In a previous newsletter I advised “Beware snakes in suits.” I suggested you have two alternatives: get away from snakes or get bitten. I stand by that advice. However, as alert readers notified me, sometimes these options don’t exist. The snake happens to share DNA, family associations, or leadership positions. Sometimes you don’t want a snake bite, but escape doesn’t seem realistic either.
Pathological narcissists, the snakes we most often encounter in the workplace, both appeal and appall. You fall prey to them when you enter their natural habitat, the corporation, and fail to recognize them. Your second mistake involves entering the fray unarmed and unprepared. You’ll cope more readily if you spot snake traits early in the relationship and adjust your behavior accordingly. Here’s what to look for:
1. Lack of empathy
Snakes simply don’t feel empathy, nor do they care how they affect you. Therefore, you can only hope that understanding the concrete consequences of their behavior might influence them: “Sam, if you keep yelling at him, James is going to quit.”
Incapable of empathy, snakes don’t hesitate to demean. You can refuse to take debasing feedback by holding up a mirror and calling attention to what they’ve said: “Sue, you’ve made personal comments about me but haven’t given me any specific feedback I can use to improve.” Snakes have to tear down someone to build themselves up. Don’t let that someone be you.
Give and take does not exist with snakes. They don’t want to hear about your success, see a picture of your new baby, or talk about your vacation. However, they love to give advice and opinions. You can’t rely on them for support and encouragement, but narcissists will readily share ideas that make them look smart and insightful.
You’ll often find the patholgoical narcissist is the smartest / most talented person in the room. Otherwise, why would people have put up with him for so long? They don’t limit their superiority needs to the narrow niche in which they perform their best, however. They want to feel superior across the board. Therefore, they tend to exaggerate their achievements and minimize those of others. You can control narcissists somewhat if you simply don’t challenge their number one position.
The expression “My way or the highway” exists because of snakes. Once they make up their minds, don’t try to change them. You can, however, get there first-before rigor mortis sets in. Snakes aren’t open-minded, but they like to think they are. Sometimes if you approach them with a specific, transparent request, you can put an idea on the table before they squash it.
Often in the wrong but never in doubt, snakes don’t admit mistakes. If you expect an apology or an admission of guilt, you’ll be disappointed. You need to hold steadfastly to the goal of not becoming the scapegoat, however.
Pathological narcissists believe two things about rules: “They are really important for others, but they don’t apply to me.” Expedient and self-indulgent, snakes feel entitled to special treatment and can’t be bothered with procedures or codes of conduct. Therefore, explaining the rules to them won’t work, but clearly describing the consequences will: “Carl, the industry regulations clearly indicate___. If you violate this, I won’t be able to protect you.”
Mark Twain once said that a man never looks behind a door unless he’s hidden behind some himself. Snakes have much to hide. Skeptical and distrustful, they question things that others accept at face value. So, give them answers before they ask the questions. They won’t necessarily respond favorably to your transparency, but at least you’ll avoid the frustration of yet another “third degree” interrogation.
You can’t make a snake happy; don’t try. It will frustrate you and annoy the snake. When we work for or with snakes, we often develop the enabling mantra of “If I could just…, he would be happy,” but no matter how high you jump, the pathological narcissist can set the bar higher.
Instead of jumping higher, communicate reality: “Joe, I’d like to reach that goal too, but the facts tell a different story. We’ve never increased sales by that much in a six month period. What I can do is ….”
10. Approval Seeking
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, most snakes want to be liked, especially by those whose opinion they value. Therefore, play to the ego. Compliment them and call attention to their superiority. Warning: You’ll hate this and feel that you’re encouraging more unproductive behavior. But it doesn’t matter. You cannot change them, and they won’t change themselves.
To defang a snake, you have to put your hands in its mouth and put yourself at risk of a bite. That’s why I echo my original advice: Given a choice, run from snakes.