Narcissism in the workplace

 Obviously narcissism is one of the dark triad personality traits. If you come across one, this is not fixable and should be removed from the office or isolated so they cannot do any harm.

The problem is, unless you are a psychologist and specifically their psychologist, you cannot diagnose them yourself. Which means, you should NOT assume that they are narcissist, even if they are exhibiting what appears to be narcissistic tendencies.

What should you do to a) protect yourself and b) expose them? 

I teach how to stop unwanted behavior like bullying and harassment using behavioral science techniques known as operant conditioning that I learned while training dolphins. Specifically, how to stop unwanted behavior using a technique that is called “extinguishing a behavior.”

I have dealt with psychopaths and other problematic personality types in the workplace successfully. The approach is not to expose them,  but to allow them to expose themselves.  I do this using excessive CYA documentation (cover you’re a$$).   Whenever I interact with them, I do so pleasantly and with the expectation that everything is above the board legit. Then I follow up and document absolutely every conversation. 

If I agree to do some work for them, I follow up with an email to ensure I understood the parameters of the work properly. Did they promise to get me some supplies I need, I email them to verify that we agreed to that. Everything, gets a documentation email. AND I cc either my boss of theirs or both depending on the situation.  

They are predictable

The great thing about dark triad personalities is they are EXTREMELY predictable. Don’t ever assume they won’t try to harm you. They will. So prepare for that and work around that. The simplest easiest way is to send well intentioned confirmation emails on every little thing.

If the person is not a narcissist, but has some other issue that you weren’t aware of, these emails with them being cc’d will probably straighten them up. Hopefully it will. And hopefully the person isn’t actually a narcissist.

But if they ARE a narcissist, they will get mad and escalate if you do this. That’s ok. That’s predicted to occur. Their illness makes them creatures of habit. They use confusion and hearsay to hide what they are doing and revel in the confusion and angst it causes others. When you document everything and confirm everything what you are doing is working to create clarity. In good faith. This clarity will remove their ability to hide and sow doubt and confusion. Basically, they will experience your work to create clarity as a loss of control. This will cause them to escalate and they will not be able to help themselves. Again, this is a disease, and they are not in control of it. 

As they escalate, their actions will become more overt and they will hide less and they will expose themselves. This is why you should cc your boss and their boss. And if they are your boss, definitely loop in their boss.  NEVER have a private conversation with them and ALWAYS document and make sure the upper level managers know what’s going on.  This will allow them to see that you are working hard to create clarity and help them see that the other person is the problem. 

The role of managers

At first, the managers will be a bit frustrated as they don’t like being brought in for what they think are interpersonal problems. But most managers are also aware that if they are being ccd in on something, it’s because something is wrong with the dynamic and they should pay attention and they will. They may be silent as they sit and watch, but they will.

As the narcissist becomes more overt as their ability to control the dynamic and cause confusion etc are removed, they will continue to escalate until they do something really inappropriate.  It is usually at this point that the managers start to intervene.

Your only job throughout this is to do a good job. Trying to create clarity in a confusing situation is doing a good job. Don’t lash out – ever. Don’t every accuse them of anything (unless they break a law or harass or discriminate, which is breaking a law). Just be professional and do your best to do a good job. If you do this, people will recognize it and the narcissist will expose themselves.  All you did was give them every opportunity to work professionally and collaboratively. If they don’t or in the case of a narcissist can’t work professionally and collaboratively, they will prove that through their actions.

This works most of the time.  Not every time, but most of the time. 

Learn more:

I have a course on how to prevent passive aggressive people from wreaking havoc in the workplace where I go into detail on this technique and provide real life examples of what this looks like.  If you are dealing with a suspected dark triad personality in the workplace, consider taking this course. 

More details and registration information at: 

In Flatland, you are the square

True knowledge is understanding that YOU are the square in Flatland.  And that the Sphere was ALSO, the square.

If you have not read this book, you absolutely should. It's a short fable designed to help us expand our thinking and be humble at the same time.

The book came up in a discussion between Julia Galef and Jonathon Haidt during the Rationally Speaking podcast.

Transcript here:

The conversation was actually about understanding different people's moral framework. Haidt talks about our moral sense and uses the metaphor of taste buds. There are basic flavors we can all taste and all tastes are actually a combination of those core tastes. 

He argues it is the same with morality. There are core evolutionary responses we have and all our moral depths and dimensions is actually the blending of these cores. It is why we can feel happy and sad at the same time.  The movie Inside Out does a great job of explaining this. 

