Saturday, May 16, 2015

Management Challenge #293: The Narcissistic Boss

Of all the offensive managerial types, the narcissist has got to be one of the worst.

For our purposes, the term “narcissist” does NOT refer to those with narcissistic personality disorder (although God knows you don’t want someone with this diagnosis in your workplace). Instead, we’ll be talking about your garden-variety but nonetheless dangerous self-serving and self-loving boss. That’s enough bad news for one day.

Hallmarks of the Narcissistic Boss

Narcissistic bosses believe the world would be a much better place if everyone were just like them.

Employees toiling under these self-centered tyrants quickly begin to feel stifled, demoralized, and unappreciated. And no wonder. Each of us is a unique human being with a distinctive personality, temperament, and worldview. It doesn’t feel good when someone attempts to suppress our wills by imposing theirs.

Also, narcissists tend to be sneaky little so-and-sos. They’ll pretend to be “nice” when it suits their purposes, but when it doesn’t watch out! Naturally, their employees receive the brunt of their malice.

What’s more, narcissistic bosses set people up for failure. Demands are communicated haphazardly and with a near total lack of transparency. Data without context is a specialty; narcissists are crazy tight-fisted with information. The poor soul responsible for pleasing an implacable narcissist often finds him- or herself in a damned if you do/damned if you don’t position.

It’s a puzzle. How can someone provide so much detail (these folks are micromanagers for sure) and still be so terrible at communicating what they want?

But perhaps worst of all, narcissists have no (zilch, zippo, nil) sense of humor about themselves. As such, they are prickly, oversensitive to criticism, and dishonest (“Admit a mistake? Hell no. I’ll just pretend you misunderstood or blame someone else …”). 

They are, in a word, “difficult” to work with. Not that they actually care to work with anyone. Narcissists are the ultimate non-team playing players.

In a nutshell, narcissistic bosses are:
  • Emotionally shallow;
  • Lacking in empathy;
  • Ridiculously self-absorbed;
  • Envious
  • Impervious to blame; and
  • Untrustworthy

But, narcissists have two things in their favor: 
  1. They’re great at sucking up to those they deem important. 
  2. They’re completely shameless and will do most anything to meet their dastardly goals. As a result, they’re talented at catching the rest of us off guard and unprepared to deal with someone whom we couldn’t fathom would do that.

Handling the Narcissistic Manager

First, accept that you must do something, because inaction is not a responsible option. Narcissists are toxic to teams, partly because they’re envious and will deliberately sabotage others’ success and partly because they annoy the heck out of people.

Second, if the narcissist is someone you hired, admit this wasn’t your best decision and move on. Pretending that nothing is wrong will only compound the problem.

Third, let your ethics be your guide. We often know the right thing to do but talk ourselves out of doing it to avoid inconvenience, embarrassment, shame, or some other perceived loss. Please don’t do that now. Whatever circle of influence your narcissistic employee has, he or she is probably using it for no good—or more to the point, no one else’s good.

Fourth, don’t be fooled. Narcissists care very little for you or your company goals, no matter what they say to the contrary.

Fifth, listen. If you have a narcissist in your workplace, you’ll know it, because he or she is forever ruffling somebody’s feathers. Interpersonal conflict and narcissists are like salt and pepper—where one is you can usually find the other. A real tale-tell sign? When you start to listen, you’ll begin to hear from people who typically don’t butt heads with anyone.

Sixth, hope for rehabilitation, but prepare for separation. The challenge of managing interpersonal conflict is that everyone has a point of view. So be doubly careful when disciplining a narcissist. Document everything. Provide reasonable chances. Exercise compassion but be firm. One bad apple shouldn’t be allowed to spoil your barrel.

Don’t believe the hype of the brilliant, narcissistic boss who drives his people to wild heights of success with his unwavering commitment to innovation and excellence. (Think Steve Jobs … or at least what people say about Steve Jobs.)

That’s crap. Most narcissistic bosses are average-performing little despots skilled at smoke and mirrors. If they won’t do better, I guarantee you can.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Never Trust HR and Other Workplace Tips for Millennials

One of my favorite Millennials is graduating from college next month, and it occurs to me that he, like millions of others from the so-called Godless Generation, could benefit from some sage counsel before entering the workforce.

So while the world may view us crusty Gen-Xers as all but done, holding on for dear life while awaiting our sure and inevitable Millennial takedown (or is it shakedown?), I say “Bah! You’ve still got lots to learn from us, kids.”

