I’ve worked with possibly hundreds of companies now, most have been amazing. They are helpful, want to do the best they can and want to work with you. This is what we all need to thrive and do the best we can. They have a good culture, these companies you will go back to, they do good projects.
But I have worked with thankfully only a few who don’t have this ethos. This is not the fault of the employees, it's influenced by the leaders, the directors, the influencers who set the goals, the standards and the culture of how to act.
Most of the time these people are open to discussions, sometimes they are busy and often they have better solutions. But they communicate and listen.
But on 2 occasions I have come up against a leader who is a manipulative narcissist. Sounds dramatic right!
Well it isn’t, this is a couple in thousands and its not until you take a step back that you realise what you have been dealing with. You don’t expect it and they don’t announce themselves as such that's for sure!
But when you step away you realise what you've been dealing with.
The first one I worked for I didn’t question, I wasn’t in a position to, I was young and developing. I was the person a manipulative narcist thrive on, I would not challenge out of lack of confidence. I left the company and never looked back.
The second I did and I have to admit i didn't handle it maybe in the best way. Here’s how it unravelled.
So first of all I’m no psychological expert in any way, I have a bit of basic knowledge but it a passing interest at best. There are apparently 2 types of narcissist, the psychotic and the more common insecure narcissist. I’ve not met a psychotic narcissist that I know of! But they all are obsessed with their status and image above that of anyone else.
The standard, some say ‘common’ narcist is driven by insecurity, a fear of being found out that they have got themselves into a position that they are not qualified for, often through means that are dubious.
We all have insecurity to certain degree, I've been there and its paralysing at times. But a narcissist will do anything to protect themselves from having to admit they are out of their depth. You know the person who has got a role suddenly through luck or other dubious means. If you add to that manipulative, then you have not only someone who can’t be helped through fear, but who will do anything to hide and protect that to retain their status.
This transpired in the narcissist that I worked for. I had known them for a while, and we talked quite a bit about work and life.
I knew they were manipulative and I can only tell you about the work aspects, the others are potentially to damaging and are non of my business anymore. But I did used to enjoy hearing about them, it amused me, it just seemed ridiculous to me that they could get away with them.
Once they got into a position of power, that was it, the manipulation got worse and more desperate. They would tell me stories of how they were trying to sideline the other director because they thought they were to important and had potentially to much of an influence.
There was a third founder they had promised a directorship to, to ensure they were onboard, get the workshop set up and work extra hard, but had no intention of giving it to them, they didn’t.
They would constantly undermine and point out the negative traits of all their staff to undermine them to others and did wired things like ensure there was loads of food at team meetings so no one would speak up because they were eating, amongst many other amusing weirdness. They would call in inspections instead to undermine staff instead of talking to the staff direct, they didn't know enough to be able to challenge or discuss with them. One of the biggest signs was that they were aloof and would hide away in an office to create their importance. Talking by appointment only!
When someone did something wrong or they had made a mistake they would dig out that person in meetings. Shout or give people the silent treatment if they challenged them. When they made a mistake they would divert the blame. The would constantly steal others ideas and use them, even though they didn’t really understand them. They were half implemented and confused.
All the staff would not go directly to her for fear of some reprisal. Her mantra was if they don’t like it or what I say, they can get another job.
Even though I knew this I thought I could help and I can rise above this after all, I know her and could talk to her and work things through. They had a challenging project on and also maybe I could help as she had no project experience, it was a massive gap in the company.
Oh, how wrong I was......
I went about setting the project up and getting it moving. There were signs that maybe things weren’t going to be as easy as I thought when I struggled to get hold of the contract to check and use, that she was agreeing. When I did it was a mess, holes everywhere and a massive risk for the company. Thankfully as is always my plan. Don't get into a position where the contract becomes important.
There was also very little interest in the biggest project they had by far on. This was 30% plus of the years turnover. She would never listen intently, try to understand. A big sign of insecurity, the aloofness. It caused problems for the project.
The thing with insecurity is that, if taken the can't be wrong route, stops a person from communicating for fear of being wrong, of seeking help. When it becomes so ingrained they will do anything to keep mistakes or conflicting ideas away and in this case, they would manipulate people and situations to protect themselves from exposure to not being who they wanted to portray themselves as being.
It went on and I felt increasingly uneasy being at the company, the staff were clearly and openly scared of her aggression, the processes she had set were not really being followed because people were to scared to question them or point out they didn’t work. People were on edge when she was around.
I kept going and got on with the project, dragging people to be open and loose their negative defensive behaviour, to get as much value out of the project as I could and try to make them to enjoy the work. It worked to a certain extent. The external project team were immune to the situation and a joy to work with. It was actually a lovely project.
But it got worse internally, I needed information, I needed decisions that effected the business and she was constantly not giving me the information. She wouldn’t return call’s, the lack of communication was putting the project as risk. I later found out it was because she didn’t really understand, but was too scared to ask me for fear of loosing face. She started making rash decisions that were negatively effecting the project and not communicating them. Another issue with insecurity is you hide your decisions for fear of them being wrong.
I spoke to the production manager quite a lot and he asked me if I would do some more work for them and I said no.... He wanted to know why. I couldn’t because the atmosphere and way the narcissist was I couldn’t do a good job and pointed out the way she acted. It was not a fun place to be working.
I couldn’t not deal with it directly, I’d prefer not so say something if it’s about someone, especially negative if they can’t respond. I’m not perfect, I miss read things, I don’t know what truly is going on unless I talk. So, I decided I had to tell her what I thought I was seeing and how it affected things … and this was where I made my mistake.
I did the worst thing that I could have done she thought … called her out. I didn’t understand this at the time, I just wanted to question what was going on to help.
This was the fuse lit… boom … there was no going back. I got the ghosting treatment, no matter how hard I tried to get her to explain to me so I could understand, nothing.
But things got worse. She set herself up as the person who was solely responsible for invoicing, its important and easy after all! even though the accounts team and project managers were in a much better position to know and understand what was going on, on projects, especially with the lack of internal process and reporting. But not here, it was her thing of importance and control.
There was now no information and it got to the stage where the director invoiced £50K less for the final account than they should, because they would not communicate or try to understand. There were sub-contractors getting instructions for amounts not in the budget or agreed with the client. Internally it was a mess. Trying to sort and find out was impossible when the person you need to speak to wont speak and is firing out darts for you to catch before they land.
Without information and communication a project is doomed. I limped through and the team managed to do a brilliant job despite the working environment. The client when I left loved the results.
I don’t have a solution to this ….. I got the project to a safe and sensible place and handed it back as soon as I could.
I felt sick going in and often cried going home when I went into the office. The leadership had set such a toxic culture to work in. They put people down to protect themselves, rather than elevate them to succeed.
I felt sorry and sad for the people left behind who have to work in that atmosphere through fear of not paying their bills. I was the lucky one and I’ve worked with 3 companies since and have never felt sick or cried, just enjoyment working for them.
Insecurity is a fear, that can do bad things if you aren’t open and work with it. I’ve been there and felt I should know everything. The best thing I did once the bubble burst was take a step back and learn that I can be wrong, there is more than one right and set myself on a path of constant learning and collaboration.
It’s the best thing I could do for me and others, but the worse thing when you meet a manipulative narcissist! Yes you can walk away, but can you when your home and family rely on you. They fight fear with fear. Its a way, a weak way.
I'd love to hear your experiences and views on how you deal with toxic workplaces and leaders.
Thanks for reading
Hi I'm Simon. I've worked in projects for a while now, either management or design. I love projects but they're frustrating. Hope some of this help you.