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The Damage Done: Dealing with Narcissists in the Workplace

A magnifying glass with the word me on it.

​Narcissistic behavior on the job can arise at any time, with troubling results. Case in point: A new study from the University at Buffalo School of Management showed that narcissists can significantly damage workplace team performance.

Study researchers define narcissism as a "grandiose sense of self-importance" combined with a lack of empathy for other people—characteristics that can fuel negativity on the job.

"Narcissists prevent good things from happening," said lead author Emily Grijalva, assistant professor of organization and human resources. "Over time, lower levels of narcissism result in teams being able to fully capitalize on the benefits of getting to know each other."

Narcissism can be particularly toxic among company leaders. A study from the University of California reveals the short-term and long-term damage done by narcissistic managers—all the way up to the C-suite.

"Narcissistic leaders affect the core elements of organizations and their impact on society," said Jennifer Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of California, Berkeley and the lead author of the study. "Companies organize because they can do something together that no individual could accomplish alone. When narcissistic leaders undermine collaboration, they, by definition, reduce the effectiveness of an organization."

Defining Narcissism in the Workplace

The long-term fallout from narcissistic behavior in the workplace can be substantial. Thus, identifying narcissistic behavior and rooting it out should be on every manager's mind. The first task is to learn to identify a workplace narcissist.

Laurie Cure, CEO of Denver-based consulting firm Innovative Connections and author of Leading Without Fear (Tate Publishing, 2012), offers a comprehensive list of red flags signaling narcissistic workplace behavior:

*Unwillingness to be challenged or questioned.
*Requiring excessive levels of loyalty, praise and adoration.
*Struggling to accept and incorporate feedback.
*Not considering other people's opinions or not engaging them in conversations about problem-solving or changes.
*Caring very little for the needs of others in the organization or on the team. (For example, saying, "It doesn't matter if you miss your child's game; work is more important.")
*Often making decisions unilaterally and without involving other stakeholders.
*Exhibiting signs of narcissistic behaviors, such as a grandiose sense of self-importance, fantasized talent or expertise, or arrogance.
*Focusing on self-image and ensuring that others perform in a way that elevates one's own public image or reputation.
*Demanding and seeking high degrees of personal and positional power to ensure control.
*Spending a great deal of time and effort ensuring the ability to be with power players and high-status individuals in the organization.
*Using fear, guilt, shame, punishment and manipulation to gain compliance and control.
*Exhibiting extremely competitive behavior.
*Taking personal credit for the work of individuals or the team.

Searching for narcissistic personalities in the workplace is no luxury—it's a necessity.

"[Narcissism is] a massive problem," said Jeff Harry, an Oakland, Calif.-based human resources consultant who works with Google, the NFL, Amazon and Facebook to improve workplace cultures. "Leadership guru Simon Sinek notes [that the U.S.] Navy SEALs will never [accept] the toxic person regardless of how athletic they are, how brave, how productive, because the overall health of the team is destroyed as long as they exist."

Narcissism also can push valued employees out the door.

"Allowing a narcissist to run amok at the job is giving permission for them to bully other employees, to ignore work protocols, to not take feedback well, and eventually create an atmosphere where people get triggered simply being in that narcissist's presence," Harry said. "All of that leads eventually to people quitting."

Rooting Out Narcissism in the Workplace

When a narcissistic personality becomes so toxic that the team's performance and a company's culture are compromised, it's time to step in and address the problem. In doing so, the manager needs to take these steps to mitigate further damage:

Document the behavior consistently. The focus when dealing with selfish employees should be on addressing performance and behavior, so documenting that behavior and holding narcissistic staffers accountable is critical.

"Narcissists are usually savvy and have learned how to survive among those with relatively advanced social skills the narcissist usually doesn't possess," said Chris Young, director of workforce development at the Texas Department of Transportation. "As a result, narcissistic employees have learned they can hop from improvement plan to improvement plan without raising too much attention and even how to play units and bosses against one another to deflect from their own poor performance. Consequently, a consistently applied documentation, discipline and performance policy prevents the [manipulation] of your organization's policies."

Gain clarity and agreement on expectations. Employees with narcissistic tendencies will also push the envelope on what they can get away with at work. "It's important to establish clear expectations so you can ensure you know where the goal post lies," Cure said. "A narcissistic employee will always move the goal post, change the conversation and leave you scrambling to catch up. Write down the expectations and share them with other stakeholders so you have support when the boundaries get pushed."

Establish strong and healthy boundaries. To prevent narcissistic behavior, managers need to define firm borders. "If you're clear on expectations, then the next step is to stand firm in those boundaries," Cure said. "That's especially important in not tolerating certain behaviors. Name-calling, angry outbursts, manipulation, dominating the conversation should never be encouraged or allowed."

Buy time by moving the difficult employee within the company. Like all other poor-performance issues, discipline and termination are options with narcissistic employees, but those measures take time. Meanwhile, managers can apply a quick fix while the problem is sorted out.

"This situation is not something that will be resolved with a quick and easy improvement plan, training or a confrontation," Young said. "In the meantime, moving the individual into a role that is less dependent on team dynamics is a good idea. Leaders should also consider removing supervisory responsibilities from those so-called narcissists who are performing poorly."

When a Problem Employee Refuses to Change

If, after documenting and coaching a narcissistic employee, the employee refuses to accept accountability and change his or her behavior, managers need to play all their cards.

"At this point, management could set clear, measurable, time-limited change goals for the narcissist," said Harvey Deutschendorf, an Alberta, Canada-based emotional intelligence expert and author of The Other Kind of Smart: Simple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence for Greater Personal Effectiveness and Success (Amacom, 2009). "They could offer counseling if their organization has it available. If the person refuses all attempts to help them change their behavior, the organization has to cut their losses and let the person go."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide


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