Counter-Narcissist Tactics

a unique problem

Over a year ago, I was faced with a challenge: I was the direct supervisor to a narcissist.

I just didn’t know it.

Through not knowing what I was dealing with, problems compounded. Early interactions were amiable enough, but that faded fast. What should have been routine became laced with accusation, flared tempers, and the occasional tantrum. This was a grown man, pouting and screaming.

I was stuck with him. Most who’ve dealt with modern HR departments know it’s difficult (near impossible) to fire someone without an outright incident.

Something was off, though I couldn’t figure it out (I have little formal psych training). It was only through a lot of analysis and research I came to understand the individual I was dealing with. Stumbling upon a chance reference to “Cluster B” personality disorders opened my eyes.

It’s easy to accuse someone of being a narcissist. It’s hard to get it right. Only after I understood the nature of the problem, was a able to adapt and turn the situation around.

Below, I’ll help you build an understanding of narcissists, describe the different approaches that worked, and conclude my own story.

 

building an amateur’s understandings

Again, I’m clearly not a psych therapist. However, I was stuck with this individual and the damage he inflicted on my office was my problem to deal with.

Narcissism Personality Disorder (NPD) is a psychological problem. For this reason, we’ll defer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) for the definition. From the 4th edition, code 301.81:

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. requires excessive admiration
  5. has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  6. is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  7. lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  8. is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  9. shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes”

It’s easy to state the definition, but to truly understand how problematic individuals with the traits above can be will take some explanation. There are three references that expound on the ramifications of dealing with a narcissist:

I must pause here to thank “T” of The Rawness Blog. Without his insight into narcissists’ toxic nature and their unique relationship to shame, my situation would have faired far worse. Take the time to read his work.

This will sound strange now (even considering the definition above): Narcissists do not react to guilt (from a conscience), only shame (of social stigma/reprisal).

This understanding gives us insight into how those with NPD behave:

  • IMAGE is EVERYTHING. They’re obsessed with having the best/being the best. Narcissist’s station in life is never good enough. They are marked for special privilege. Often, you will catch them participating in “the good things in life.” However, they do so because that’s what the believe is expected of them, not for their own enjoyment.
  • Strongly adverse to criticism. NPD sufferers cannot handle the perception that they aren’t perfect in every way. Feedback can set off strong feelings of resentment and potential backlash. If a narcissist works for you, watch out!
  • They’re likeable at first. You form easy connections with them, which makes them hard to spot and more difficult in the long run. These guys have bullet-proof first impressions and are rock stars at job interviews.
  • Their need for public validation compels them to pursue leadership positions. They can quickly catapult into positions to cause real damage.
  • Their natural solipsism will eventually center any conversation around them.  Narcissists are so self absorbed that they are unable of considering viewpoints other than their own.
  • They are either the victor or the victim. Success is their own doing, mistakes are someone else’s. There is no in-between when you’re the center of the world.
  • Lack of empathy mean that they’re opportunistic and willing to exploit others. Naturally, they don’t last long in relationships with healthy individuals, and often leave a trail of wreckage behind them.

Narcissists do not live in reality. Their world centers on them and there is little room for others in it. They have no issue destroying you or your organization to maintain their self image.

None of this is to say that narcissists are incompetent. In fact, they may highly capable in numerous areas.

However, the combination of social suave (as evinced by their first impressions) and outright hostility to criticism & accountability make them dangerous.

Any action they perceive as negatively impacting their public reputation will be met with sudden, intense resistance. This can be a problem if you’re their supervisor (or peer) where feedback is a natural part of the relationship.

 

now, what to do

The following list are the lessons and observations I made while dealing with my own troublemaker.

  1. Don’t invite one in. This isn’t possible in all situations, but give yourself time to feel out those around you.
  2. Adjust expectations — you aren’t going to fix them. NPD goes far and deep. Individuals with it can’t be reasoned with, and frequently are unaware of their own narcissism.
  3. Minimize exposure. This is crucial. This may mean “promoting” them into positions where they are not responsible for others. At the minimum, limit your own interactions with the individual.
  4. Catch performance coaching in a guise of mild praise. Softening feedback isn’t out of order if it means keeping the peace. However, don’t use deference. Again, you aren’t going to fix these individuals (See #2), but you can make them more receptive to your feedback.
  5. Spin the situation so that they look good doing what you want. These guys obsesses over being the hero. Give it to them and smile as they jump through hoops doing your bidding.
  6. Appeal to self interest, never empathy. Related to #5, make sure they know what’s in it for them. Not only is appealing to their empathy useless, it can telegraph vulnerabilities they will seek to exploit.
  7. Outlast them. The nature of narcissists makes them ticking time bombs. Often, you only need to minimize your exposure, and they’ll take themselves out. In the mean time, you should be cataloguing their actions and building a case for HR to kick his ass to the curb.
  8. Shame and ostracism. This is a last resort. It puts all your cards on the table, so don’t do it to satisfy your own ego. When the situation calls for it, level them by turning public opinion against them. This is the most powerful leverage you have against a narcissist. Do not insult them directly, rather offer up their actions for public scrutiny.