For example…

Follow Instructions

Getting ahead at work is nearly impossible if you can’t follow instructions. I don’t care how much you know, how brilliant you are, or how much experience you have, following instructions is key to getting—and more importantly, keeping—a job. There’s a time for creativity, breaking the rules, and deviating from what’s expected, but most likely that’s not at the beginning of a brand new job in a brand new career. And if you don’t understand the instructions, PLEASE don’t pretend you do. Instead, ask clarifying questions. (And if you don’t know what a clarifying question is, do the research.)

Respect Your Boss

Offering respect to someone respectable is easy. Offering respect to someone decidedly NOT respectable is a real feat, but there’s not a whole lot to be gained by demonstrating contempt for your boss. So unless it’s a matter of psychological, physical, or financial survival, (1) don’t violate the chain of command, (2) don’t ignore directives, and (3) don’t talk fresh.

Respect Yourself

Now is as good a time as any to learn how to stick up for yourself as well as for what’s right. In addition to providing financial security, work is a source of satisfaction, purpose, and identity for many. Work is good. However, the workplace can be an incubator and a haven for all manner of human wickedness and dysfunction, so prepare to be tried and tested while resolving to gather from each trial additional strength, resilience, moral clarity, and emotional intelligence.

Practice Being a Good Judge of Character

How well you fare at work will in large part come down to how well you judge character. In whom will you place your confidence? Choose poorly, and you’ll pay the price. Choose well, and you’ll reap the rewards. Correctly discerning character takes time, patience, and a willingness to accept people as they prove themselves to be. Someone who claims good character but who lies, is manipulative, or appears uninterested in the Law of Reciprocity should be judged by his actions, not his words. And speaking of which …

Use Your Words Responsibly

Words have weight and power. Use your words to edify, educate, and entertain but don’t use them to hurt. Don’t engage in vicious gossip, don’t tell fibs, and don’t say mean and nasty things just because you can. And for God’s sake, use Spell Checker! It’s amazing how many employees don’t bother with that nowadays. Your work will stand out if you do.

Pay Attention

Pay attention, and you’ll go far. Study people. Take the time to understand why most of us do what we do, and you’ll be an empathetic and inspiring leader, no matter your official title. On a more practical note, paying attention will also enhance your ability to quickly pick up new tasks, which any good manager will appreciate.


Do that thing other people won’t, and you’ll gain favor, self-insight, and new skills. And here’s the thing about skills. You can build on them, and no one—no matter how determined—can ever take them away from you.

Don’t Let the Haters Get You Down

The brighter your light shines, the more some joker will determine to take you down. Who knows what motivates these hateful spirits, and who cares? The point is to not let them cause you to doubt your ability, sincerity, or intentions. Smile, stay on path, and determine to let the haters choke on their own venom, if that’s what they want.

Never Trust HR

And, oh yeah … never trust HR. Right now the profession is in quite a flux, and it’s full of people who simply aren’t very good at their jobs. Sadly, they’re okay with that. So … if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of a workplace dispute, don’t go to HR expecting to be helped. Go to cover your butt or go to satisfy your curiosity, but don’t go hoping something useful will result, or you’ll be disappointed. And hey, if something useful DOES result, it’s all gravy! But even so, be sure and run everything by Mom another HR pro (who doesn't work for your company) you can trust, because she’ll always give you the real deal.

Happy Graduation!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Portrait of a Corporate Psychopath: How J.K. Simmons Nailed It in Whiplash

I recently watched Whiplash, starring Miles Teller (as young jazz drummer Andrew) and J.K. Simmons (as Fletcher), and it occurred to me that Fletcher—a bullying, narcissist, manipulative music instructor—is a straight-up psychopath.

I read a bunch of reviews about the film, and there are plenty of reviewers who believe, as I do, that Fletcher is personality disturbed. But many other reviewers don’t, or don’t see the relevancy to the story.

Well, of course a character’s psychopathy is relevant to the story. We can barely make sense of the story without it. ‘Nuff said about that.

I’m more interested in why some reviewers didn’t recognize Fletcher as a psychopath to begin with, because it reminds me how difficult it can be to see behind the psychopath’s mask in real life. And in real life, we need to see behind the mask, or we risk becoming the prey of these warped shits.

What Makes Psychopaths So Hard to Identify?

 A few things.

