Friday, February 09, 2007

The dark side of charisma

Working for a guy whose head is so big he can’t see anything else? Kenneth Kwama looks at life in a land of giant egos.

Rahab Mugure* sensed something was wrong with her MD shortly after she was hired. Everybody seemed to tiptoe around him. At first it seemed natural, because he was a senior company employee. With time, however, she began to see a darker side to his personality.

"He is the lead partner in a management firm when I was hired to run the office," she says. "I started well and took over office management duties. My work was to prepare prospectuses. But soon I began to notice that his employees were falling out of favour with him over strange or fabricated reasons. He kept criticising and bullying them and it did not bother him even when they quit."

She says she particularly remembers one case when the MD started referring to one of the female managers as a ‘fat pig’. When the woman went on leave for a week, he had her office space reduced in size and rearranged the furniture and files. She promptly quit.

Not long after, the MD started to see a therapist after his wife intervened. He was diagnosed as suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Like Rachael, many people have found themselves working with narcissist colleagues or bosses. Nairobi lawyer, Fred Orego and his colleague, Collins Odongo, say they have worked with narcissist people in the past.

"(My former boss) liked taking credit for other people’s work," says Collins.

"He would inflate his own accomplishments, and expect an unlimited supply of favours from us. I think it was some form of compensatory behaviour because he knew he had some deficiencies and was behaving that way to cover up for them."

Collins says he knows of a person whose boss started "bitching" after she had worked feverishly for a week to compile him a long report.

"One day, the boss called her into his office and she thought she was going to be acknowledged for the exceptional job but was horrified when he began screaming at her for not working hard enough while he was gone," says Collins.

Streak of egotism

There are many tales of narcissists at work and newsrooms are no exception. For example, there is an intriguing tale about an editor in one of the leading dailies who would let others work long hours only to come and dismantle whatever had been done.

"His favourite practice was to come into the offices late on a Friday, rubbish whatever had been done and initiate a new task that would take up a lot of time," says an editor who once worked with him. "Everyone kept wondering why he wasn’t reporting on duty earlier to check on progress."

Running on a full tank of confidence and charisma, narcissists often thrive as salesmen, entrepreneurs or in other ego-intensive, cutthroat professions.

But they also have a downside. Mugure says her narcissist boss suffered temper tantrums, unreasonable expectations, selfishness and a complete inability to engage in teamwork.

"Every once in a while, someone would be in the bathroom in tears after one of his outbursts," she says of her former boss’s behaviour.

"When he began to tire of me, he started giving me menial tasks. One day our receptionist told one of his associates that he was having trouble with his new car. When his partner teased him about it, he stormed up to the receptionist and, with murderous eyes, informed her that she should never discuss anything about his personal business with others."

But as Executives found out, it is a topic workers don’t discuss in the office, even where it is apparent that a colleague or boss has narcissist tendencies.

"The paradox about narcissism is that we all have this streak of egotism," says Margaret Gicheru, a psychologist and lecturer.

"In fact 80 per cent of people think they are better than average. Generally, psychologically healthy people twist the world to their advantage, just a little bit. If we do well on a test, for example, we are likely to congratulate ourselves. If we do poorly, we’ll claim the test was badly written, unfair or wrong. It’s normal, perhaps even necessary. By telling ourselves that our faults are universal but our strengths are unique, we can get through life’s trials without losing faith in our own abilities."

Serious clinical disorder

But narcissism isn’t just a combination of monumental self-esteem and rudeness. As a personality type, it ranges from a tendency to a serious clinical disorder, encompassing unexpected, even counterintuitive behaviour.

"It’s not so much about being liked," says Margaret. "It’s much more (about) being admired. Narcissists have a deep desire to be at the centre of things. They have an extreme self-confidence and this can make them attractive and even charming."

Buoyed by a coterie of admiring friends and associates, and protected by positive self-regard, people with mild to moderate cases of narcissism can float through life feeling pretty good about themselves.

"Since they feel entitled to special treatment, they are easily offended, and readily harbour grudges," says Margaret. "The beauty of being a narcissist is that even when disaster stares you in the face, you feel neither doubt nor remorse."

