One Step Beyond Narcissus
I was coming home from a family holiday event, and my wife and I got into a discussion on the Narcissus-ization of our culture. I was so fascinated by the idea, I was sure everyone else would be too!
Welcome to the land of self-fulfilling prophecy!
Facebook. LinkedIn. Photo-sharing sites. Holiday letters replete with stories of everything from surgery to bowel movements. It's staggering. Society seems to be developing a collective case of narcissism on a truly epic scale, and this does not bode well for our projects in the days, months, and years ahead.
Narcissism -- overwhelming self-love -- gets its name from Narcissus, a great hunter of legend. According to Greek lore, Nemesis tricked the vain, disdainful hunter into visiting a pool. Narcissus saw his own reflection in the pool and was unable to tear himself away. He starved, rather than leave the beauty he saw before him.
Welcome the 21st Century, where we've taken it a step further. We not only wish to see our own reflection, but we want everyone else to see it, too! (Follow me on Twitter! @carlpritchard) The scary part is that while we create this culture, we see the potential diminution of other traits we consider to be our most noble -- gratitude and selflessness.
A client in the financial sector, recently told me that new hire interviews are getting progressively more challenging for him. Candidates come in and begin immediately discussing what they won't do, rather than what they will. They ask about corporate policies on personal issues and time, rather than suggesting that they're ready to make some serious sacrifices to earn the job. I've even seen a video taken at a job hiring table that shows candidate after candidate complaining about everything from the pay scale to the length of the application, rather than just sucking it up and saying how much they would like the position.
This is bleeding over into the active work force, as well. In a growing number of organizations, despite the tight economy, workers are willing to put their careers on the line by focusing on self, rather than focusing outwardly on the organization, the client, or the end user.
We can and should take action! It's not a 99%–1% thing. While some jobs and paychecks may stink, we need to remember that some of our greatest capabilities come from our lesser roles. I've had every job imaginable from dishwasher to vacuum cleaner salesman to roofer, and often learned more from those supposed "grunt" jobs than I ever gleaned from white collar work. Our first steps should be to create opportunities for selflessness and to call out when egomania threatens harm to the organization.
My old boss, Ed, was never one to suffer those who believed themselves to be above certain types of work. I vividly remember the day (not long after I was hired) that he told me Sheryl was unavailable to cover the front desk, and the duty was mine. I had been hired as a professional, but had no qualms about taking on administrative duties for a half-hour. It actually made for a nice break in an otherwise frenetic day. I thought nothing of it for several months until Ed made a similar request of another new hire -- an MBA from a prestigious institution. The gentleman bristled and explained, "That's not what I was hired for." Ed instructed him to do it anyhow, and I listened as the new hire groused and grumbled his way through his half-hour at the desk. Within a matter of weeks, the new hire was gone.
Ed took the right strategy. Even though this staffer may have had a lot to offer the organization in terms of business acumen and expertise, he was not contributing to a team environment. And in a project environment, the importance of such an attitude is compounded. I cringe to think how his Facebook postings might have read:
Tuesday – Put the boss in his place today. He thought he hired a secretary. Showed him!
Friday – Unbelievable!! Idiots pink-slipped me just two weeks in! They'll regret that!
Granted, we don't normally have the power to hire and fire, but we do have the ability to walk away from resources who have the potential to do harm to our projects. We might think fewer resources will make the work harder. But in many environments, the opposite is true. A smaller, leaner, committed team will get more done than a team saddled with egomaniacal prima donnas.
The cheerier side of creating a positive work environment in this culture is when we afford our team members and those around us with opportunities for selflessness. In many cases, narcissism only sets in because those around us never get the opportunity to look beyond their "reflecting pool." They don't get a chance to see how their efforts influence those around them, and as a result, they don't get to experience the joys of giving of themselves freely to their peers and the organization.
The best approach here is stealth. Team members should never know that they're being set up to be heroes. Instead, the stage need only be set. And if they step onto that stage, and prove themselves willing and able to take on the daunting or lesser roles, we must be fast and furious with the appropriate accolades Realistically, they probably wouldn't be the folks who would lay claim to their achievement on Facebook, but if they did, I would hope it would ring of the positives of the experience:
Monday – Saved the organization from a BIG embarrassment with the client today. The PM asked me to take a look at the documentation before it went out the door. GOOD THING I DID!!
Tuesday – Hero time again! Called in to lead the client presentation.
Wednesday – Feelin' the love! Walked in this morning to find a good old-fashioned 'Thank You' note on my desk. I love this place.
Is any of this type of activity really outside the norms of good business behavior? Nope. But at a time when the focus is so often inward, it's up to us to occasionally reorient those around us to an outward perspective. In doing so, we create a more shared, collaborative experience.
For those who don't know, narcissus is also the name of the genus of the plants more commonly known as daffodils. I like the notion that as we deal with these types of issues with our teams, it's our chance to help others "blossom."
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