First, psychopaths are very good at mimicking normal behavior. No doubt from a very early age, the psychopath recognized he was different from others and began taking pains to hide his differences. (Note: Children less than 18 years cannot be diagnosed as psychopathic, as no tool exists for this purpose. However, the true psychopath has been troubled from a very early age, if not from the womb.)

Second, while statistically many of us may know a psychopath, we haven't have enough interaction with him to evaluate or witness his true nature.

Third, most of us have no idea how to identify psychopathic behavior even when we do see it. People who spend significant time studying psychopathy are generally physicians with a particular interest in abnormal psychology, criminologists, sociologists, writers of true crime, fans of true crime, and those who’ve been burned by a psychopath, in which case your curiosity is likely more of an obsession. (I'll let you guess where I fall in this list.)

Fourth, most of us accept people at face value and have something in us that practically renders us incapable of believing bad things about others, especially those closest to us, like our spouses, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Fifth, human beings are biased, and our biases can blind us to unpleasant truths about others, even if the truth is staring us in the face. For instance, we tend to equate intelligence and physical beauty with good moral character, even when we know it’s irrational to do so.

All of these factors can cause us to be vulnerable to the psychopath and especially the corporate (or subclinical) psychopath, because the workplace has its own rules about acceptable and unacceptable behavior that often hinder the detection (and more importantly) dismissal of psychopaths.

Oh Fletcher, You Devious Monster, You!  

(Warning: MAJOR spoilers coming …)

Simmons’ performance is Whiplash is phenomenal. He earned his Oscar and then some, in my opinion.

And while a few have criticized the script for its alleged holes (such as not providing the viewer with enough insight into Fletcher’s motivation), again I say, what’s there to understand? The man is a psychopath. How do I know? From the script of course.  

Signs of Fletcher’s Psychopathy  

Telltale Sign #1. After inviting Andrew (and by the way, Miles Teller is awesome as Andrew) to join the band, Fletcher tells him that practice starts at 6:00 AM sharp. “Don’t be late,” he warns Andrew.  

Andrew oversleeps, waking up at 6:03, and then rushes to practice—only to be greeted by exactly no one. At first, we think this is Fletcher’s way of making his word his bond. After all, 6:00 AM is 6:00 AM.  

But then we learn (from a sign posted next to the rehearsal room door), that practice begins at 9:00 AM. Anxious, confused, and desperate to be in the band, Andrew waits. Practice starts promptly at 9:00, and Fletcher never says a word to Andrew about the discrepancy.  

Why not? Because he’s a flippin’ psychopath, and psychopaths like to mess with people’s heads for fun. By telling Andrew the wrong time and having him sit for three hours without a damn clue (“Did Fletcher leave because I was late? If so, is he coming back? Did Fletcher intend to spend some quality time with me, and I blew it? Did I hear wrong? Was this all some weird game?”) Fletcher exercises his dominance right off the bat. Sicko.  

Telltale Sign #2. During a break in practice, Fletcher casually asks Andrew about his mom and dad. Andrew tells Fletcher that Dad is a writer and then corrects himself—well, he’s really an English teacher—and Mom left when Andrew was a baby.  

Later (but not much later), Fletcher openly, loudly, and cruelly berates Andrew for not keeping time, and then takes the whole thing up a notch (which hardly seems possible, but he does it) by taunting Andrew about his Dad's "failed" writing career, which caused Mom to leave, because who wants a loser? (And let’s just forget that by Fletcher’s own logic he’s a failed musician. Doesn’t matter. Psychopaths are skilled at making the illogical sound logical—at least at the time.)

Unfortunately, psychopaths are also skilled at taking small bits of your personal history and twisting them into something ugly and shameful and then throwing the whole stinking mess in your face when you’re feeling vulnerable. For kicks. Folks, this is not normal behavior. If someone ever does this to you. Stop and think. Please.  

(By the way, this is why you should never tell your psychopathic coworker ANYTHING, no matter how benign, about your personal life. If at all possible, he or she will find a way to hurt you with the information, trust me.)  

Telltale Sign #3. Fletcher’s upset about something, but we don’t know what. Later, a teary-eyed Fletcher tells the class he’s just learned a prized former student died in a car accident.  

But, surprise! Fletcher is only telling part of the truth. The student, we later learn, hanged himself.  

Now ladies and gents, who the hell lies about something like that? Through tears? A psychopath, that’s who. Psychopaths are masters of half-truths and outright untruths, and they lie about crazy crap, all while feigning sincerity.  

We’ll later learn the former students’ parents blame Fletcher for driving their son to depression and suicide, but even that’s no explanation for Fletcher’s lie.  

