When President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement last week, he staged his decision as a live television event, complete with a jazz band in the Rose Garden. His speech, peppered with lies and exaggerations, felt (as so many Trump speeches do) like a campaign speech delivered to a captive audience.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Filmmaker and former reality show producer Jen Heck says this is common behaviour among reality stars. Narcissists “can be good for TV, but are almost always bad for production. Their antics often threaten to derail the show. In fact, they will literally threaten to hold the production hostage when it gets really bad.” In the high-pressure world of TV production, the reality star has a lot of leverage, so sometimes production has to give into their demands. “You can create a monster that way,” says Heck.
Of course, the same can happen in any workplace. What can you do when the person holding a project hostage is the one in charge? I asked Dr Jody Foster, co-author of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work, how to deal with a selfish manager. In short, the answer lies in appealing to their best nature.
What if your boss refuses to sign off on a worthwhile initiative for selfish reasons, like a grudge against someone involved? Dr Foster advises constructively confronting the offender:
As difficult as this may sound, it would be important to clarify for this manager that his refusal is being perceived in this manner. Believe it or not, sometimes people are so caught up in their grudges or selfish motives that they don’t have the self-observational capability to recognise the optics of their actions. Clarifying for the manager that the refusal makes him/her appear petty, selfish or immature could go a long way in getting the manager to consider his/her actions more thoughtfully, especially if the message is delivered with the clear intent to offer helpful feedback.
The Rogue Agent
What if a selfish or narcissistic manager asks you to pursue their priorities over those of the company? Sometimes the matter is out of your hands. But it’s still worth trying to confront your boss directly about the issue — because they might not even notice what they’re doing. You may just need to help them align their goals with the larger organisation’s. Dr Foster says:
There should ideally be a leadership intervention — the manager’s manager — if resources are being directed inappropriately. And, as noted, rewarding effective teamwork to achieve company goals as opposed to individual ones can be key. But once again, too, this is an opportunity to offer helpful feedback to your manager. In not prioritising the larger company’s goals or initiatives, the manager may be limiting his or her capacity for leadership development within the company. By appealing to the manager’s personal leadership goals, the short-sightedness of not working toward the greater good can be elucidated.
As mentioned, people often don’t have the insight or the ability to step back from their actions to truly appreciate how they are being received. Although offering direct feedback to your manager can be intimidating, it may be just the thing to show him or her that you have the best interests at heart and maybe even elevate you to “trusted adviser” status.
The point is to provide some outside perspective. According to Dr Foster, “people often don’t have the insight or the ability to step back from their actions to truly appreciate how they are being received.” All of us can get so caught up in daily pressures that we lose our perspective. When this affects a whole team, it’s important to help each other out.
Addressing the problem can be intimidating, but it can even be an opportunity. “It may be just the thing to show him or her that you have [everyone’s] best interests at heart,” says Dr Foster, “and maybe even elevate you to ‘trusted adviser’ status.”
When to Bail
Of course, some bosses are truly acting in bad faith. “If this is a repeated pattern or consistent with a general theme,” Dr Foster advises, “one might want to consider whether this manager is right for the company.” And if it’s the norm at the organisation, it’s time to look for your own way out. Don’t count on your terrible boss to get themselves kicked out; some of the worst bosses still “fail up” along the hierarchy. And once they reach the top spot, they’re very hard to fire.