A Royal Pain in the Company
Narcissistic workers can be a pox on office morale

Publication: Incentive

August 08, 2007

Shayna Jacobs

Psychologist Rachelle Canter would bet you've encountered at least one office royal. The term refers to what is unfortunately an abundant class of people who are self-absorbed, fearless and happy to use and abuse their coworkers.

While they reign, office royalty can bludgeon the morale of any team, infuriating coworkers and subordinates, and contributing to a loss of productivity - and many stay in their positions long after the staffers they torture. "Even though they're not concerned with other people, they tend to be users, and manage upward relationships well," says Canter, who has conducted research that identifies characteristic traits of workplace royals and the connection between working with such people and incidents of "desk rage." The reality is that if their antics do cost them their jobs, those they leave in their wake will take time to recover from the abuse or from the bad habits learned.

A study released in February by Wharton Business School professor Sigal Barsade entitled, "Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations?" examines the profound effect that dour moods and poor attitudes can impose on a work environment. The paper reports that emotions are "contagious" and that "negative affective expressions can poison organizational cultures, negatively influence perception of leaders, and potentially lead to aggression or violence."

Canter is a consultant to those guilty of royal behavior - many of whom are corporate exec throne-holders - on controlling their tendencies and recognizing the value of coworkers. Some abusers, she says, are uncoachable. She recalls one client whose attitude was too fierce to tame. "She said that she was not the problem," says Canter. "That 'if the firm didn't hire stupid people,' there wouldn't be a problem."

Amy Lyman, a cofounder of The Great Places to Work Institute, which compiles Fortune's annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work For, calls the narcissist workers "bad apples." To make the Great Places list, companies are judged in part by their own employees' evaluations about appeals processes and their accessibility, how complaints are handled and employees' confidence in the fairness of how formal and informal complaints are dealt with. "If they're not dealt with, [bad apples] can have a crippling effect on the workplace," she says.

Lyman recalls a time at a conference when former CEO of Continental Airlines Gordon Bethune was asked, "What do you do with your really smart, really top-quality people when they treat others horribly?"

"You fire them," said Bethune, who later elaborated that he would first work with them to address a possible attitude revision, but that ultimately behavior of that kind would not be tolerated. "His point is that if the way people are treated is an important value in your company, then slacking on it is voiding the entire commitment," Lyman says.

Copyright 2007 Incentive
All Rights Reserved.