The Slash and Burn Narcissist
Your run-of-the-mill narcissist may be self-absorbed but not necessarily destructive. This more benign version could throw a Richter scale tantrum if chastised or terminated from employment, but they're likely to depart without requiring an escort. The slash-and-burn narcissist, however, will wreak havoc all the way out the door.
Recently, I heard the tale of a consultant who’d manipulated his way into a contract that was completely disadvantageous to his clients. The way it was written, he couldn’t be let go for cause without the client jumping through inordinate hoops. Sadly, it’s not the first situation like this that I’ve heard of. What on earth happens to normally clear-minded people that they would sign a deal that’s not in their best interests?
Last year, I wrote about the characteristics of cult leaders and I believe many of the same principles apply. The narcissist will shower you with love to draw you in. Once you’re under their influence they’ll have you believe they’re not only superior to others, but they are the only protector from your fear. In religious cults, the fear is persecution and/or death. Political cults fan fears over losing a way of life (even if the followers have never experienced this idyllic life). In the employment situations I’m referring to, the narcissist does an impressive job of prognosticating the catastrophe if they leave. If their task or skill is highly valued and pivotal to the organization’s success, the client/leadership/board/congregation/(fill in the blank) runs scared.
Fear originates in the oldest part of the brain, the basal ganglia which is where the amygdala lives. Our reptilian brain was designed to protect us from physical threats in the natural world. As societies developed, the fear factor transferred to other dangers. The cerebral cortex, where rational thinking occurs, is a newer part of the brain. The facts and figures a reasoned mind uses in critical thinking have no chance when pitted against primal fear. Someone who is skilled at playing on the emotional centers of the brain can manipulate in powerful ways—and none of us is immune.
The first time I ran into this phenomenon at work was when a woman held an entire department hostage with her tantrums. The boss and the colleagues walked on eggshells trying to meet her every need because she had convinced them she was indispensable; hers was a skill set that no one else possessed. If she left, she warned, all the systems she was responsible for would fall apart and people wouldn’t get paid. “There’s literally no one in the world who has these skills?” I asked the leader. They were terrified to take the chance. (A side note: bad on the manager who never insisted on cross training to avoid this “indispensable” problem.)
The hoodwinked are persuaded to believe disaster is imminent if the person in question is fired. I agree there would likely be upheaval but as a result of the seeds of destruction the enraged narcissist plants. Damaging actions include pitting people against each other, tarnishing reputations, going to the media, financial malfeasance, technological sabotage, to name a few. Never underestimate what an ego-bashed narcissist is capable of particularly since they’re not wedded to the truth.
The question is, how do you get rid of them? The easiest way is if they decide to leave on their own. You could make sure they’re aware of more lucrative or powerful opportunities elsewhere might draw them away (warning: do not transfer them around in your company!). However, if they appear to be there to stay, tread carefully. Get legal advice about how to move them out with the least amount of damage. Protect your interests and those of the organization as best you can. Cut off access to any organizational vulnerabilities. Know that they’ll play to their supporters and attempt work-arounds or a coup. Remember, the narcissist has no compunction in carrying out threats. You may have to hold your nose and do things that offend your values, like providing a severance package or paying them for the balance of a contract. Or you may have to agree not to take legal action. Again, get good advice.
The very best solution is to not hire them to begin with. Watch out for the following tactics:
Shameless flattery of you or the organization while painting a picture of impending disaster and casting themselves as the savior.
Manipulation of top leaders to gain inside-information or to create the appearance they have support of executives. They count on underlings not to question if the support is real.
Demands for reporting relationships that aren’t typical for their job level, e.g., reporting to the board chair or CEO for a lower level position.
Finally, if your gut tells you something’s off, it is.
When you’re paying for a service, you get to be in charge of the employment or contractual agreement. If they’ve managed to wiggle in their own proposal or want to make significant revisions to yours, read carefully to assure the protection isn’t solely to their benefit and leaves your organization exposed.
You have my sympathy if you’re in the middle of a dynamic like this. Please don’t spend your emotional energy feeling enraged and powerless—that just gives them more to use against you. Make their departure a business transaction to conclude as quickly as possible so you can move on with your life. Expect that there will be rebellion from their loyalists and plan for it. Figure out how the communication will roll out to the larger organization and/or the community (note: you may want to hire a communications expert). Remain ethical in your actions but don’t expect that they will be. Remember, it’s just sticks and stones; let it slide off you. Apply every stress management technique you’ve ever heard of to keep yourself balanced. The good news is that they’ll aim their sights elsewhere soon enough. And if this is something that happened to you in the past and you’re still having angst about it, who’s suffering? You, not them. Let it go.
I sincerely hope you never get burned in this way. If you do or have, please know that there’s nothing wrong with you. They’re just that good at manipulating people in a manner that never occurred to you. Console yourself that you’re wiser now. I promise, you won’t let it happen again.