting educated. Five years ago, fewer people knew about narcissism. Now there are online discussion groups that deal with the topic, such as the MSN newsgroup, and television shows such as Two and a Half Men featuring [the character] Charlie Harper as a narcissist.

The dynamics of the workforce have changed, and narcissist personality-type employees or managers are standing out more than ever, creating more problems than their boss and HR can handle.

What happens if managers simply ignore narcissists’ disruptive behavior?

Often a narcissist remains in an organization for years, creating more and more workplace stress and turnover, due to their managers thinking their contributions outweigh their behaviors and denying and rationalizing the odd behaviors away.

That is, until the next complaint comes their way and they continue to be forced to document the narcissist’s behaviors over time. They risk their own jobs by not taking action soon enough with each complaint or series of complaints.

The cost to organizations from narcissism in the workplace is staggering due to illness, stress medications and treatment, lack of teaming and project success, and rising turnover, until the narcissist or corporate bully is shown timely cause and effect from their negative behaviors.

What steps can IT managers take to address these issues?

You have to get educated with a health care professional like a psychologist who specializes in employee counseling services.

Get them involved in reviewing the complaints to management and HR, and in helping others to understand these personality types, their behaviors and destructive impact to an organization.

Steps to deal with a narcissist personality type in the workplace include documenting what you observe and get complaints about, and not being afraid to go to HR and say, “This is what I’m seeing and this is what people are bringing to me.”

It often starts as a series of complaints to line managers, then to an HR representative. Once there are enough [complaints], they go to HR, and HR will implore a manager to document what they see as well as come and observe firsthand themselves.

How should managers approach narcissistic employees, particularly if an employee is unaware that he possesses these attributes?

Narcissistic employees should be encouraged by HR to see whatever company employee referral service is available to them, such as counseling, and you hope that the person will take advantage of that.

It depends on how enlightened the person is in terms of seeing how their behavior is impacting staff and their own performance.

When you get manipulative, bullying and condescending types of comments and behavior, that’s what impacts performance and teamwork. That’s when you hope the narcissist person will take the encouragement to go seek help.

Have Your Say

If they don’t, HR has to play back what [the narcissistic individual] did wrong using a calm approach. Establish firm boundaries with timely progressive consequences from the first complaint received. Follow up to see if behaviors appear to be improving or if they are getting worse.

People’s behavior patterns typically don’t change unless they get help.

Up to one-third of a narcissist’s victims in the workplace will quit the company or transfer to another department if nothing is done by the department manager or HR to stop the situation.

Once a narcissist’s behaviors are observed and documented, they can become even more cruel and offensive to others, as they no longer can hide their behaviors and rationalize them away or project their shortcomings onto others.

The key is observing, documenting and taking swift action each and every time so the narcissist knows their cruel behaviors will not be tolerated in the workplace.

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