Sometimes, you just have to be more direct

When dealing with people who have a high sense of self worth, ranging from arrogance to narcissism, a common attribute is the “all about me” chip they carry around with them. This chip also precludes them from thinking they ever did anything wrong.

I have observed and dealt with a few narcissists in my career, but also many who carry this chip around. In my dealings with others I have tried to be at my diplomatic best. This especially comes in handy when you have to tell a client his or her idea lacks merit. But, what happens when you are dealing with someone who rarely, if ever, thinks he or she did something wrong?

One of our blogging friends Cynthia writes an excellent blog on PTSD and other issues related to dealing with narcissistic people. She offers first hand experience and supportive advice. I commented on a recent post the best way to deal with narcissists is to avoid or limit exposure to them. What makes this approach so valuable is narcissists fail to realize they are the lone constant in all of their negative interactions.

When you do dialogue with a narcissist or arrogant person, an extra dose of tolerance and diplomacy is required. To me, it is a truism the most intolerant of people require the most tolerance of others in dealing with them. But, when people show little acknowledgment or remorse of their shortcomings there are times when you just have to be more direct and dial down the dipllomacy.

When I raised concern with NC legislators about the unconstitutional and “Jim Crow” like nature of a drafted Voter ID bill before it was passed, the author of the legislation wrote me back and ripped me a new one and he did so again after I diplomatically rebutted. I showed them to an attorney friend and his response was it looks like your roles are reversed when reading the tenor of the emails. My final response to this legislator was simple – I am a 54 year-old white man who was raised in the south; you and I both know what this legislation is all about. It should be noted the law was later ruled unconstitutional.

I was dealing with one of the most overbearing leaders of a business unit in a company I worked with. His direct reports followed their leader and tended to be overbearing as well. So, when I interviewed him to get his thoughts on compensation for his staff, I knew I was in for an interesting interview. He held firmly to a practice called stretching out raises – i.e., when budgets are tight, lengthen the time between raises to eighteen or twenty-four months. He was quite vociferous that he could give them same value in raises that he would have given at twelve months. After several minutes of this diatribe, I said “you can If they are still here.” His business had a lot of turnover.

The above are two examples of push back. The common theme is I had done my homework and felt comfortable in offering a response. I knew the Voter ID law was unconstitutional, as the NC Attorney General had written a piece saying those very same words and why. I knew the business leader was experiencing high turnover as I had seen the data..

Yet, it is not that easy to push back, especially on an overbearing person who has trouble acknowledging his or her mistakes. I have used the example before of working with the youngest curmudgeon I have ever met. It was all about him and he would tell you so. When my wife and I invited my work friends to a party, he was fuming out loud to others for me to hear – “I don’t want to go to your stupid party.” My response was direct, “Then, don’t come.”

I will continue to try to wear my Harry Potter “diplomacy cloak” more often than not. Yet, there are times when the cloak needs to be set aside. Note, one needs not be rude to be direct. You do want the message heard or read. Yet, it helps to be armed with facts or a position of strength. As for my curmudgeon friend, I thought the party would be good for him, so when he rudely said he did not want to come, it was no bother and we had a good time without him.

Arrogant and narcissistic people tend to complain. Nothing or no one is ever good enough. Even those on their good side, should not get used to it, as they will at some point misstep in the eyes of the narcissist. That will not change. So, if pushback does not suit your style, the avoidance approach works well. A colleague asked why I did not eat lunch with a known narcissist in our office. My response was simple – “I don’t want to listen to him running people down.” Or, as my friend told me once he got to fifty, he realized he did not want to suffer fools anymore, so he avoided them whenever possible.

12 thoughts on “Sometimes, you just have to be more direct

    • Janis, you are right about narcissists who are attracted to leadership positions. But, we should not make the mistake of confusing ego with narcissism. All leaders have ego, only some are narcissists.

      As for this legislator, he once replied to why he gerrymandered districts to get ten out of 13 districts to be heavy Republican. He said “because we could not figure out how to get eleven.” It should be noted, within eight years of our email correspondence, he had to resign for misuse of campaign funds and settled a court case to avoid prison time. It is a sad tale, but true. Keith

  1. Narcissists come in all shapes ‘n sizes and it seems from my past decades of experience, there is at least one in every work place. One such boss I had sent me a memo to review that he was planning to send to Brian at the corporate offices. I reviewed the memo and corrected his spelling of Brian’s name … he had spelled it “Brain”. Instead of a ‘thank you’, he stormed into my office, furious, and told me to never correct his spelling again. He sent the memo with the spelling error and later that day Brian called me and we had a good chuckle over it.

    • Jill, really? Sending a memo with a known error of the addressee’s name is not only beyond arrogant, it is idiotic and rude. As business people, you and I have spent time making sure we at least spell people’s names correctly. Keith

      • I know! It was the ultimate in disrespect, and Brian was way up the corporate ladder … could have had Tom fired, I imagine. Tom used to take me to lunch when he wanted information. I got along with everyone … all 240 employees in the company … whereas Tom held himself aloof. So, one day he took me to my favourite Mexican restaurant and as soon as we had ordered, he leaned in and said, “Okay, I want you to tell me who in the company is gay.” I nearly fell out of my seat! I knew of at least 5 gay men in the company, but no way in hell was I going to tell him!!!

      • Jill, there is another word more descriptive for the actions of this person than narcissist, but I will keep it clean and just use he is being a jerk. Keith

  2. Note to Readers: Reading the great comments reminds me that narcissists can be found in many walks of life. I have witnessed them in business, politics, religion, non-profits and governments. Greed usually plays a role, arrogance plays a role as does perceived invulnerability. Usually, one of these will be a part of their undoing. Think Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Elliott Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, Enron, Adelphia, Tyco, e.g. On a smaller scale, look at Jill’s very simple example of a very avoidable mistake and how arrogance blinded her boss.

    • Thanks Cindy. One of the best metaphors for the narcisstic former president was him walking alone after a G-21 dinner with no one to sit down with. At last, the fox from Russia invited the gingerbread president over to his table. He knew how to milk a narcissist. Keith

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