Not all people who exhibit narcissistic traits express them as obviously as bullying.
Sometimes the narcissism is expressed as engaging with only those who are perceived as influential to forge bonds of unquestioning loyalty and support to help their own star and status rise. But beware, if your star starts to rise too high, you might be perceived as a threat, accused of disloyalty and made to pay for your success.
Here’s a scenario that has emerged from personal experience and eyewitness accounts. It’s a cautionary tale of what could happen when you want to facilitate change in an institution or relationship that professes to want change but is hardly ready for what will be required of them to do to make change possible.
This is how a typical story goes…
You’ve been recruited or accepted to take on a role as a lead or co-lead in a workplace initiative, collaboration or project to facilitate culture change or resolution of long standing issues.
The one in power grooms you by taking a strong interest in you, making grand overtures to take you under their wing. They do so by exaggerating their success and denigrating or invalidating others’ work performance and ideas to convince you that choosing them is going to guarantee success. They ensure you know how special it is that they’ve CHOSEN you. This also applies to people are not VIPs but act like their idea or project will put them, and thus you, on the world stage. Once you feel like you’re in the with those in power and influence, if you perform too well so that you receive recognition, compliments and attention for your work, this leader will find ways to fault you and make you the target for all their problems. This is because you’ve now outshone them, their position of power seems threatened and now they are retaliating to make you regret that you ever tried to out do them.
This is vengeance.
They start to remove responsibilities making you feel invalidated, incompetent or inadequate.
You start to doubt yourself and question your abilities and competence. You lay awake at night wondering what you’ve done wrong, feeling guilty and ashamed about the rejection you’re experiencing that no one else seems to notice is occurring.
You hear their criticism in your head while still seeking their approval and hope that you can regain their favour. They give you justifications for unplanned or spontaneous changes in your role or agreed plan. You eventually become one of the people who is denigrated and invalidated publicly, the scapegoat, for failed projects. In the time that this has been happening, they’ve already been grooming their next protégé. By the time you’ve experienced the full extent of falling from grace, the narcissistic leader has moved onto their protégé, your replacement, and cut you from your workplace network.
Perhaps your bias suggests that the leader is male. These behaviours are genderless and are products of toxic workplace cultures and a primal need to survive and succeed at all costs. This is essentially what narcissism is about.
The term pet to threat was coined by Dr. Kecia Thomas describing a phenomenon that negatively impacts on career progression of Black women.
What to do if you discover this is what is happening to you?
I give some pointers here. Need additional pointers? Ask!
Finally, if this story describes an experience you’ve had, I’m curious to know how you managed the workplace dynamics moving forward. Feel free to respond below.
Thank you for reading and for your thoughts on this topic,
Nathalie Martinek, PhD
The Narcissism Hacker
Thomas, K.M., Johnson-Bailey, J., Phelps, R.E., Tran, N.M., & Johnson, L. (2013).Moving from Pet to Threat: Narratives of Professional Black Women. In L. Comas-Diaz & B. Green (Eds.).The Psychological Health of Women of Color: Intersections, Challenges, and Opportunities (pp275-286). Westport, CT: Praeger. (added 12/11/2021)
Oh my goodness. I went cold reading this. This happened to me TWICE. I work with doctors in the UK. When one dr leader treated me like this, I saw what was happening and tried to manage the relationship as I loved the job. I rode out the first cycle of disgrace and we seemed to be on a more even footing but I never fully trusted her. When the second cycle came, I identified it immediately and called it out, withdrew. She was no longer officially in charge by then.
Her replacement had been grooming me for a year, whilst waiting to take over. They both held lead roles in a project that needed me but they took the chair and I was happy to contribute even though I didn't get the recognition, glory and awards they got from our work.
When the replacement took over he dropped me like a hot potato. Having spent a year promising me things would be so different, using the recognition of the narcissism to win my trust, croticising the way she and another lead had treated me, he then employed full on disgrace tactics. Unpleasant phone calls after dark, changing plans without telling me, criticising my work in private but supporting it in public and piloting a new venture i had created without me.
I left. He tried to talk me round - privately, and publicly blamed the organisation we worked for. I tried to tell him it was his treatment of me that led to my resignation but he was deaf to anything I said.
To this day people think I left because of the organisation.
He had started to groom a far less experienced or qualified replacement. The wider team are mystified at the cluelessness of the replacement. The product suffers but his standing remains. I guess that's all that matters to him.
Interestingly I hear his health has been poor -, I wonder if his conscience somehow knows.
Knowing this is a phenomenon and that it happens to others helps enormously. At one point I got physically ill and thought I was going mad.
It was only by working with a team on the same job in another country, who are supportive respectful, hard working, egalitarian and a total joy, that I realised just how horrifically damaging and damaged these UK drs are. The environment here has reduced them to desperate children. How sad is that?
This is exactly what happened to me.. I gave my CEO a comprehensive team based care plan that would have taken our center forward to a high-quality, high-functioning center. The plan was financially lucrative as well. Staff morale was high as they were excited about this project. The care given previously to this marginalized population was subpar at best and people were harmed. The staff was thrilled to see this change coming. My boss began to slowly tear down my plan, piece by piece, until it was destroyed. I asked for her reasoning and the alternate plan. There is none.
I was asked to leave yesterday after reporting to the board of directors. Escorted out by security.