You can see these in play in the conclusion of my own encounter…

 

epilogue

My own narcissist exited the picture spectacularly.

Dealing with an individual that you’ve promoted to a position of influence can always be tricky. Obviously, I’d already failed to employ Tactic #1. However, I did have leeway in what function he was fulfilling within my office, and minimize the exposure of my organization to him.

Thankfully, I had a valid opening for a position that was technically a “promotion,” but without any one working for him. When it comes to a narcissist, that was as good as it gets. This judo move denied him the anger of any perceived insult, but contained his sphere of influence (Tactics #3 & 5).

This did not mean that the problem had been dealt with. As with any of my subordinates, I kept a journal of their performance (both good and bad). Eventually, my narcissist got complacent and slacked off on his efforts. When counseled and confronted with a written account of his performance (something I’m legally mandated to do), he decided to so in kind. It wasn’t that he received a negative evaluation (Tactic #4), rather it wasn’t as positive as he anticipated. He assembled, on paper, a litany of personality flaws and alleged transgressions to counsel me.

If that wasn’t enough, he was critical of both myself and higher leadership, and made sure I knew this — in writing. This lack of self awareness on his part wasn’t sufficient to fire him (nor should it have been), but it was enough to stop his advancement within the organization.

As I mentioned before, narcissists often leave a trail of wreckage. Unbeknownst to me, missteps and opportunism in his personal life got him investigated by two government agencies, who had reached out to our leadership. At the same time, his contract was up for renewal. Due to his own actions, our organization’s leadership had no incentive to keep him around.

Over a decade into his career, he suddenly didn’t have one.

Theory Comes Later: The Guide to Doing Anything

I’m a firm believer that I can do anything, just not everything. My time is too limited not take action. In fact, I’ve learned that planning and researching can be harmful at the wrong stages. Over years of learning new hobbies and skills, I’ve developed a few guidelines I live by. The recommendations below I apply to myself. They’ve been tested and refined. I challenge you to help build upon them.

Do Anything, in 3 easy steps:

  1. Only do enough research to not die in the first attempt.
  2. Iterate and refine.
  3. Teach.

Sounds simple, right?

Step 1: Only do enough research to not die in the first attempt.

Once you decide to do something, try your hand at it as fast as possible.

This is something I’ve learned from relentless builders and innovators — people who experiment and prototype relentlessly. Your first attempt is just that: an experiment.

The goal is to break the seal.

Even if your first attempt is a dismal failure, you’ve learned something and you’re in the mode of action. In fact, you probably know exactly how to succeed in your second attempt.

Now, to expedite the process, it’s usually easier to break it down into the most simple form of what you’re trying to do: the most minimal investment (time and money) to get real results. This may involve settling for less than your grand plan (for the moment) by making it smaller, leaving parts out or using blatant shortcuts.

It doesn’t matter. Prototype. Experiment. Test it.

Libraries of forum debates would die if partisans only tested their theories against the real world. Lots of little experiments can be completed quickly. Little successes become big ones. Buy the right tool, if you need to.

However, I do have one rule — buy the cheapest product that meets your known needs. This is especially important when you have cash to burn. Even if you upgrade quickly, this item will be a backup (adding redundancy to your system). It also makes a great gift to jumpstart a buddy’s setup.

I did this recently.

I come from an area once known for its hard cider, and figured that I wanted to try some myself. It was easy to get side tracked — brewers know their stuff and can get really in the weeds. Since this was my first attempt at brewing anything, I went for the minimal approach.

Turns out, you can make hard cider from a $4 jug of cider, a 60 cent pack of yeast, and a spare balloon.

Now, I’m classed as a visual learner, but there were just things that didn’t make sense until I actually tried my hand at it. Maybe that whole “maker movement” is on to something. Three weeks later, I can tell you that the experiment was a success (and a tasty one too). I’ve already got plans for the next batch, an understanding of the process, and ideas to improve my system.

Step 2: Iterate and refine  your focus

Like I said, after your first attempt, you’ll have a good idea of what needs to happen. Try it. Few things are more exciting than those initial successes.

Chase variety — more than you think is necessary at this point. Improvement comes rapidly in the beginning. As you’re building your intuition, motorpaths, and portfolio of successes, you’re going to hear more theories and develop your own.

Put theories to the test. It’s easy to debate concepts, but hard to deny results. This lets you spot gimmicks and uncover nuances that weren’t covered before. You’ll also discover that things can work, but not for any explainable reason. That’s fine; theory comes later. Plateaus will happen; They come with any skill set one you’ve exhausted the low hanging fruit.

This is the time to research and plan. Commit yourself to a regimen, but be specific in what you’re trying to do. Systematically adding or removing a component can also be beneficial.

The goal here is to uncover the nonobvious correlations. This can be a painful process. Sometimes, we have blind spots or preconceived notions holding us back. These are difficult to spot and overcome.

Having a mentor or team at this stage is essential to your progress. Honest feedback is the only way to learn what you don’t know even exists. Likely, changes won’t come overnight (even once you’re aware of the problem). Knowing what you’re trying to do, follow what works!