You say, well, Fletcher felt guilty so he shaded the truth. 
Really? Would a normal person shade the truth at a time like this and in that manner? I don’t think so. A normal person with a case of the guilts might neglect to mention how the student died, but he wouldn’t make up an alternate story to cover the truth.  

However, a psychopath would, because a psychopath is (a) twisted and (b) incapable of taking responsibility. And this inability to acknowledge any fault leads the psychopath to extraordinary lengths, such as lying about something most of us would find sacred.  

Telltale Sign #4. Fletcher loves to divide and conquer. In his quest to screw with Andrew’s head, he plays all the drummers against each other, forcing them to compete in the most dysfunctional of ways, even while manipulating each of them to curry his favor.  

Again, I gotta hand it to J.K. Simmons. He played his part to perfection. But Damien Chazelle, who wrote the script, deserves his credit, too.  

Not only does Fletcher abuse, he drives the students to distrust and abuse each other in the foulest of fashions. If this isn’t an accurate portrayal of the psychopathic leader, I don’t know what is.  

Psychopathic leaders destroy teams. Show me a team characterized by backbiting, backstabbing, tattle telling, gossip, distrust, and fear, and I’ll show you a leader who's either personality disordered or severely character disturbed.  

Telltale Sign #5. Psychopaths have rigid personalities. They typically don’t learn from mistakes, and no matter how much time passes or what their behavior costs them, they don’t mature emotionally or morally.  

So, praise the Lord, Fletcher’s employer finally has enough of him, and Fletcher is “freed up to pursue other opportunities.” Unfortunately, even after everything he’s been through, Andrew doesn’t grasp that Fletcher is evil and initiates contact.  

(Bad, bad idea. If Andrew knew what I knew and ran into his former mentor at say, an industry-related panel discussion, when said mentor greeted “Andrew” with a fake smile and a “Hey, look who’s here!” Andrew would have strode right past that bitch him with a cold, quick “Hello” and then gone on about his business.)  

Andrew and Fletcher sit down for a chat, and Fletcher invites Andrew to play in Fletcher’s new band, because the current drummer “isn’t cutting it,” but not before Fletcher begins reminiscing about the past and says he only did what any extraordinary teacher would have done to push his students to excellence. When Andrew asks Fletcher whether there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, Fletcher says no.  

Like a true psychopath, Fletcher manages to turn a vice into a virtue while demonstrating by both word and deed he’s learned nothing from losing his job (not to mention everything that proceeded that event) and that he’s back to his old tricks (i.e., divide and conquer) by playing Andrew against this new, unnamed drummer. Will Andrew see what’s what? Or will he take the bait and subject himself to Fletcher’s abuse one more time?  

Sigh. What do you think?

(By the way, Miles Teller likened Whiplash to a horror movie. I’m not sure I understand, but at this point in the story I was tempted to scream, “Don’t do it Andrew! Don’t listen to Fletcher! It’s a trap!”)


Hollywood psychopaths generally get what’s coming to them, one way or the other.

Real-life corporate psychopaths, however, are usually more fortunate.  

However, I don’t advocate spending one’s time fantasizing about heaping coals of revenge on the head of the corporate psycho, although I get it.  

Instead, I recommend getting the hell out as soon as possible. The only way to get lasting revenge on the corporate psychopath is to live a rich, happy life doing what you enjoy surrounded by the people you respect and love. Psychopaths, who are envious of everyone, hate that.  

As for Andrew, some say he got his redemption. Others disagree. I believe he did but at tremendous cost.  

But that’s the way with psychopaths. Engagement with them almost always comes at a cost. They are takers, abusers, and users. 

That’s why it’s best to stay away if you can.  

Oh, and one last thing.  

If you’ve been the target or victim of a corporate psychopath, don’t let anyone minimize your experiences. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: some people just love to defend the indefensible. I’m not sure what their deal is, but I don’t care and neither should you. You don’t need a medical license to know when someone is behaving badly, and you definitely don’t need a medical license to know when someone is hurting you. You just don’t.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When Politeness Fails

It wouldn’t be entirely off track to conclude we humans are a rude bunch of shut your mouths.

Go to any career-related website or job board, and you’ll read complaint after complaint about rude recruiters and heartless HR managers.

And each year, incivility in the workplace, including workplace bullying, costs employers millions, if not billions, in increased unscheduled absences, increased use of medical plans, lost productivity, and lawsuits. It's estimated that nearly 98% of employees have experienced bad behavior at work.

