Monday 24 February 2014

Handling narcissists and alpha males who insist on public floggings : Stay cool. Stay calm. Stay low.

A conversation with a colleague led me to recall an event from many years ago where I was part of a team being reviewed by a senior executive. 

During the session a peer of mine was presenting on the state of affairs in his department and related key performance metrics. The discussion started to derail when I noticed that the executive being presented to was not visibly comfortable with what was being outlined. After sitting through most of the presentation with a pained expression the senior executive finally started giving input on the content and how the presentation was inadequate to allow him to make sense of the business. His tone was negative and very soon he (the senior executive) commenced giving negative feedback to my peer in a fairly public forum. At that point another peer turned to me and muttered “If I were presenting I would give him (the executive) a peace of my mind!” This comment got me thinking and my first reaction was that confrontation is usually not the right way to handle a senior executive who is playing the role of the 'alpha male'.  In the corporate hierarchy (as in the army) there is a command hierarchy and managing upwards is a delicate task but has to be done. Most of us are not lucky enough to choose who we work for! And on those rare occasions where I have managed to do so I have found either my boss or myself ultimately moving on to other roles and assignments (where a new boss awaited!). That is the reality. The other reality is that ultimately how you handle senior executives will either build your career or start dismantling it. Life is not fair and the corporate world is not an entity set up for charity or social welfare.

So how does one react or more aptly what choices are available when one is facing tremendous pressure from one’s manager or senior executive in a public forum where we are being subjected to verbal projectiles that reflect the senior executives desire to provide direct feedback. Feedback which the senior executive is likely to call as being constructive! Do we speak our mind irrespective of the consequences? Should we speak our mind?

Despite the politically correct term constructive criticism, my own experience is that the human ego finds negative feedback disenfranchising. Many of us ask for feedback from others but not many of us are skilled or mature enough to handle true constructive feedback as invariably the term constructive is clearly indicative of the negative nature of such feedback. The one thing I have found out in many years of corporate servitude is that the term constructive is not really understood by the giver of the criticism and where you get a good giver then the receiver does not get the essence. In general, the probability that both the giver and the receiver will be able to do justice to the opportunity is limited!

Let me point out at this point that my peer did a remarkable job of keeping his cool and actually making an attempt to break through the impasse by providing short and precise answers to the constant verbal challenge being thrown out by the senior executive. 

The general advice I have for handling objections or public criticism of your presentation (usually while presenting) is to maintain your calm and not go on the defensive or try to explain yourself in detail as a counter to the 'constructive criticism'. Whether you like it or not an objection has been raised and unless it is a genuine request for clarity such objections are usually designed to score brownie points (by your detractors) or in the case of the alpha male executive is aimed at ensuring that the presenter and all present in the room can see who the boss is! I use the term alpha male to refer to an aggressive, highly-ranked person in a business setting. These are usually individuals with high narcissistic tendencies but “what’s troublesome is how far we take the analogy, even if we don’t particularly like the alpha males in our office, our circle of friends or our sports league. Because the power dynamic is reflected in the natural world, we’ve internalised the notion that dominance by an alpha male is the natural order of things. As such, we’ve come to recognise the characteristics of a classic alpha male as virtues. Though unseemly at times, we accept them as necessary traits for effective leadership.”

Clearly this write-up is not about alpha males or narcissistic bosses and was more geared to give you insight into how best do you handle an executive or manager who is publicly belittling or deriding you during your presentation? Note the use of the term belittle or deride. I am not referring to hard questions being asked to test your knowledge but referring to comments that are designed to impact the presenter’s dignity and/or confidence. The first truth is that narcissistic tendencies amongst senior executives makes them have little empathy for others, therefore, to assume that plain logic or attempting to explain yourself is pre-ordained to fail. If your feelings were relevant then they would not engage in such behaviour. So don’t expect the obvious or use your hurt feelings as a basis to seek understanding. The smartest way to handle such individuals is to actually ask them what they would want you to show or want you to do in response to the query or question. I usually ask such individuals what guidance or advice they would have for me if they were in my situation. Typically it is also a good idea to try to move away from being defensive to exploring the angle or options being opened up. For e.g. if you are being told that your presentation is too lengthy, then seek input on what elements could be cut out from the presentation or ask for a few pointers on what the executive would like you to talk about. Make him or her the centre of attraction rather than yourself. Handling a narcissistic person during a public debate or presentation is likely to leave more dirt on your face than theirs. Arrogance and haughtiness are particular traits that are lobbed at unsuspecting individuals by such persons. This is where another tip that I offer is have high levels of self-esteem. The more you believe in yourself the higher the wall you build to ensure that a narcissist cannot penetrate you to the point where it hurts. Take this advice seriously. Build yourself up so others cannot tear you down!

Another gem of valuable piece of advice from Karen Leland is reproduced verbatim as I did not have the heart to outline this in my own words - “Focus on solutions, not problems. When you explain a problem or a challenge to a narcissist, direct their attention to the solution. Don’t allow them to dissect the problem over and over again. Narcissists love drama and revel in the chaos. They’re easily agitated when frustrated. Define problems and present possible solutions, so they don’t smell blood in the water and tear you apart.” 

Another valuable trick is to thank them for their feedback without acknowledging whether the feedback is negative or positive. Where you are unsure or want to buy time then ask the individual to restate their input or to elaborate on their comment. Seek out particular pointers about what exactly is bothering them. Asking questions also gets the detractor (the synonym egoist came to mind also) engaged in a conversation rather than driving down the one way road in the guise of 'constructive criticism'.

Avoid checking and/or validating the given feedback with others in the room as that is bound to trigger further negativity on the part of the alpha male! I have seen this happen and the reality is that there are not many courageous people who would stand up and say that the alpha male executive was wrong. Frankly, it is not needed to be said. Just voicing the slightest dissent is sufficient enough to derail the entire discussion. A narcissist is not going to allow others to repudiate his or her stance that was shared in public! Breathe hard and bite your tongue if you are in dis-agreement with the feedback. Rather wait to frame and create your response by using data at a later stage. Wait for the emotions to have subsided!

Hope this simple guidance is worth your while. Do check with others on strategies and tips. Handling a narcissist and alpha male is not easy but given the likelihood that you will cross swords with such individuals on an on-going basis as you climb the corporate ladder there is a benefit in mastering this art. Good luck!


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