Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 16, 2018
I recently gave a webinar on negotiation, and one important question that came in was: What is the single biggest reason that deals don’t get done? The answer I gave is “ego.”
It turns out that I was not far off. A new book by Nancy Van Dyken, “Everyday Narcissism: Yours, Mine and Ours,” suggests that “excessive or erotic interest in one’s self and one’s physical appearance” can easily lead to multiple levels of disaster, ranging from merely an aggravating trait to a “pervasive, destructive personality disorder.”
Whoa. That is some serious stuff. My own take on the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos debacle is that there was some major narcissism working in that company. Disclosure: My daughter, Rachel, armed with a Ph.D. in molecular biology interviewed there several years ago and called me later to express her perception that there was no “there” there. (She should have mentioned that to the investors who were later lightened by $700 million.)
But Holmes had a big-time ego and a “Steve Jobs look” with her black turtleneck. When she was finally fired and found guilty of fraud, her fine was only $500,000. By comparison, Martin Shkreli was sentenced to seven years in prison. His sin was more of hubris and arrogance than of lost money. In fact, his investors made a profit.
Of course there is a difference between pure ego and Van Dyken’s definition of narcissism, but they touch. She would define narcissism as seeing yourself as the center of the universe. She goes on to define a few myths of “everyday narcissism.”
First, “we are raised to believe we have the power and responsibility to control how other people feel and behave.” This leads to a false sense of personal power, and my view of this confusion is that it completely occludes a proper sense of humility — and an equally important sense of the need for collaboration. In simple terms, being CEO is not the same as being omnipotent.
Second, “If I take care of you, you’re supposed to take care of me.” This leads to the confusion of “you owe me,” and that leads to potentially dangerous and illegal or unethical behavior.
Third, “Rules are more important than I am.” This idea marginalizes the individual and takes away his sense of ownership for his actions. Even more, it makes it hard for your employees to say “no” when asked to do something that might be perceived as “taking one for the team.”
The fundamental disconnect of narcissistic behavior is the misperception of personal power and responsibility. Although your mother told you that the world revolved around only you, we have all come to learn that mom was mistaken. The world turns on its own axis, irrespective of our behavior.
In my coaching work, I see this tendency to view oneself as center of the universe. It exhibits itself when the CEO turns the results of his behavior around and instead of taking personal responsibility blames the other person. If you grew up feeling unloved or with low self-esteem, then the way to counter that hurt is to blame the other person. That is the kind of narcissism that leads to dysfunctional management teams.
It also supports my private hypothesis that all CEOs should have a minimum of two years of psychotherapy. Although I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, I have become more certain than ever that the study of behavioral economics is a key component to success.
The “founder-itis” syndrome plays perfectly into narcissistic behavior. It is my baby and it is beautiful just the way it is, and it is more valuable than all the other babies in the sandbox.
My gang recently offered to fund a company at a certain valuation. The founders told us to die and pound sand, and then they ended up at the end of their rope and took a deal that was 40 percent less than what we offered. It happens all the time.
I am not sure what the cure is. A friend of mine is a rock-star CFO. He was asked to do some financial modeling for a venture backed company. The results were not pretty and not what the CEO wanted to see. When asked to “fix” the numbers, he walked. The question I have for that CEO — what were you thinking?
Rule No. 556: Me, me, me– who else.