In the fascinating collection of human beings that make up a workplace, there is a variety of “types.” There’s the autocratic or at the other end of the spectrum the spineless boss. There’s the person who, by his or her years around the place (generally in a position close to power) is a force you’d better not mess with. That person is a knower of everything.
There’s the diplomat who will go along with everything. There’s the office whiner and office toady and the office troublemaker who creates conflict for conflict’s sake.
And then there are the office egotists.
No matter what the situation, they know it all. They’re utterly fearless, cocky, and hugely arrogant. They don’t talk to you so much as lecture you. You can almost perceive a swagger to their gait.
It’s almost as if they fancy themselves the boss.
“How to get ahead” advice suggests people dress for the job they aspire to, not necessarily the one they have. But the egotist takes this advice to a new level – he or she plays the part, too.
What’s worse, bosses seem to love them, wowed by their confidence and ability to reflect their own traits back positively to themselves. With that kind of confidence, the office egotists must actually know what they’re doing, bosses figure.
The only problem is, for anyone who isn’t the boss, they are next to impossible to work with. They cut you off in client meetings or belittle you. They are quick to point out flaws in your work. And if you dare bring up a conflict between you, don’t expect an instant apology or an initially constructive conversation about the issue. It probably hasn’t even registered with them that there may be a problem.
There are various explanations for this personality type.
In its most extreme form the egotists behaviour is an indication of a mental illness called narcissistic personality disorder. People diagnosed with this disorder show a need for admiration and a lack of empathy and self- awareness. They are grandiose, self-important and fantasize about achieving boundless success, power, brilliance or beauty. They generally believe they are special, so unique that only high-status people could appreciate them or understand them. They exploit others, turning on the charm to meet their ends. They can be cold, aloof, uncaring and even ruthless when relations with others are not furthering their desires for adulation, power, wealth or beauty.
They have no sense of reciprocity in relationships and respond to feedback and criticism as a threat to their self-esteem.
Does this mean all office egotists can be diagnosed with a personality disorder?
In our practice, we have worked with people with this mental disorder as well as people who are not ill, but engage in egotistic behaviours. There is a difference. People with egotistic behaviour do not display all the requirements for diagnosis and can make changes to their behaviour more readily than those with narcissistic personality disorder. Those with a personality disorder may take more than two years of intensive treatment before there is a breakthrough.
Office egotists can change rapidly and can be influenced by co-workers, bosses and even themselves.
People with egotistical behaviour can change, making the workplace more pleasant, teams more effective and increasing their chances for promotion. Leaders cannot afford to alienate their colleagues, co-workers or employees through boorish behaviour that is amenable to change.
What Bosses Can Do?
1. Notice employees with egotistical tendencies and talk to them about the importance of their relationships with other employees to moving ahead at the organization.
2. Be aware of how what may seem confident and go getting may be undermining and invalidating of others – look at it from your employees point of view.
3. Be specific with feedback – “When you cut people off in meetings it reduces creativity and lowers morale. How could you improve upon this next time?”
4. In running a meeting where egotistical behaviour occurs value the person’s input but attend to other team members who were cut off, had their work dismissed or co-opted or who may be intimidated at the meeting.
5. If you suspect an employee is suffering from more than a bout of egocentrism refer them to an EAP or psychologist for assessment.
What Can Co-Workers Do?
1. Approach your boss and tell him or her your concerns, get input about how to handle the situation and develop an action plan including planning to speak to the individual in person privately. Set a time to report back to the boss about how the meeting or meetings went.
2. Set a time to share your concerns with the individual from the perspective of how the behaviours affect the team, your jointly held clients and your shared accounts.
3. Be prepared to be rebuffed, misunderstood or criticized by the individual. Remain emotionally neutral returning to the effects of the behavoiur and your desire to work on changing the interaction.
4. If after initial attempts to talk, an impasse develops invite the individual to discuss the matter in a meeting that includes your boss. Be sure to give the boss a heads up about being asked to be present at a meeting between you.
What Can You Do If You Suspect You May Be Perceived as Egotistical by Work Mates?
1. Obtain feedback from several sources – colleagues, co-workers, family, friends and clients asking how they perceive your behaviour by phrasing your request as “How do you see my team work or working relationship abilities both the positive aspects and those in need of improvement?” Refrain from asking “I’m not egotistical am I?”
2. Work hard to become self aware by making it a mission to see how you affect others by what you say or do.
3. Be prepared to feel temporarily angry, embarrassed, self-righteous or hurt.
4. Apologize if your behaviour offends or hurts and change.
5. Become empathic by thinking about how others may feel if you talk a lot about yourself, interrupt, take credit for others work or disparage their intelligence.
6. Tell your boss you are working on being more self aware, empathic and a better team player and ask for feedback appointments.
7. Accept feedback, it’s sometimes as hard to give as it is hard to receive.
Egotistical behaviour can be a blind spot for many; it can be due to over confidence, a perceived need to protect oneself against being taken advantage of, or a period of intense selfishness or self-centeredness that can be overcome.
Either way change can and does occur with a bit of effort and compassion.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.
They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.