Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Narcissism in the Workplace

There was an interesting article yesterday in the Atlantic (or at least on their website) on the pervasive increase in narcissism among young people.  One of the money quotes...

We are in the midst of a "narcissism epidemic," concluded psychologists Jean M. Twnege and W. Keith Campbell in their 2009 book. One study they describe showed that among a group of 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as quickly as obesity from the 1980s to the present.

Now, this would tell you that young people are becoming more and more self-centered.  The Atlantic argues (and I agree), that its being driven by increasing tools for personal expression rather than genuine changes in attitudes.

It's almost too obvious to point out, but when some of the most successful new technologies of the past few years are software that allows you to tell people about yourself, more people are going to talk about themselves.

But I do think the idea that young people aren't the only ones impacted by the technology-enabled self-expression explosion.  Look at media and how we interact with it.

I don't go to ESPN anymore, I read Bill Simmons' Grantland.  I don't read the Washington Post, I read Ezra Klein.  I don't read the NY Times everyday, but I make sure to read Paul Krugman.

The dominant personalities and leaders across multiple fields are increasingly separating themselves from what organizations they're a part of.  Look at Sheryl Sandberg's book.  The concept of a 'showrunner' in television who is exclusively presenting the artistic vision.  People are increasingly brand entities unto themselves, which might not be a new idea (e.g., Michael Jordan ), but sure is catching on.

But let's go back to young people and how this trend (driven by attitude or technology or whatever) will manifest itself in the world.

Aside from lots and lots of crappy narcissistic blog posts to read.

How does it impact the working world when everyone thinks they're the voice of their generation and/or deserving of attention and adulation?

It sure sounds like it could get annoying.  An organization of iconoclasts, where everyone insists that they're the one to make a difference (and probably not the one to make the copies). 

Inherent in this type of system is a reduction in organizational loyalty (which to be fair, is probably well deserved given lack of loyalty exhibited by executive management in most large corporations).

So what is a company to do when all its new recruits feel as though they're meant to make a big impact (and immediately)?

It's easy if you're a startup, because there are never enough people to do the work.  It's hard if you're a massive organization.

The initial idea might be to try and instill a heavy sense of purpose and responsibility among the new recruits.  You can get them in front of senior leaders, give them high-visibility projects, etc.

But I don't think that works. 

In concept, sure it sounds great, but in reality my guess is these types of tactics typically feel artificial.  It's doubtful a big company can realistically give substantial responsibility to a bunch of new people, the incumbents passed over for those chances would be incensed.

No, what I think large organizations would have to do in order to succeed at getting the most out new people includes a couple discrete things:

1. Identify and assign key mentors:  For the new folks to even think they're going to get some real responsibility, they need to see what that path to success could look like.  That's best exhibited by real actual people who have advanced in the company and are delivering the type of impact the new recruits want.  They won't be easy to find, and they need to actually give a damn, but without it folks will be hard to see where they can go.

2. Give them actual (but narrowly focused) responsibilities: The issue with trying to give new people high-level responsibilities is that the organization will resist.  So, give them responsibilities, but make them small ones.  It helps to take things that longer tenured employees don't want/or don't have time to do.  Examples could include recruiting, social responsibility campaigns (which are both cynical to say, but often times the truth)

3. Talk about what kinds of opportunities can follow, even if they're outside the organization:  It's probably one of the last things people would think about, the idea that new recruits won't always stick around.  But in all honesty, they won't.  I think I read the average worker changes jobs 10 times in their career.  So it's naive not to be upfront about it, and hopefully, the idea that the job is a stepping stone (which they're probably thinking anyway) and something they'll need to leverage to advance, can help incentivize them to perform in some initial grunt work.

Anyway, its an organizational challenge all large companies will have to face.  If they can't handle new self-centered employees, no one's going to be around to know what's going on.

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