Drop your ideology for a moment. Go with what brings you closer to your goals. If what you’re doing isn’t brining you closer to what you want — it’s time for a change. As you do this, you’ll slowly remedy what’s been holding you back. Your skillset will evolve, processes will get more complex, and your awareness will grow.

Sacrifice in the short term to benefit in the long run. Being systematic and focusing on progress over a longer period will help you break that plateau. When you do commit to a program, commit to it fully. No tweaks, no refinements, and no “improvements.” Follow the program as its architect designed it.

You’ll be amazed at what you learn following a different protocol for a time. You’re still experimenting at this stage, but you investment is increasing. Time spans will expand to 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months.

In Pareto terms, this is the 80% of the effort to take you the last 20%. This is also the point that puts you in a different class within your skill or area of interest.

As a avid powerlifter, you might think that I don’t care for endurance sports, CrossFit, or yoga. You’d be right — but that’s not saying that they don’t have their place. In fact, I did CrossFit and endurance running for years. They exposed me to a lot of different methodologies, and I recommend both to novice fitness enthusiasts for just that reason (with a few choice warnings). However, I learned that I really enjoyed being strong. Ripptoe’s Starting Strength was my bread and butter for years. That led me to Wendler’s 5/3/1.  In fact, I initially felt I wasn’t making progress on the 5/3/1 program. However, it’s hard to argue with a strict OHP of 215 lbs at a body weight of only 205, a personal best on my weakest lift. The program worked. I just had to follow it as Wendler intended and put in the work.

Step 3: Teach (or try to)

When you feel you’ve truly taken yourself to an advanced level, try to teach what you know.

First thing you’ll notice is that you don’t know as much as you think.

Second, you’ll notice that you lack the vocabulary to explain what you do know.

Training others is a skill in itself. In assisting others, you’ll discover handicaps and considerations that you never had to deal with. Your awareness is going to grow again, and (more importantly) you’ll solidify your knowledge.

Just check out Rollo’s blog. He’s been dealing with women in every aspect of his life for years — and been paying attention. Rollo’s been a practitioner for years, and now he’s laying out the theory. His work has helped me sidestep problems before they ever existed, yet he’s still uncovering and expounding on nuances.

Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see how he has so much he wants to share yet grapples to get it out effectively. I know I’m better for his efforts.

Finding most leadership information useless (gametalk in ribbonfarm parlance) and wanting to take my own awareness further, I started my blog. It’s been kicking my ass, but that’s part of the process.

Finally, Speak with authority. You’ve put in the effort. In fact, your biggest challenge will be in getting others to do the work.

After all, it’s a long road.

Understanding Hierarchy

 

Much has been said of hierarchies in the past, yet few ever mention their value or pause to contemplate their universality.

I believe their ubiquity suggests their utility. Rather than a means of enforcing order, they allow one to overcome individual limitations. No matter how good, strong, or intelligent you may be — you are finite. There are only so many hours in the day and days in your life. There are skills you may never master or tasks too cumbersome to tackle alone. You need help.

Therein lies the value of leadership.

The multitude of skills required to enlist someone to your cause, communicate instructions, and see a task through to completion are the focus here. However, even beyond manual and skilled labor, you have a finite capacity. Your working space memory is only so large and your means of observation is so limited that adding other eyes and brains to the equation makes sense.

A note on working memory: it’s critical to you problem solving ability. Trying to handle too many tasks or direct multiple people at once will handicap your ability to think ahead or react to circumstances. Some studies suggest that the human brain can only handle about four to seven items at a time. However, you can overcome this by “chunking.” You can apply this approach to your organization too. Talking to 3 people who are responsible for leading 3 others can reduce your burden and improve your ability to react to circumstances.

Especially when those circumstances are prone to rapid shifts, you can not afford to be the sole source of control. You must select and equip intermediaries or else the effort is doomed to failure.

That is why hierarchies exist. They may not be useful in all situations or organizations, but they are essential to the rest.

An inherent problem with and organizational structure is the more layers you are from the actual work being done, the harder it is to know what’s going on. The larger your organization, the less you know. This is called “abstraction.” If you’ve ever played the kids’ game of “telephone,” you’ve experienced the fun that’s possible with being too far removed from the source. There are specific ways to counter abstraction which we’ll cover in a future post.

Introversion and Leadership

the-wild-one

Definition

Introverts are having an awakening right now.

There are several definitions of introversion are competing for dominance, and this skews the percentage of introverts between studies. However, we can say that we are a minority – most studies put us around 20-40% of the population. [Note that the popular Myers-Briggs is graded so that 50% of the population is “introverted.”] Recent research points toward a reliance on a different pathway in the brain from extroverts.

Anyone can look up the definition in the dictionary: “a person characterized by concern primarily with his or her own thoughts and feelings.” Well that’s useful.

The more interesting description is introverts have a lot going on in their heads and don’t require excessive external stimuli. Too much social interaction leave introverts drained, but it doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. In fact, most of us have spent our entire lives discovering ways to cope.

The best, concise definition I’ve found comes from Dr. Marti Laney’s The Introvert’s Advantage:

The strongest distinguishing characteristic of introverts is their energy source: Introverts draw energy from their internal world of ideas, emotions, and impressions. They are energy conservers.”

