While I work out how to respond to the wonderful feedback I received about the ‘narcissistic boss’ piece, here’s my talk on immersive audio from ADC 2019. In this, I tried to pour a one-hour talk into a half-hour slot. Which is a little hard on the speaker and audience, but much better than a too-superficial treatment.
I’m not selling anything in the talk, although I’ll soon make a foray into this market. (Did you know I’m making a head tracker? I’m making a head tracker!)
Feeling particularly pleased about the Generation-X-era joke at 22:05, and the gentle dig at Dolby’s foray into consumer goods at 29 minutes. (Less proud of saying ‘fourth-order’ when I meant ‘fifth-order’ at 11:43. But nobody will notice if I don’t point it out.)
There’s more going on in the recording, but this is the script I actually read from.
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
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.