Although it could be difficult to tell when a colleague is a narcissist, psychologists say there are a few signs to watch for. These signs include those who take credit for other people’s work, inflate their own accomplishments, and are usually expecting an unlimited supply of favours from friends and colleagues. Sufferers may be bosses or fellow workers.

So what is the best way to deal with narcissists at work?

According to Rose Simani, HR director at Housing Finance, there is no HR manual on how to handle narcissism at work, but a good performance appraisal system can help identify it and recommend training needs.

"A good performance review (will encompass) soft skills like communication, team play and empathy, and will easily discern such problems," says Simani. "If you follow these characters, you’ll probably realise that they are very good and productive workers, but their only problem is that they don’t know how to cope with others. I wouldn’t recommend the firing of a narcissist because it is a shortcoming that can be competently handled." She adds that Housing Finance haven’t had such problems because the company has a well developed review system to handle such cases before they can impact on productivity.

Exceptional managers

But living with such people is becoming an imperative in the business world. Narcissists can often get results. Narcissistic ways of management, contends Michael Maccoby, a psychoanalyst and business consultant who authored The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Perils of Visionary Leadership, have a way of transforming idle businesses and making them productive.

"Narcissists often make exceptional managers, galvanising employees and making far reaching changes. A narcissistic executive is the creative, superficially charming colleague who may be arrogant and manipulative but also charismatic and hard-charging, qualities that are increasingly valued in politics and business," writes Maccoby.

That kind of success, he contends, has much to do with the talent such leaders are able to attract. He gives the examples of Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs who he says are so charismatic and visionary that their employees usually overlook the more difficult aspects of their narcissism.

"The most effective narcissistic CEOs are also self-aware enough to surround themselves with people whose complementary personalities act as a check on their own and most of the best workers are drawn to their firms to be part of something that is ambitious and meaningful," says Maccoby.

The question of how to manage such super egos has recently become a hot-button issue in the boardroom. Narcissistic bosses may make bold leaders, but they can also let aggression and selfishness fester in the workplace, to the point where cruelty and deception are condoned.

"These feelings get projected onto employees, who bear the brunt of a narcissistic manager’s abrasiveness, lack of empathy, even random acts of cruelty," says Gicheru. Stage fright, she says, isn’t a big issue for them. "For the average person, pressure gets in the way. But the narcissist is very happy in the moment of glory. The trick is to avoid crossing him if he is your boss."

According to Keith Campbell, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Georgia, narcissists can be hard to identify, in part because they are likely to be much more fascinating than you would expect of someone so self-absorbed.

"Their self-confidence on the job has no basis in reality," says Campbell. "In fact, one study shows that co-workers generally rate narcissists as below-average performers. However, they do tend to do well when all eyes are on them, and the opportunity to look like a star is ripe."

Genetics plays a huge role

Entirely dependent on other people’s opinions, Keith says narcissists can act like a cornered animal if they feel threatened.

"Research shows that narcissists become aggressive when they feel an ego threat. Confronted with proof that they aren’t special — or when they feel they aren’t getting enough respect. In the lab, they are willing to punish other experimental subjects with a noise blast when they think they’ve been put down. If you have to tell a narcissist he isn’t doing a good job, do it gently and be prepared," he says.

Nobody knows for sure how someone becomes a narcissist. The expert consensus though is that genetics plays a huge role. Overly permissive parents who lavish their children with endless praise also seem to contribute.

Some researchers believe more men are narcissistic than women, while others counter that since many key traits for example, being self-centred, competitive and disinterested in intimacy are more socially acceptable in men, women may be equally narcissistic but less visible.

Although no research has been done locally to ascertain the level of infiltration in Kenya, a recent study by Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon of the University of Surrey in Britain found that successful business managers were as likely to show the traits associated with narcissistic personality disorder like grandiosity, lack of empathy and exploitativeness as samples of criminals and psychiatric patients.

Everyone may have to experience a bad boss at some point. The bad news is that no amount of counter tactics or cajoling can change a narcissist. The good news is that it is possible to establish some semblance of a productive working relationship with one.

So the next time you have the urge to tell your narcissist boss off, remember that while you may be strong enough to deliver the message, your boss probably wouldn’t be strong enough to receive it.

Kenneth Kwama