She explains why this matters:

They can be easily overstimulated by the external world, experiencing the uncomfortable feeling of ‘too much.’ This can feel like antsyness or torpor. In either case, they need to limit their social experiences so they don’t get drained.”

Introverts are most easily defined as those who seek solitude, to be alone. It’s not because we’re anti-social, it’s because we need to. It’s different from shyness or being withdrawn or pathology.

What’s even more interesting is the growing body of research that provides a basis for the introversion-extraversion divide. One study found a correlation between blood flow to different parts of the brain in extraverts and introverts. Another study of twins found a genetic basis for the temperament.

The introvert brain has a higher level of internal activity and thinking than the extroverted brain. It is dominated by the long, slow acetylcholine pathway. Acetylcholine also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system that controls certain body functions and influences how introverts behave.”

 

The Acetylcholine Pathway is literally longer. You can see the path it takes through the brain in these scans from The Introvert Advantage:

[Hat tip: Musings on Mormonism]

 

The different pathways in the brain have shape the external behaviors of both extraverts and introverts.

 

Outward signs — introverts may:

  • Shun crowds and parties
  • Think before they speak and look before they leap
  • Lose sight of what others are doing
  • Have muted facial expressions
  • Get agitated without downtime
  • Focus eye contact away when speaking, and then hold eye contact when listening
  • Surprise others with their wealth of information
  • Appear glazed, dazed, or zoned out when stressed, tired, or in groups
  • Can forget things they know very well—might stumble around when explaining their job or temporarily forget a word they want to use
  • May think they told you something, but had only thought about telling you it
  • Observe before joining the fun
  • Have a strong sense of personal space and demand for privacy

 

So… why does any of this matter?

In understanding introversion, you can make informed choices about introverts. Even if you’re not an introvert yourself, we exist in your family and in your workplace. Knowing about us raises your emotional intelligence.

If you are an introvert, then you can make choices that play to your strengths and meet your unique requirements.

 

Introversion & Leadership

Contrary to what you may have heard introverts are capable and effective leaders. Extraverts can be their own worst enemies. However, we operate under our own dynamic – balancing our own requirement for solitude with jobs of frequent interaction.

All of this relies on using introverted tendencies rather than overcoming them.

If we want to stay in the game, we can’t change the cards we’re dealt. We can change how we play them.

When I started understanding what it meant to be an introvert, I understood what I needed to manage. An added bonus, I was able to anticipate the needs of extraverted peers and coworkers.

Below are a list of strengths introverts possess followed by strategies and tactics to make use of our nature.

Strengths

1. Introverts possess strong observational skills. With our sensitivity to stimulation, we have to be. It clues us in to details that others miss. Don’t forget to listen; it’s your biggest advantage.

You’ll benefit from the perspectives of others, spot trends, and compare them to your own observations – which get you closer to your goals. The fact that your brain is constantly processing your surroundings, updating & comparing it to your memory has its own advantages.

2. Introverts think deeply. We don’t have a choice. The acetylcholine pathway routes through regions responsible for speech, long-term memory, and planning. It means we speak and react slower, but process more information any given time. We think before we act. That extra time allows us to cut to the root of an issue. It means we spot problems before they happen, and have an edge in finding elegant solutions to even the most complex problems.

Granted, this isn’t ideal for all leadership situations. It means that outside of acting in the moment, extraverts will always be at the disadvantage.

3. Introverts are focused. When every interaction is a drain, you get good at prioritizing. Introverts are notorious for their ability to avoid distractions. Combined with a natural tendency to seek depth (rather than breadth) of information, we collect skills and master subjects. We also gravitate towards substance over style. Introverts are where fluff goes to die.

4. Introverts take deliberate action. We’re masters of calculated risks and enduring challenges. Introverts tend to be selective in their efforts, but once convinced on the best course of action, they stay the course. Our reserved demeanor gives the appearance of calm in stressful situations, an appealing trait to others (We may in fact be stressing, but we prefer not to exacerbate problems by letting the world know).

[Inspired by The Mojo Company]

Strategies

Below are five strategies that will enable you to leverage the strengths of your personality. Remember — you are not an extravert, so don’t try to be one.

