Having a narcissist in your management team can be a nightmare.
Many of us will have been led by one at some point in our careers - someone whose self-belief is far greater than their abilities and whose leadership style creates a toxic environment.
Work culture has changed significantly this century, and in the past 18 months, the way many of us work has gone through a revolution with fewer people spending their working week in the office.
But narcissistic leaders have not been consigned to history. They are still among us. Some have even gone on to be leaders of nations in recent history.
But it is not always easy to identify them. What behaviours should you look out for, and how can you change leaders with narcissist tendencies?
To tackle some of these questions, I caught up with Tienie Loubser, an independent executive coach.
The term narcissist comes from Greek mythology. Narcissus was a hunter who fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water and stared at it for the remainder of his life.
And ‘narcissist’ is most commonly used these days to describe someone who is self-absorbed – particularly in the workplace.
Tienie said: “Narcissistic leadership is old fashioned, but it is rifer than we are led to believe. There are pockets of narcissism in businesses, and there are narcissistic businesses that have a punitive approach.”
So, what are the warning signs we should be looking for?
Tienie says a leader at the top of an organisation with narcissistic tendencies can often lead to poor line management further down the chain. Line managers become paralysed by indecision because they feel compelled to wait for instructions from the top rather than get it wrong and end up in trouble.
Unreasonable requests are another symptom. This could be something like insisting people return to the office full time even though they have shown they are performing well at home. It could be an expectancy someone will constantly answer calls or respond to messages outside work hours or when they are ill or on leave.
Tienie says limited creativity is another danger sign. “People stop thinking for themselves and trying to find solutions when they are working for a narcissist, particularly if they have experienced their wrath for doing it in the past. They think, ‘I’m not going to be creative or off my point of view because the last time I did that, I got a dressing down from management’.”
A good feedback culture is a crucial part of a successful workplace. It is something we regularly discuss during our business coaching and management skills training. So, be wary of bosses who are only receptive to feedback that flatters them and boosts their ego, and those who are extremely sensitive to any criticism.
Another concern is bosses who put results before people. Leaders with narcissist tendencies are insensitive to their employees and disregard how they are feeling. On our business coaching and management skills courses, we increasingly look at the value of empathy and emotional intelligence. Narcist bosses tend to be unable to see beyond mistakes and think about what could have led to that outcome.
Tienie says another crucial warning sign is the inclination to take all the glory when things go well and blame others for mistakes and missed targets. This behaviour can often include passing off the good ideas of their team members as their own. “It the opposite of what a good leader does,” says Tienie. “A great leader gives the team credit for success and solely takes the hit for the team’s failure.
And let’s look at motivation. When people work for a narcissist, motivation tends to be low. They go through the motions and complete the minimum to get by. On our business coaching courses, we talk about people ‘complying’ and ‘durably committing’.
People with a boss who shows narcissistic behaviour will comply. Those with empowering leaders will be willing to move obstacles out of the way and suggest other things to consider.
It is vital to remember these warning signs will vary in each case.
“Sometimes narcissist behaviour is severe and can be easily identified,” says Tienie.
“Sometimes it can be hard to identify because there might be a friendly front or because it is sporadic or limited.
“But sporadic limited narcissism is still detrimental.
“It could be that just a few managers in an organisation are narcissistic, and the others are empowering.
“That is still not a good situation. Those who have narcissistic behaviours are the barriers to progress. It is like having your foot on the accelerator while someone else has their foot on the brake.”
Let’s say you’ve identified a leader with narcist behaviours. How can the situation be tackled?
Well, this can be difficult, and for many workers, the answer will be to move on. There tends to be a high churn rate in workplaces where these traits are experienced.
No organisation wants to lose lots of good people, so what can be done before the situation gets that bad?
A heightened awareness of the warning signs is a good starting point and can prevent people with these behaviour traits from being promoted to senior positions in the first place.
Organisations can also look to minimise competitiveness in the workplace to prevent it from becoming unhealthy and results being put before people.
Tienie believes the most important step is to create a culture where employees can speak freely about the issues they experience without fear of repercussions.
Those conversations may be too tough for some employees, so the role of peers is vital.
“Feedback from peers is crucial. If they can see that people in a different team are only complying and productivity is mediocre, they need to talk to them about how much better it could be if it was more collaborative.
“It is about having those tough conversations. Sometimes an ego becomes so big you can’t see what you are doing and what you should be doing. Someone pushing back and giving feedback can give a different view.
“A feedback culture is crucial. Ultimately, if leaders with narcissist tendencies don’t change, they will lose out.”
The BCF group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
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