ADC 2019 Lightning Talk : Narcissistic Bosses in the Technology Sector, and How To Survive Them

ADC Lightning Talk 2019

There’s more going on in the recording, but this is the script I actually read from.

Hello London.

Tonight’s talk is pretty condensed. Which is this year’s excuse for needing a script.

I’m expanding a subject I handled in 2017: narcissistic bosses in the technology sector, and how to survive them. Having seen more of the world since then, I want to underline the fact that this talk is not about an individual. It’s about an epidemic.

As I said back then, a little self-regard is healthy. You should care about how you come across. I am talking about a personality disorder. This is characterised by particular attitudes and traits that render a person incapable of forming healthy relationships.

Human beings make social transactions. Most of us understand the greater game. If you perform a good deed, the people you help benefit directly. Indirectly, the whole community may do a little better, and your own standing will probably improve. The system is based on trust.

Narcissists don’t play this game. No matter how much you invest in them, their sense of entitlement prevents much love from spreading. And the day you have to call back a favour, they will casually deny your value.

As we need to be somewhat careful, I’ll describe four signs that you’re truly working for one. And I’ll finish with five things you can do about it.

Sign 1 : Work is life.

You are expected to make your workplace your home and also your hobby. Days are arbitrarily lengthened into evenings and weekends. You are reprimanded for turning off your phone on holiday.

Although many companies have ‘crunch time’, when people endure this for a few weeks a year, a symptom of a narcissistic boss is that this is business as usual.

Sign 2 : Bathos.

The world is awash with magazines, awards, and exclusive clubs and events for tech founders. This glamour attracts people who routinely enjoy a good time on someone else’s tab, whilst polishing their fantasy about their special genius and singular destiny.

Back in the office, the carefully-constructed Messianic coachwork slides effortlessly back to reveal the clown car underneath. Driven with an inconsistent sense of direction, its driver will neither consult the map, nor acknowledge any obstacles in the road until after they’ve been hit. In short, they will not distinguish between control and leadership.

Sign 3 : No institutional memory.

Healthy places have enquiry and debate. But there is no healthy argument with a narcissist. They’d rather gamble than learn, and this affects your company’s capacity to grow and adapt.

Every project thus becomes a copy of the last, but with more at stake and less time to complete it.

Sign 4 : It’s all a pantomime.

Regardless of whatever they achieved elsewhere, the principal function of your company’s middle management is decorative. They’ll arrive, listen, and take initiative. But following a few weeks of destabilisation, they will be rendered terrified to fart without a sign-off.

With few exceptions, their right to play depends on accepting a role in a darker pantomime: as hostages, enforcers, patsies, or fellow narcissists.

Those were some signs. Before I move on to the remedies, I must state Rule Zero, which is a fundamental don’t.

You cannot. Change. A narcissist.

But here are five things that you can do. And unlike some of the answers in Monday’s quiz, these are supported by literature.

Remedy 1 : Create resilience.

Your team is in for a long and rough ride. Form a united front that can weather the storm.

Carefully work out who in the company can or can’t be trusted. Hold meetings off-site and keep parts of them off-record so people can speak freely. Foster a social life that involves non-employees.

Remedy 2 : Negotiate.

Narcissists like short-term deals. Approach them on that level, and give them nothing extra for free. If they put pressure on your boundaries, demand something of value in return. They will probably concede, but still feel like they’ve won.

Remedy 3 : Agree and add.

… which is a term borrowed from improvised comedy. ‘Agreeing’ means supporting, in conversation, the world your partner is trying to build. ‘Adding’ means that you fill in details whenever you can.

It’s the gentlest way to work with someone new. It’s also the safest way to engage a narcissist. ‘Agree’: support their view of the world; don’t undermine it. ‘Add’: contribute your expertise whilst allowing them room to backtrack.

Never challenge. You are there to provide status and muscle, not questions. If you start wielding reason like a weapon, you’ll find you’ve brought a voltmeter to a gunfight.

Remedy 4 : Be a grey rock.

It takes energy to maintain a fantasy. If you are seen as a reliable source of nourishment, every lever you have will be pulled to get it out of you.

To be a grey rock is to deny the supply. Respond to every question positively, blandly, and in a monotone. Your answers must serve to impart no joy [not even joy in the making], and invite no conflict.

It may go against every instinct to make yourself boring, but it works a treat if you prefer being ignored to being molested.

Remedy 5 : Outgrow them.

Narcissists are kryptonite to creative people. They will surround you with lies. They will abuse your passion and trust. And, if you let them, they will bleed you dry.

Know that you will be faced with a choice between your career and your integrity, and choose wisely. Develop your skills in every way you can, and value the lessons you learn from other people’s mistakes. In the hours you command, surround yourself with sanity and civilisation.

And on that subject, enjoy the pub!

5 thoughts on “ADC 2019 Lightning Talk : Narcissistic Bosses in the Technology Sector, and How To Survive Them”

  1. Who knew there was so much to know about Kryptonite:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kryptonite

    You clearly haven’t met the same tech bosses that I have. Without exception they have been generous-spirited, clear-headed and absolutely not in any way self-aggrandising monsters capable of pissing away tens of millions of bucks for almost no visible return, while sucking the very marrow from the bones of their developers.

  2. The irony is that the average person with NPD will look at this and reframe it as envy. I’d say number one remedy is run for the hills!

    1. You’re quite right. It’d be best to save my response for a follow-up post, but for now it’s safe to say that the final remedy in the list needs elaborating.

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