  1. Be a better introvert. It’s Sophia Dembling’s “Introversion 3.0.” Mimicking extraverts means that you’re competing on a compromised footing. This is the single, hardest lesson to learn. Pretend to be an extravert and you’ll come off as an inauthentic knock-off, and be drained to boot. Extraversion isn’t the answer. You may not be able to choose your level of introversion, but you can make intelligent choices on how you handle it. We are different, and that’s a good thing.
    • Condition others to your silence. Extraverts that are used to you “acting extraverted” have a different baseline for your behavior. That means that if you’re having a rough day and looking to escape, they’re likely to attempt to cheer you up and draw you “out of your shell” because they don’t grasp what’s going on. Mystique is sexy. Make it work for you. You don’t have to answer every question, or hog the spotlight. You are different, so be different. When you successfully pull this off, others will allow you small moments to yourself even if you can’t get away physically.
    • Give yourself space. Recognize your need for downtime. Make it a priority. Turn off the radio, close your browser, and put your cellphone in your pocket. Meditate if you have to. We’re talking about real downtime. It’s in those quite moments that we get ahead. Use them to order your thoughts, de-stress, and plan ahead.
    • Selective masking. “Playing extravert” is like a jet’s afterburners for us. It’s a short-term solution, not a long-term proposition. It’s a useful skill under the right circumstances: giving a presentation or establishing first impressions. Use it judiciously.
  1. Stop explaining introversion. No, really: Stop sending out the Jonathan Rauch article. “Introversion” is a term fraught with misunderstanding. Wait until someone compliments you on one of your strengths – that’s the time to educate them.
  2. Be engaged. Learning about introversion means, by extension, you’re learning about extraverts too. Extraverts perceive some introverts as self-absorbed space cadets. You can influence their perception of you.
    • Give others all your attention. When someone approaches your desk or engages you in conversation, give that person your full attention. No typing, texting, or daydreaming — that person deserves your unfiltered focus. Keep the conversation short, on-track, and your priority for that moment in time. If you don’t have the time at that exact moment, make it clear that you’ll follow up with them with your full attention.
    • Pick your downtime. If you know you’re walking into a big meeting or social hour, allot yourself time before and after to recharge alone. This isn’t always possible, but a boost when you make an effort.
    • Prepare. As an introvert, you need more time to process, sort, and internalize information. You will also need more time to decide on a course of action. Why not give yourself the advantage by using downtime to get ahead? Review information, brainstorm multiple plans, and know what you need to ask before your next meeting even starts. That way, you’re the one driving the meeting and not the one playing catch up.
    • [Bonus] Test out Olivia Fox Cabane’s Three “Instant Charisma” Boosts: Lower the intonation of your voice at the end of your sentences, reduce how quickly and how often you nod, and pause for two full seconds before you speak.
  3. Build relationships. This might be scary for most introverts, but relationships (as draining as they might be) are the backbone of any team or office. You have every incentive to build strong relationships. This sounds daunting at first. Strengthening becomes easier when you realize that building a team allows you to compensate for shortcomings of any individual (including your own). It takes one person at a time. Besides, we thrive in one-on-one interaction.
    • Pet extraverts. Keeping an extravert close to make connections for us and handle random interactions is an old survival trick for parties. The same can be done in the workforce. Teaming up with an extraverted partner enables both of you to excel. Extraverts can spend hours on red herrings and are easily frustrated when progress slows. You’re different. Pairing with you means they waste less time on trivialities and wrapping up loose ends. They’re your social screen and you keep the focus on the bigger picture.
    • Outsider’s perspective. Introverts no that they’re not the majority. It’s something they’ve been reminded of for most of their lives. This is a gift. Introverts can look past distractions to determine the value and strengths of a team member.
  • Use small talk as a tool. Small talk, the bane of introverts’ existence, isn’t something we’re naturals at. However, it’s a skill that is worth developing. Small talk can be used to put someone at ease, get a feel for their personality, or detect shifts in mood that may suggest a problem. It’s a tool; making the effort opens new doors. Over time, you’ll have a database in your head of past interaction to reference, you’ll have more clues to spot trends, and it will get easier (draining you less).
  • Build teams. Just as you might pick an extravert to be your right-hand man, you can bring together teams that are well-rounded or have the skills and traits specific to the job. What might be an island of misfit toys to others, is in fact a crafted team that’s uniquely equipped to finish the job. Knowing your own shortcoming, on the personal or organizational levels, allows you to bring onboard (or get rid of) people who can fill those gaps. First, you’ve got to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and those of others.
  1. Improve tolerance levels. As I’ve said before, leadership is a skill. When you’re starting out, everything takes too much effort. Over time, you’ll get more efficient. You’ll know your own endurance, and can plan around it. Interactions will drain you less. The drain won’t go away any more than gravity, but like hitting the weights, it’ll get easier with time. Below are three of what I call “Social Calibrations” (SoCals) that are interesting experiments in themselves, but also help overcome the anxieties of social interactions:
      1. The Staring Contest: For one day, you’re going to keep and hold eye contact with everyone you meet. Yes, you can blink. No, you can’t look away. You’re going to be uncomfortable, but you’ll get through it. And that’s the whole point – overcoming your anxiety. Keep a soft focus, a warm expression on your face. Be playful, inquisitive, or stern (just not creepy). When you’re doing this, pay attention to people’s reactions and your own. You’ll learn to spot cues of discomfort in others that you can allay or leverage depending on the situation. You also build an understanding of your own emotions and how to handle them.
      2. World’s Biggest Gorilla: On another day, you’re going to own your personal space like an Alpha. Your goal is to get others to move out of your way. You can be polite, patient, or ruthless, but you won’t budge. In your mind, you’re an 800-lb gorilla. You portray an air of dominance, take up more room than you need, and you look others directly in the eye. Wherever you are, that’s your space. Keeping experimenting – change your posture, your stride, your expressions. Again, watch the reaction of others. Do they treat you differently? How do you feel during the experiment? Is this something you could use to give yourself space? [Hat tip: The Charisma Myth]

Get the Basics Right First

Getting the basics right is the first step. Everything else is a bonus.

