Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Just How Difficult Are You?

You are without a doubt the most pretentious, self-absorbed, arrogant, vain and ruthless little tyrant I have ever had the misfortune of knowing. You are emotionally unbalanced and delusional.  For some reason you believe you are special and entitled, demanding praise and attention and privileges you haven't earned and don't deserve--yet you are shamelessly uninterested in the needs and feelings of others. You exploit, criticize, scapegoat and treat others contemptuously, yet you can't tolerate a single word of criticism.  There's only one way to describe you. You are:
(a)  A real jerk
(b)  An infant
(c)  A CEO
(d)  A narcissist
(e)  Other _______________
People I ask seem to be able to identify, without hesitation or difficulty, somebody they know who fits this description, so they quickly and emphatically answer this multiple choice question.  Corporate types tend to choose answers (a) or (c) although in the write-in category (e) the most common answer is "A real asshole" (more on this crass yet technical academic term later.) Politicians, lawyers and ex-spouses also get honorable mention in (e).  Parents of young children, and students of Freud who have read "On Narcissism" (which introduces the concept of His Majesty the Baby) might choose (b).  Psychology majors and anyone who has ever read a book or an article in Time Magazine by Jeffrey Kluger tend to offer up the textbook answer (d), i.e., a person who behaves this way is usually described as a narcissist.
Most of us know the story of Narcissus, retold succinctly in a New Yorker piece by Joan Acocella called Selfie:
In Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from the first century B.C., we meet Narcissus, a young man so handsome that all the nymphs are in love with him. He doesn’t understand why; he wishes they would leave him alone. One day, in the woods, he comes upon a pool of water and leans over to take a drink. In the reflection, he sees his face for the first time, and falls in love. He swoons, he kisses his image, but he cannot have the thing he desires. In despair, he stops eating, stops sleeping. Finally, he lays his head down on the greensward and dies.
There are longer and darker versions of the story, but the prevailing theme is that Narcissus is so taken with himself that he is incapable of paying attention to anything or anyone else. Narcissism is sometimes described as a "fixation with oneself" but the American Psychiatric Association actually classifies it as a personality disorder.  In Selfie, Acocella also tells us that according to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) the primary characteristic of narcissism is grandiosity:
Narcissists exaggerate their achievements and what they are certain will be their future triumphs. They believe that they are special and can be understood only by special people, of high status. They feel entitled to extraordinary privileges. (They have the right to cut in line, to dominate the conversation, etc.) They show no empathy for other people. They envy them, and believe that they are envied in return. They cannot tolerate criticism.
If you really want to dig into narcissism, there is no shortage of reading material out there.  I recently read Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss.  She describes seven categories of narcissistic behavior (Shamelessness, Magical Thinking, Arrogance, Envy, Entitlement, Exploitation, and Bad Boundaries) so well that if you read her book you might begin to feel a bit uneasy about your own narcissistic tendencies.  The good news is that if you worry about such things you probably aren't really a narcissist, but just to be sure you can take a quiz here.  It is the Narcissistic Personality Inventory developed by Robert Raskin and Howard Terry of the University of California, Berkeley. I felt a little better after taking the quiz.

Of course the world is teeming with all kinds of people we perceive as difficult, not just narcissists but an eclectic assortment of know-it-alls, liars, cheaters, whiners, complainers, slackers, back-stabbers, perfectionists, illusionists, abusers, bullies, tormentors, mean-spirited rogues, and otherwise nasty weasels.  Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, lumps them all into one descriptive category: assholes.  His entertaining book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn't establishes two tests for determining whether someone fits into that category:
  • After talking to the alleged asshole, does the "target" feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled? Does he or she feel worse about him or herself?
  • Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?
Sutton also identifies twelve techniques assholes commonly use:
  • Personal insults
  • Invading "personal territory"
  • Uninvited physical contact
  • Threats and intimidation
  • Sarcastic jokes and teasing, used as insult delivery systems
  • Withering email flames
  • Status slaps, intended to humiliate victims
  • Public shaming
  • Rude interruptions
  • Two-faced attacks
  • Treating people as if they are invisible
Any of this sound familiar? Of course it does. I hear you, and I feel your pain!  I can think of dozens of people I've worked with just in the past ten years who fit quite comfortably into this category. Sutton reminds us that even Steve Jobs, celebrated for his ability to  imagine, inspire, motivate and create, was notorious for behaving poorly and routinely used many of these techniques. But while most of us have such tendencies and may slip into poor behavior patterns on occasion, there's a big difference between what he calls "temporary" and "certified" assholes: to qualify as "certified" you have to behave poorly persistently.  If you want to see where you fit on the scale, take Sutton's Asshole Rating Self Exam (ARSE, of course...would you expect anything else?) here, but steel yourself: if your self-rating score gets to a certain level, you will see this admonition from Sutton:
You sound like a full-blown certified asshole to me, get help immediately.  But, please, don't come to me for help, as I would rather not meet you.
Good luck, and be careful out there.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on property casualty insurance claims and operations.  He can be reached at or through  LinkedIn or Twitter.

No comments:

Post a Comment