Narcissists at work: How to deal with arrogant, controlling, manipulative bullies

Narcissistic employees -- yes, IT has its fair share -- can wreak havoc in the office and put your own job at risk.

Five years ago, Jean Ritala was dating a businessman who started to demonstrate Jekyll and Hyde-like behavior. Well-spoken, charismatic and successful, he could also be manipulative and bullying, telling her that it was "his way or the highway."

It wasn't until someone told her she had been "stung by a narcissist" and shared books and Web sites with her on the topic that she fully appreciated what she had encountered. Now, Ritala, the IT support services manager at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, educates and coaches others on how to deal with narcissists in the workplace.

Narcissism, defined as a personality disorder by the National Institutes of Health, is a pattern of behaviors that show a pervasive need for attention and admiration, as well as a lack of concern or empathy for others.

Jean Ritala.
Jean Ritala.

In the workplace, says Ritala, narcissists tend to be successful and goal-oriented, with no concern for others who get in their way. They feel a need to control co-workers, projects and situations around them, and they can be manipulative, spinning situations and facts to make it appear that others around them are the problem, not them.

According to Ritala, narcissists often display the following traits at work:

  • Arrogant and self-centered, they expect special treatment and privileges.
  • They can be charismatic, articulate and funny.
  • They are likely to disrespect boundaries and the privacy of others.
  • They can be patronizing and critical of others but unwilling or unable to accept criticism or disagreement.
  • Likely to be anxiety-stricken or paranoid, they may exhibit violent, rage-like reactions when they can't control a situation or their behaviors have been exposed.
  • They are apt to set others up for failure or pit co-workers against one another.
  • They can be cruel and abusive to some co-workers, often targeting one person at a time until he quits.
  • They may need an ongoing "narcissist supply" of people who they can easily manipulate and who will do whatever they suggest -- including targeting a co-worker -- without question.
  • They are often charming and innocent in front of managers.

As you might imagine, narcissists can be highly disruptive to a workplace, creating a traumatic environment with high turnover, Ritala says. Eventually the narcissist is caught in action enough times that he is fired, but this does nothing to change his behavior or protect the organization from other narcissists.

Recognizing the problem, Ritala, former president of the IT Service Management Forum &ndash US, teamed up with management consulting partner Gerald Falkowski to write a booklet for IT managers called Narcissism in the Workplace (Red Swan Publishing USA, Sept. 2007). She spoke recently with Computerworld's Thomas Hoffman about dealing with narcissism in IT organizations.

Does narcissism play out any differently within IT organizations versus other parts of a company?

IT is more competitive than some parts of the business, much like sales is competitive. I think you're seeing it more now in IT because IT has become more focused on relationship-building and nurturing relationships. The types of behavior people turned their cheek to in the past, they're now less willing to.

People are getting educated. Five years ago, fewer people knew about narcissism. Now there are online discussion groups that deal with the topic, such as the MSN newsgroup, and television shows such as Two and a Half Men featuring [the character] Charlie Harper as a narcissist. The dynamics of the workforce have changed, and narcissist personality-type employees or managers are standing out more than ever, creating more problems than their boss and HR can handle.

What happens if managers simply ignore narcissists' disruptive behavior?

Often a narcissist remains in an organization for years, creating more and more workplace stress and turnover, due to their managers thinking their contributions outweigh their behaviors and denying and rationalizing the odd behaviors away. That is, until the next complaint comes their way and they continue to be forced to document the narcissist's behaviors over time. They risk their own jobs by not taking action soon enough with each complaint or series of complaints.

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