Skeletons in the Desert

Visiting family in (pre-riots) Cairo, I noticed something odd.

Along one wall of the bathroom stood a pedestal capped by an oversized bowl. A glass plate extended from the wall and orbited above the sink. With a lift of the chrome handle, water ran down the plate’s teal face and into the mediterranean-blue sink. In contrast to the breathing antique that is Cairo, here was something modern, unblemished.

The opposite wall told a different story. The builder hadn’t bothered to square the tile before laying it down. As a result, an ever-widening gap ran down the side of the wall. To hide his error, the builder had layered caulk in the seem, but gave up halfway.

Four inches of sealant covered the spot where he stopped.

The warped focus rendered the entire scene gaudy. Middle Eastern construction is notorious. Everywhere I went, the craftsmanship was terrible, but that wasn’t the odd part.

The odd part was that elaborate set pieces were bolted into decaying concrete and crooked trim offset ornate accents. The family bathroom was an example of this, and a bus ride to AUC revealed more.

For an miles through the desert, deserted husks lined the highway. One after another, signs promising a grand opening of grand buildings stood next to vacant buildings, mocking the hubris of their builders.

The vanity of a few consumed the money, time, and energy, leaving skeletons in the desert. Egypt is a poor country — and it’s shameful to have lost still more. It’s the hazard of having the wrong focus, chasing the wrong priorities.

Much of what I saw revolved around vanity, projecting the perception of wealth. The thing about “perception and reality” is that reality will leave its mark if you neglected.

How does this apply to our ongoing discussion on leadership?

Keep It Simple, Stupid (Duh!)

Much of leadership literature is repackaged self-help. This is the wrong focus.

Really, it seems obvious now, but so many don’t see it. So, start small.

Focus on getting the job done right, and build from there. I can’t say this any other way.

 

How to Bridge the Communications Gap

One of the biggest challenges (in fact, the challenge) is getting out of your own head into those of others’.

“Communicating with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them. If they don’t understand, then you are not communicating regardless of words, pictures, or anything else. People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means that you must get within their experience.  Further, communication is a two-way process. If you try to get your ideas across to others without paying attention to what they have to say to you, you can forget about the whole thing.” -Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky, a polemic names in American history, was known for his ability to mobilize whole communities in protest. Whatever your opinion of him, he had insights and experience into connecting with human emotion.

His point that experience and understanding are linked is powerful insight.

In discussing the Cold War, it is often asked why so many missed the mark on the internal state of the Soviet Union. A common remark is that Western Societies assumed that Soviet Leadership saw the world the same way they did.

This is called the Mirror Fallacy — assuming everyone else sees the world the way we do.

To overcome this error (and bridge the gap in communication) you must understand how the other person views their world and talk from their perspective.

The more I travel, read, and talk to people, the more I learn that my view isn’t the only one. Someone’s worldview, personality, culture, experience, education, upbringing, and values can all influence understanding.  The list is endless.

Understanding the difference between you and another person is the first step. Comprehending differences is limited only by your powers of observation, experiences, education, and self-awareness.

Once you can comprehend that there is a difference, your ability to overcome it relies on creativity and practice.

You must cross bridge between you and talk from they’re end. To speak from your perspective is to not communicate at all.

So, get out there and learn how your boss and your employees see the world. You’ll be a better communicator if you do.

“Since people understand only in terms of their own experience, an organizer must have at least cursory familiarity with their experience. It not only serves communication but it strengthens the personal identification of the organizer with the others, and facilitates further communication.” -Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

Resources to open your eyes:
1. Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. Don’t understand why people hold the political views they do? Sowell’s book is for you. He’s able to breakdown the worldviews that contributes to fundamentally different understanding how humans work. The text is also a Cliffnotes of political thought since the Greeks.

2. David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me II. Kiersey’s system is a derivative of the MBTI. You can take the assessment here (it’s free), and read about the different types here. The book’s value is its explanations of how different types interact.

3. Travel. The more you see, the more your preconceived notions shake loose. The irony is the more people you meet, the more you see that we’re the same.

When Confidence is Lethal

There’s a mentality in most alleged “leadership” books that I’ve never understood. I want to make things happen, to build and create. Along the way, I realized that I often needed extra help to meet my goals.

I met my goals because I was able to lead. Leadership matters, but only because people matter.

This view isn’t shared in much of the industry. Consider the fact that “leadership” has become a euphemism for “self-help” and “inspiration.” Much of the content is focused on looking good. However, looking good and doing good are not the same.

That is the most dangerous component of confidence — it distracts from reality. The focus on charisma, inspiration, and self-fulfillment puts the focus on ourselves and distracts from where it belongs: other people.

In effect, we become barriers to our own goals. Overconfidence leads to missed details, mistakes. Despite the line you’ve been sold, confidence does not lead to success. In fact recent evidence points to the contrary: less confident people actually do better.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be confident. I’m saying that you should scrutinize why you’re confident. Confidence comes later — it’s by-product of making the right choices. I have to thank

mariakonnikova.com

Maria Konnikova in her book Mastermind for this wonderful insight:

“In that realization — oftentimes it is best not to trust your own judgement — lies the key to improving your judgement to the point where it can in fact be trusted.”