Anyhoo, back to Flatland. For those who have not read it, it's about a 2 dimensional square that encounters a 3 dimensional sphere. The 2 dimensional square cannot comprehend the sphere as he has no ability to experience 3 dimensions. The book is about the square learning about 3 dimensions and coming to terms with learning about what he didn't know before. (and yes, the square is gendered male - hence the pronoun use).

The square begins to understand that a 1 dimensional behind can't experience him as 2 dimensions either because all it will experience a square as it passes through a line is as a point.  The square experiences the sphere as a circle that changes sizes as it passes through the 2 d plane.  And yes, this book is mathematically geeky.

We are the square. We all don't know what we don't know and how we experience others is our impression of them on us, not the reality of them. 

Where the true knowledge comes in is when the square starts asking the sphere about 4 d space and 5 d space. And the sphere refuses to consider it. The sphere experiences and has knowledge of 3 dimensions. It cannot comprehend a fourth. 

But the square, now that is knows about the 3rd dimension and accepts it as reality, can now imagine a 4th and 5th to the nth degree.

Thus, the sphere, becomes like the square when we first encounter him. 

We are all simultaneously aware and unaware. Knowing this allows us to be humble, and open to learn. 

Why are ethics so important?

Why are ethics so important? Because you can't make good decisions without them. 

Thinks about this. What is a good decision? Or a good solution?  Without defining what "good" means in the particular situation you are in, you cannot answer that question.

All good decision making requires the active application of ethics to decide between options. There is ALWAYS some metric being used to define good. Whether we are talking about a good hire, or a good customer or a good solution. 

If we don't actively and explicitly discuss what we mean by good, we a) have trouble creating consensus and b) often end up with bad results because we used bad ethics without questioning them.

Whenever I am on a team having a disagreement, my first effort is to ask questions. What is a good outcome? Or an ideal outcome? And most importantly - why. 

For instance, I was at a tower company, a good tower to the marketing team is a tower they can market. A good tower to the maintenance team was a tower that didn't require a lot of maintenance. A good tower to the financial team was a tower that brought in more cash flow than debt. 

Until we talked about the various differences in how the groups were defining good, we couldn't get consensus on this question. Once we did get clarity on the various versions of what good means, we could.

Now, I know what you are saying, but Jennifer, those aren't- ethics, like we think of ethics. But they are. They are closely related to them. 

Once you start discussing what good means, you can start bringing in the more moral aspects of ethics. Do this help or hurt the community? Does it help or hurt people in general? What about the climate?  These are all valid ethical considerations that should be integrated into decision making, both on a personal and a professional level.

So, stop worrying about whether you can discuss ethics. You are already. Or should be already. And don't be shy about bringing in moral metrics in addition to the business cases for what is good. Doing so will elevate the discussion. Engage people in the problem solving effort and make it collaborative. 

As always, I do have courses to help you learn this. My courses provide certificates of completion and are approved by HRCI and SHRM for continuing education credits.

Reality Based Decision Making for Effective Strategy Development - - 1 hour business

Principles of Humanistic Leadership 2 hours 

Or become a certified humanistic leadership professional -

Consider Humanism

 If you are looking around for a philosophy or religion that works better than your current worldview, consider Humanism. 

I am obviously biased, but I do think Humanism is a better way of going through life than all the other alternatives. 

1) It's adaptable. We don't have a dogma. Either things are true or they aren't. If we find out something we believed isn't true, we accept reality. This allows us to more effectively and quickly adapt to the situations we find ourselves in. It also makes it easier to adapt to change.

2) It's reality based. I can't overstate how helpful this is in problem solving.

3) It's compassionate and loving. Humanism is first and foremost about loving life and loving humanity. And that means love in all it's varied dimensions from altruism to passion. Love is simply a wonderful lens through which to experience life.

4) It's about being responsible. We have the ability and therefore we have the responsibility to fix our problems. We can make the world a better place for us all to live in and we have a moral obligation to work towards that.

5) It provides meaning and purpose in an otherwise impersonal universe.  We choose to love. We choose to be responsible. We choose to be reality based and we choose to adapt. These choices, impact everything. Loving people provides motivation and purpose. Responsibility provides impetus and motivation. 

I live my life in a state of general contentedness and happiness. I always wake up feeling motivated. Does any of it matter in the grand scheme of things? Nope. But it matters to me in the here and now and that is actually enough.

Simply put, Humanism works for me, and for the many other Humanists who are making a mark on the world and who have, throughout history, changed the world.  Many of the most influential thinkers in history, were humanists or humanistic in their approach.

So .... if you are thinking about your religious or philosophic options, consider Humanism. 

I have online courses, may of them free that will give you an introduction:

And there are lots of books on the subject:

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