In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who saw his own reflection in a pool of water and became so obsessed with his looks that he sat and stared at himself until he died. We all know people like that – people who have a grandiose sense of self-importance, fantasize about their own unlimited brilliance, believe that others are beneath them, require admiration all the time, feel “entitled”, exploit relationships, lack empathy, act out of jealousy and are arrogant. Anyone who has at least five of those nine traits can be considered narcissistic.
Unfortunately, organizations can be narcissistic too. All it takes is a few narcissistic personalities at the top, or even just a culture of denial and blame. These are the places that are tiring and unrewarding to work at, where the organization or its decisions are never at fault, where there is no need to self-examine because everything is perfect, where alternative views are not needed because everything is already known. In very competitive environments they generally become extinct and are usually the last to realize, but in less competitive environments, they can limp along in a permanent state of unhappiness, oblivion and compromised productivity.
What can you do if you work for a narcissistic organization? Firstly, understand that this frustrating behavior is always the result of fragile organizational self-esteem, making workplace climate-setters feel vulnerable to the slightest criticism. Therefore, you will need to be the adult in the relationship. Don’t be offended when you are dismissed as not senior enough or qualified enough to have an opinion – dismissal of this type is typical of narcissistic organizations, in which only the most senior people are spared rejection and derision.
Do acknowledge your organization’s grandiose sense of self-importance, but do not accept the role of a lesser being – that simply perpetuates the denial. Don’t start with any direct confrontation of the issue/s, because fear will overwhelm any possible progress. Rather, create empathy, try not to be authoritative (even if you are an authority), and reinforce a realistic (note the realistic) acknowledgement of all that is good and right in the work area concerned. If you can avoid heartlessly exposing reality to the point where you encounter flat rejection, you have a chance of good local interactions where everyone’s limitations – yours, theirs – are acknowledged and accepted.
Let me not make this sound easy. Narcissistic organizations are among the hardest to deal with – even for seasoned professionals – and the keys are kindness, steadfastness and patience.
John Kolm is CEO of Team Results USA, a business specializing in organizational dynamics.