In fact, I find myself frequently referencing Mastermind. The subject — Sherlock Holmes — is really a cover for taking a tour of psychology from perception and judgement to intuition and deduction. Pick up your own copy, even if it’s just for the reference section.

If you find yourself thinking that everything you do is great — stop. Chances are you’ve missed something. That doesn’t mean that you’re neurotic either, but  check your perceptions against reality. There’s a fine line between knowing that you can accomplish something, and thinking you’re perfect.

It’s about getting the facts so that you can make smarter decisions.

So stop worrying about being confident, worry about making the right choices. Follow Kipling’s lead and treat the imposters, “Triumph and Disaster,” just the same.

Take your ego out of the situation, and focus on your goals. Focus on your people. Focus on what they’re telling you. Focus on moving your team closer to success, and let confidence come from the success once you’ve achieved it.

My generation is one drowning in Narcissism. And soon, we’ll be paying the price for it as we feel better about producing less. Overconfidence leads to apathy and delusion. Neither will help you meet your goals.

It means short-term success, but with long-term failure. Inflated expectations will ultimately cause depression and anxiety when fantasy and reality collide.

As Twenge points out: “In the long-term, what tends to happen is that narcissistic people mess up their relationships, at home and at work.” What more is leadership than relationships? [Hat-tip: William Kremer. He even wrote on another one of my pet peeves:  open-offices]

In fact, if you want confidence, build it in your followers and peers. Let them know that you hear what they’re saying, that their opinions have value, and that you’ll act on their ideas. That’s leadership.

Required reading:

Brendan Barker’s Posts — Fuck the Accolades. Seek the Criticism. Brendan’s beautifully profane post on getting feedback that makes you questions, refine, and improve. Read it now.

8 Reasons Why Robots Deserve YOUR Job

There’s been a flood of press recently regarding skynet’s first wave: American jobs. For every Henrik Christensen (Robots Are Not Killing Jobs, Says a Roboticist) there’s a dozen authors taking it personally. Can you blame them?  Reporters, store clerks, and fabricators are facing competition.

But why are employers seeking out alternative sources of employees? It must be something extreme, so I started thinking. Before long, I compiled a few reason why the toasters should replace you.

  1. They’re never late. Really, you can’t compete on this one. Robots are there 24 hours a day, making sure the job gets done. They don’t take smoke breaks, flat tires will never delay them (though I do wonder about Google’s driverless car), and they don’t get bored after a few hours on the job. The little down time required for preventive maintenance, checks, and servicing doesn’t come close to the 8 hours a night you require.
  2. They’ll never need to be bailed out of county, need time off to settle a divorce, or harass their coworkers. I write a lot about leadership, but on some days, people’s quirks, lifestyle choices, and problems just get old. And yes, I’ve had to deal with all three of these issues. There are great people out there; however, the bottom 10% usually conspires to eat the time the top deserves.
  3. They’ll never ask for a raise. Humans are incredibly expensive. In fact, you cost your company more than you’re paid (Why a $14/hour employee costs $20, and note the article predates the 2013 tax hike).  Industrial robotics are prohibitively expensive, but that’s the whole point behind Rethink Robotics’ Baxter. But enough about the  cybermen, let’s talk about you.
  4. You’re not living up to your potential. Seriously, flipping burgers? You knew this day was coming. You could be out there engaging people (those still with jobs at least), inventing something new, or bettering yourself. Nah, you’re out there becoming another obesity statistic and  further contributing to health care expenses.
  5. Your work is sloppy. Really, it’s not fair that you’re human. Between machine learning and the predictable, repeatable performance of robots, you’re old news. Plus, you smell.
  6. You’re doing work that’s replaceable. See #4.
  7. You’re not producing enough value. Not all jobs can be replaced my machines (yet), but why aren’t you doing one of those. Seriously, you’re squandering the incredible products of a lifetime: intuition, passion, training and experience. Remember #3? Read it again. If you really want a job, you’ll figure out how to generate more value than you’re sucking out of a business.
  8. Times change, and you’re not staying out in front. There’s a long and storied history of chess players fighting the machines. They got their asses handed to them, what makes you so special? We’re not doing the same jobs our grandparents did. Maybe it’s time you adjusted to the facts that the face of American jobs are changing, as they always have. For all these reasons, robots are on the rise.

Damn, it’s about time your job was terminated.

Where’s the Value in Leadership?

Screwing it all up (and not even knowing)!

Recently, I’ve caught myself thinking of all the missteps along my own path. If I could spare you half the knocks I took, then I’ve done my job. In the beginning, I was naive. Oh, so naive. If I did the right thing and sounded confident, people would listen right? Maybe if I was loud and sounded important they’d do what I said.

What was right? According to who? It doesn’t matter how confident you sound when you’re speeding down the wrong path. And that was exactly the direction I was going. I was ignored, scoffed at, laughed at, and eventually tackled. Yes, a peer unceremoniously decked me. I was BAD, but I learned fast. It was only years later that I realize the slow shift in my own mind that corrected my course.

