Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Arguing With Narcissists

I was reading the other day about the large number of "psychopaths" that end up at the highest levels of business - their cut-throat, take-no-prisoners tactics take them to the top of a company, the Peter Principle run amok, and once there they are poorly equipped to perform their job. This article, a similar feature I just found courtesy of Google, explores the role of psychopaths in business (and in business scandals). It also describes "another personality that's often found in the executive suite: the narcissist."
Maccoby counts Apple's Steve Jobs, General Electric's Jack Welch, Intel's Andy Grove, Microsoft's Bill Gates, and Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher as "productive narcissists," or PNs. Narcissists are visionaries who attract hordes of followers, which can make them excel as innovators, but they're poor listeners and they can be awfully touchy about criticism. "These people don't have much empathy," Maccoby says. "When Bill Gates tells someone, 'That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,' or Steve Jobs calls someone a bozo, they're not concerned about people's feelings. They see other people as a means toward their ends. But they do have a sense of changing the world -- in their eyes, improving the world. They build their own view of what the world should be and get others recruited to their vision. Psychopaths, in contrast, are only interested in self."
The article is perhaps a bit quick with its armchair diagnoses, but leaving aside the individual examples pretty much everybody who has worked in business knows that the larger points hold.

A few years ago, I heard a prominent litigator (who did not strike me as a narcissist, although he was very comfortable with himself) define a litigator (roughly - I can't recall his exact words) as follows: "A ball of ego, suspended over a bottomless pit of insecurity." That's a decent description of the narcissist - and perhaps more entertaining than poor listeners, weak on empathy, and touchy about criticism. The narcissist's "touchiness" about criticism is a subconscious reaction to fear that the ego ball will plummet to the depths of the pit. It can be very interesting to work on a case where your opposing counsel is a full-blown narcissist - in many cases, if you recognize what you are dealing with, you can manipulate them to your advantage. They tend to be covered (figuratively, of course) with big, red, shiny buttons that just scream "PUSH ME".

In an online setting, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the person on the other end of an exchange is a narcissist, or is the narcissist's counterpart - somebody who is very insecure but hasn't developed the narcissist's armor. Where the narcissist fears having his armor pierced, the insecure person fears being judged inferior, in both cases as a result of distorted self-image. Narcissists, in my opinion, can use some deflation - sure, behind all that psychopathology, they are not really different from their insecure counterpart, but they get so much apparent enjoyment from the manner in which they mistreat people that I just can't bring myself to pity them. (You do, though, have to be careful about others... once they realize that they are out of their depths, a "debate" with a narcissist can be an ugly thing to watch. As the narcissist quickly resorts to gutter tactics, you also have to recall the adage about what can happen if you wrestle with a skunk.)

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