How ironic then, when politeness actually contributes to a less civil society.

When Nice Isn’t Good
I like nice. Nice people make the job more pleasant and less stressful.

Of course, that’s when people aren't just pretending to be nice. 

Because when nice is the thinnest of veneers attached with cheap glue to the ugliness underneath, nice isn’t very nice at all. More than that, genuinely decent folks should think long and hard about playing the games these so-called nice folks demand.

The Nice Narcissist
I used to work with a manipulative and devious individual I’ll call Andrea (not her real name).

Exhibiting the signs of a malignant narcissist, Andrea was a frequent and practiced liar whose one mission in life was to get her wayand she didn’t care who got hurt or what rules she broke in the process. 

While Andrea's true personality was visible to anyone with eyes to see, she wrapped it in a cloak of faux politeness.

Andrea had learned long ago that if she gave the appearance of decency, no one would challenge her evil acts. And mostly she was right. In the time I worked with her, it was rare for anyone to confront Andrea’s bold-faced lies, hypocritical statements, or nasty ways of using and abusing people.

The Problem with Politeness
It’s been said that it takes two to lie: One to lie and one to listen. Unfortunately, our workplaces are filled to abundance with those eager to lie and those only too willing to listen.

Most of us listen because it’s the courteous and socially accepted option. We’re taught that it’s not okay to tell someone in authority she’s lying, especially at work. In fact, never at work.

And this is a huge problem, because liars in the workplace generally aren’t content to spin tall tales for amusement value alone (although some are sick enough that lying and the sense of control it brings is pleasurable).

Instead, these deceivers want us to use their lies as the foundation for our action. They want us to swallow their bull and then do something we wouldn’t do if they’d simply leave us the hell alone.

Other times the objective is to exercise dominanceI will tell you a blatant lie, and I will force you to acknowledge it as truth.

Either way, it’s a violation of another’s free will, and it’s wrong.

It’s also offensive, because it’s a perversion of social mores created to protect the common good, not defile it.

A Preferred Way of Relating Is Just That: A Preference
It’s exasperating to what lengths some folks will go to excuse the bad behaviors of others.

“That’s just the way she is,” they say. “Nobody’s perfect,” they say. “It’s none of my business,” they say.

Like I said, exasperating. No one’s asking for perfection, just don't be a lying skeeze. But if you want to be a lying skeeze, then leave me out of it, please. Don’t expect me to validate your view of the world, don’t expect me to participate in your immoral dealings, don’t expect me to listen to your BS with an enthralled expression on my face—just don’t.

And as for the “that’s just the way he/she is” school of thought, well, I think that’s bunk. Even the personality disordered choose how they will interact with others. In the case of malignant narcissists, they manipulate, deceive, gossip, lie, backstab, and betray because it suits their purposes. Just like I’ll tell them to go to hell because it suits my purposes.

When Narcissism Becomes Normal, We’re All In Trouble
Dave Orisson, a pastor who writes about narcissism without sparing the church, explains it this way (highlights mine):

“… a cursory glance at our culture would be enough to conclude that narcissism is becoming not only normal, but desirable. 
Perhaps the qualities of narcissism—self-promotion, fantasy superiority, need for admiration, exploitation of others, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy or desire to care about the feelings of others—are so much a part of the normal lives of young people that no one especially thinks of them as problematic. When even those who are not narcissists accept narcissistic behavior as normal, the difficulty of dealing with those who hurt and use others may become insurmountable.”

Bucking the Trend
There are many valid reasons to keep your opinion of your coworkers’ veracity to yourself, that’s a fact. Still, allowing the people of the lie to define the world for the rest of us is a very bad idea.

Pastor Dave has a better idea:

“In relationships, especially, we can call out the behavior. We still claim to hold positive values in relationships. So we have the right and responsibility to help others maintain those values. Narcissism still hurts others, no matter how normal the behavior seems. Hurting others is still not acceptable. Speak up against abuse and lying and cheating and compromised values.
But there’s more. We can smile more and be more kind. A thousand little acts of kindness to show the world that narcissism does not rule everyone. Affirm relationships. Tell people that you value them and are grateful. For so many, the characteristics of narcissism have been adopted because they are afraid or have been made to feel unimportant. Thank people. See people, especially those who have been invisible in the past. Do things narcissists wouldn’t think about doing, especially for the sake of others.”

True kindness is more valuable than fake politeness any day.