Since then, I’ve come a long way. If you met me now, you’d never believe those things unless I told you.

      [Discussion: Got your own missteps? Share them in the comments!]

A Complex Problem

When you’re in a position of authority, you have to walk a tight rope. You’re responsible for getting something done. Depending on how much authority, that could be a very long list. One thing never changes — you probably need help to accomplish that to-do list.

That, in a nutshell, is my definition of leadership: Leadership is accomplishing a task, with and through others. The details on how you go about this can fill a library. Enough is published on the subject to fill that library annually.

Take a moment and meditate on what I didn’t say:

  • Leadership is not a loud voice.
  • It isn’t popularity.
  • It isn’t brains.
  • It isn’t your ego.

It’s getting things done — and doing it through people.

Here’s the thing about people: they’re complex. They have needs, they’re picky, and prone to mistakes. They’re also generous, intelligent, and the work they produce will humble you if you only give them the chance. You need those people (even with all their problems and inconveniences).

Leadership isn’t a simple process. If it was, maybe we’d kill less trees every year.

      [Discussion: What isn't leadership in your mind? Bonus points for a good story to back it up]

A New Mindset

The first step down the road to becoming a leader is a change in mindset. The goal of a leader isn’t any different from anyone else: It’s to finish the job.

The difference is that people are essential to the leader’s goal. People are the leader’s focus, because without them, he’s lost.

Becoming a better leader means that your world more and more revolves around those you lead. Little steps along the way help you:

  • The better you speak, the less they misunderstand
  • The better you listen, the more problems you catch
  • The better you make decisions, the more problems you never have to deal with
  • The better you understand people, the more you are able to motivate them

The leader’s job is people. There is simply no other way to say it. They are not essential to your task, they are your task. Without them, you are nothing. The better you are as a leader, the better you can lead them to your goal.

What course are you on?

My challenge is to you is to get off your ass and pick one of the following:

  1. Speaking challenge: Brush up on you public speaking skills today. Talk in front of a group no smaller than 5 people.
  2. Listening challenge: Hold a 1-on-1 conversation with someone and practice intense listening. Wait 2-seconds before speaking.
Post your results and thoughts to the comments!

What They Can’t Teach You About Leadership

what-they-cant-teach-you-about-leadership2

“Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.” — Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth

A Broken Industry
Walking through the leadership & management section of my local bookstore, it hit me — something was missing.If leadership is a skill to be developed, why do we meditate on CEOs and Presidents? It seems a bit like wanting to learn basketball by reading about Michael Jordan, but never stepping on the court. Can we learn the violin from Yo-Yo Ma without ever touching the instrument? That would be absurd.

Don’t get me wrong, those books serve an important service — inspiration. That’s not skill development. If leadership is a skill, then treat it as something to be developed.

It takes time and effort, but there are steps you can take towards improvement.The simple fact is that you can’t be told how to be a leader. You need to practice it.

I’m not alone on this point. Most of us whose lives depend on our ability to lead have come to this conclusion. This opinion is echoed in The #1 Reason Leadership Development Fails by Mike Myatt, and The Management Myth by Matthew Stewart.

Myatt points out that the “leadership training” business is a $170 Billion industry that’s broken and has been for years. A major shift in mindset is needed:

“My problem with training is it presumes the need for indoctrination on systems, processes and techniques. Moreover, training assumes that said systems, processes and techniques are the right way to do things. When a trainer refers to something as “best practices” you can with great certitude rest assured that’s not the case. Training focuses on best practices, while development focuses on next practices.” [emphasis added]

How can you not love that last line? Perhaps you’re wondering how you can focus on “next practices.” It’s only possible by applying yourself to the craft. It’s not something to be taught. It’s to be learned.Like a good sports coach or music teacher, you have to encourage, critique, and refine the talent in your organizations.

To develop yourself, you need to get out there and put your ideas into practice. Get your own skin in the game and you’ll find out what works & what doesn’t — fast.

So why do so many think that another book or speech is going help? Perhaps they don’t realize there is another way.

The alternative is a long-term commitment to developing leadership as a skill.

If — by some miracle of digital hermitage — you haven’t heard about Malcolm Gladwell, his magical “10,000-hour rule,” or the old yarn about musicians and hours practiced, then you can get caught up here. And why that isn’t the whole picture here. However, the point remains that putting in the hours of deliberate practice will assist you in reaching your goal.

My challenge to you is to start your road to developing as a leader today.

Further Reading:

(1) The #1 Reason Leadership Development Fails by Mike Myatt. Mike contrasts the current apporach of training to his alternative: leadership development. In fact, check out his blog on N2Growth.com. Terrible name, great content.

(2) The Management Myth by Matthew Stewart. Matthew turned to writing in order to atone for his past life as a management consultant. The good news is that his grasp of philosophy, history, and critical thinking make his work worth your time.

(3) Why Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule is wrong by David Bradley. David brings a little sanity to the discussion of skill development. As with a lot of things, we’ve been taught a simplification, an approximation of events.