Perils of the Productive Narcissist, Part 2 – Why Your Star Performer May Be a “Black Hole”

To recap, my definition of a Productive Narcissist (PN) is someone who, on the one hand, possesses exceptional abilities – such as creativity, intellectual firepower or rainmaking prowess – and, on the other, pronounced narcissistic personality traits. PNs are notable for their sense of entitlement, excessive ego, self-absorption and constant need for attention and recognition.

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 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.

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.