Perils of the Productive Narcissist

Superstar or Black Hole?

LEAD NOW -June 2013If you’ve been in the workplace for any period of time, you’ve probably encountered someone who fits the description of a Productive Narcissist. In fact, you might have even hired the person yourself, unaware that certain personality traits would turn your star performer into a costly management “black hole.”

What Is A Productive Narcissist?
My definition of a Productive Narcissist, or PN, is someone who, on the one hand, possesses exceptional performance abilities – such as creativity, intellectual firepower or rainmaking prowess – and, on the other, pronounced narcissistic personality traits.

A PN possesses not just one or two of the following traits, but many or all of them.

Common Narcissistic Personality Traits

  • A sense of personal specialness and entitlement
  • Grandiosity and very inflated ego: “Me, me, me.”
  • Constant need for attention and recognition
  • Excessive demands, micromanaging and perfectionism
  • Temperamental or frequent mood swings
  • Lack of empathy for others

Productive Narcissists are often visionary and charismatic individuals who dazzle others with their achievements, charm and promise of future success. This is why they are in such demand: they usually deliver the goods. However, they do so at a very high cost to the organization, its culture, talent pool and enduring bottom line.

PNs can be found anywhere and everywhere that rare talent, creativity and exceptional performance are prized: for example, in business, academia, professional services, the performing arts, sports and public service.

Spotting the Productive Narcissist
PNs can be identified by their consistent pattern of attitudes and behavior over time. For example:

  • They talk about themselves and their accomplishments constantly and in heroic proportions.
  • They regard special privileges, perks and exceptions to standard policies and norms as their right.
  • Their loyalty to the company’s interests lasts only as long as it’s in sync with their own agenda.
  • They have little interest or track record in professionally developing or mentoring others.
  • They may have an erratic employment history, cycling in and out of organizations in two years or less.

Hiring a Productive Narcissist: A Devil’s Bargain
I find that decision makers are usually aware in advance if the star performer they’re looking to hire is a high-maintenance professional. Remember, PNs are A-Players with national and international reputations. However, what often happens is that hiring executives override their better judgment (or that of others in the organization) and rationalize that they can make a PN hire work in their particular instance. For example:

“Yes, he’s difficult but his (client base/creative eye/etc.) is worth the hassle.”
“I’m prepared to spend time coaching her, so she’ll fit into our team and culture.”
“We’ll sweeten his contract so he’ll play well with others.”

In other words, they convince themselves that they can manage the unmanageable.

Why Productive Narcissists Are Unmanageable
Sooner or later the PN’s true personality will assert itself. Here’s why they are unmanageable over the long-term:

  • They don’t believe rules and deadlines apply to them. Rather, they test the limits to assert their specialness.
  • They manipulate and intimidate others, including their bosses.
  • They undo or ignore decisions they don’t like.
  • They thrive on drama and enjoy “stirring the pot.”
  • They threaten to quit when confronted and held accountable.
  • They are poor candidates for coaching since they don’t see their behavior as problematic or in need of change.

High Costs and Organizational Damage
Productive Narcissists suck up huge amounts of management time for hand-holding, firefighting and conflict resolution. Once embedded, they can hold the organization hostage in achieving strategic initiatives or retaining clients or customers. Consider these high costs to performance and reputation:

  • It can be difficult to remove them at critical milestones or junctures.
  • They come with big price tags for severance settlements and litigation costs.
  • Organizational culture is poisoned when their bad behavior is tolerated.
  • Employee morale plummets and turnover increases.
  • Cynicism and distrust of management increases.

“Help, I’m Stuck with a Productive Narcissist”
How do you handle a PN in your midst? Do not look the other way or hope things will magically improve. Instead, apply these three pointers:

  • Act quickly when PNs ignore or violate policies, practices or norms; point out the problem behavior(s) and be specific about expected behaviors going forward.
  • Link performance rewards and recognitions (e.g., commissions, bonuses, promotions) to corporate citizenship behaviors, not just the bottom line and project deliverables.
  • Think containment: Keep that PN in a “walled garden” where she or he can perform brilliantly without wreaking general havoc.

If the above actions prove ineffective, face facts and cut your losses by quickly transitioning the PN out of your organization.

Final Thoughts
Productive Narcissists shine as soloists or when they are fully in charge as an enterprise’s top leader. So it’s not surprising that many PNs are successful entrepreneurs who have channeled their creativity and practical savvy into thriving businesses. If you have your eye on hiring a PN, consider engaging them as a consultant instead. In this way you can benefit from their exceptional talent and expertise while avoiding major management headaches. Now that’s brilliant leadership and execution.

Updated article; originally posted May 2013.

©Susan Battley. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Susan Battley

An advisor to Fortune 100 executives and world-class institutions for more than twenty years, Dr. Susan Battley is an internationally recognized expert on CEO and leadership effectiveness. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, and elite research institutions. She has worked with chief executives, university presidents, Nobel laureates, and prominent scientists, diplomats, and educators. A respected media source for analyzing leadership in the context of news-breaking events and key trends, Battley has been featured in outlets worldwide including CNN, CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg, and National Public Radio, and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chief Executive, Business Week, United Press International, Harvard Management Update, Entrepreneur, Science, Leader to Leader, Investments, and Worth. She is the founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, a leadership strategy and organization effectiveness consultancy.