Thursday, April 26, 2007

Me-people help

Ego-driven, competitive and confident, narcissists are like kegs of gunpowder. Their presence in your office can fuel others and spark big success. Or they can bring your company or department to the ground.

"They have grand visions and can be big dreamers," says Baton Rouge-based management consultant Allison Dunn, of Dattner Consulting, who trains companies on managing narcissists. "They can also be fanciful, flighty and not grounded."

In his celebrated book on the topic, "The Productive Narcissist," (Broadway Books, 2003), Michael Maccoby breaks narcissists into two camps- productive and unproductive.

Productive narcissists- think Bill Gates- can move the troops and push a company toward visionary goals. Unproductive narcissists- think Martha Stewart- often get into trouble because of their grandiosity, failure to accept blame and inability to relate.

Decide before you start interviewing if you want a narcissist. They interview well, so if you want to avoid loading your team with too many of them, you might have to look past first impressions.

"Narcissists can be very charming," writes Nina Brown in "Working with the Self-Absorbed: How to Handle Narcissistic Personalities on the Job" (New Harbinger Publications, 2002).

"It's T likely that they are seeking someone to mirror or reflect their inflated self perception, and new acquaintances are good candidates for this task."

Dunn says Enron probably made the mistake of having too many narcissists onboard. "They said, 'We're going to hire the best and the brightest and unleash that talent. They imploded."

So why fool with narcissists at all?

"When narcissists win, they win big," Maccoby writes. "Narcissists create a vision to change the world; they are bold risk takers who think and act independently. TThis is exactly the kind of leader we expect to take us places we've never been before, to build empires out of nothing."

Take a look at your team, Dunn recommends. "If you have a team that's not motivated or not succeeding, you can get a lot of energy from adding a narcissist."

Back your first impressions during interviews with research, Dunn says.

"Fact check," she says. "If they say they were project leaders, check it out."

A good question to ask someone you suspect is a narcissist: "What will be your biggest challenge here? How will you have to grow?"

"That says a lot about their willingness to accept feedback," Dunn says.

Once you've got a narcissist on board, put that person in the role of generating ideas or coming up with big-picture goals. Let someone else handle the details and support work. Narcissists won't be happy building spreadsheets.

Narcissists have the ability to drive a team towards success, Dunn says, because they love to win. It's important for managers to tend to the entire team, though, and see to it that the narcissist isn't hogging credit, sloughing blame or being the squeaky wheel who can always get a few minutes of your time as others go it alone.

If you're having problems with a narcissist on your team, Dunn says, "discuss the gap between where they are and where they need to be. T Narcissists are motivated by opportunities to succeed."

What about narcissistic bosses? That can be tough. Since narcissists are driven to succeed, they frequently end up supervising others even though they aren't always ideal for that task.

Your best bet: Manage up. Listen actively, ask questions and let your boss in on how he or she can succeed as your boss.

Get things in writing, Brown notes, in case blame gets shifted to you. That way, you can effectively show that you were carrying out the wishes of your big-I boss.

Push for 360-degree reviews for your boss and, Dunn says, "make him or her look good in a productive way."

Amy Alexander writes a management column for Business Report. E-mail your comments or suggestions for future columns to her at