Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001

Case Study

Is she a narcissist?

This case study relates to an organisation that is suffering a rapid decline in profitability, resulting in increasing losses over the last two years. The situation is described by an employee of the consultancy company who has been tasked with making recommendations for improving the organisation's performance. The situation is then analysed, based on the information supplied, to assist the employee tasked with making the recommendations.

The deteriorating performance of the organisation appears to result from one senior management team member's narcissistic behaviour.

Changes have been made to the original transcripts to conceal the identity of the organisation and the individuals concerned.

The situation (described by an employee)
I have recently been employed by the consultancy company Rowland, Spears and Jones. The business has just made a loss for the second year running and it is significantly greater than the previous year's loss.

As a relative outsider, I have been asked to produce a report examining the reasons for the consultancy's poor performance and recommend measures to improve its performance in the future. I have to remember that my report will be read by three directors in the practice, so I must be tactful in any reference to their shortcomings.

Over the last financial year the organisation's income was 2,100,000 dollars, plus fees invoiced before 31st March but to date unpaid, of 172,000 dollars. The figure of 2,100,000 dollars includes 132,000 dollars invoiced during the previous year, but a further 34,000 dollars invoiced during the previous year remains unpaid. The fee income in the last financial year consisted of the following:

New build (commercial) 720,000 dollars
New build (housing) 418,000 dollars
Conservation 604,000 dollars
Other refurbishment 358,000 dollars

Ted Rowland is the senior partner in the firm and recently celebrated his 60th birthday. His experience is broad and he has an interest in, and understanding of, both new build and refurbishment work, including conservation. He has a reputation for being fair and a good listener, but indecisive, although he did successfully dismiss an incompetent employee about three years ago. He works hard on his own projects but tends to leave the management of the practice to Angela Jones.

Andy Spears is the middle partner in terms of seniority, and is 50 years old. He is officially responsible for human resources, but in practice the decisions are made by Angela. He is said to be kind and considerate but ineffectual, usually deferring to Ted Rowland and unwilling or unable to tackle Angela Jones successfully on his own.

Angela Jones, although she is the junior of the three partners (she is 48), plays a major executive role in managing the firm. She has been described as a "control freak" by one of the salaried employees and another one said, "What s the difference between Angela and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist!" The employees also say that Angela does not listen, does not respect their knowledge and experience, and does not understand conservation work.

Gail Foster joined the practice about a year ago at the age of 31. She does most of the conservation work, works long hours and is something of a perfectionist. She believes that Angela does not negotiate high enough fees for the conservation projects, which include several well-known grade 1 listed buildings and Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

Gillian Fern joined the practice three years ago and works mainly on the more high-profile new-build projects. She believes herself to be talented and creative, and therefore does not see why she should have to work very hard. She frequently does not arrive at the office until 12noon and does not leave particularly late or take a lot of work home. Ted Rowland does not seem to recognise her shortcomings, but tends to parade her in front of clients as the firms token ethnic minority. Other employees clearly resent the fact that her laziness appears to be overlooked by the partners.

The firm also employs three secretarial staff and a junior technician.

The firm does not use timesheets. Individual project profitability and individual fee-earner profitability is calculated on the basis of estimated apportionment of individuals time to projects. The estimation is done by Angela who always appears to be the most profitable fee-earner. The firm has had a high turnover of staff for several years.

The clients for the conservation projects all praise Gail but most of these projects make a loss, according to Angela analysis.

Gillian's projects generally break even but are rarely completed on time. Contractors, consultant quantity surveyors and consultant engineers frequently complain that Gillian is lacking in technical competence and is not interested in producing clear, practical and comprehensive working drawings to a sensible programme.

Lead by example

Analysis and proposals
Naturally, my comments are based only on the information you have supplied. In addition, I have no information relating to your own behavioural characteristics, so I have to assume that you have taken an objective position.

It appears to me that the fundamental problems faced by the consultancy relate to a lack of effective financial controls and a lack of effective leadership.

From your description of Ted Rowland, he is representative of Belbin's Team Worker and Implementer team roles and lacking in the characteristics identified with the leadership team roles of Shaper and Coordinator. As a Team Worker he is supportive, sociable and concerned about others, a good listener, but indecisive. As an Implementer he has practical common sense, self-control and discipline, is hard working, tackles problems in a systematic fashion, but lacks spontaneity and show signs of rigidity.

Your description of Andy Spears is brief. You state that he is kind and considerate but ineffectual, leaving decision making to Angela Jones. Again, there doesn't appear to be any leadership characteristics evident.

From your description Angela Jones appears to take on the leadership role, displaying the characteristics of Belbin's Shaper team role. She appears to be competitive, determined, argumentative, but lacking in interpersonal sensitivity. In my experience, Shapers may develop narcissistic tendencies if they are allowed to work without any form of control, as seems to be the case here; Ted Rowland and Andy Spears appear to exert little in the way of controls over her actions.

If the above analysis of Angela Jones is accurate, her pattern of behaviour may be typical of someone with narcissistic tendencies. She may, therefore, display the behavioural characteristic of 'splitting', which has been described in the literature as the defence mechanism that dominates the functioning of narcissistic individuals. They see people and situations in black and white terms, all bad or all good, with no shades of grey. Splitting is the Freudian defence mechanism in which an object or idea (or, alternatively, the ego) is separated into two or more parts in order to remove its threatening meaning. Freud referred to splitting as a mental process by which two separate and contradictory versions of reality could co-exist. This conceptualisation of splitting defines an ego that allows reality to be both acknowledged and denied.

Your description of the situation at the practice suggests to me that Angela is envious of Gail Foster. Gail works long hours, is something of a perfectionist, and clients praise her, but according to Angela most of her projects make a loss. If this is the case, it is possible that Angela is attempting to 'deny the object'; the object being Gail. (Note: 'Object' is used here in its broadest sense, which is simply to indicate the 'other' to whom the self is related. In the English language object tends to be depersonalised; an object is a thing. However, when Klein (psychologist) used the word object it was as derived from the German 'objekt'. For example, in its grammatical usage, a verb relates a subject to an object, whether the object in question is a person or a thing.) The pathological aspects of narcissism, treating others as a means to an end, ruthless self-centredness, and lack of empathy, are all manifestations of the envious need to deny the importance of the object. Your analysis implies that Angela uses her position to distort the calculations relating to Gail's work, thus denying her the recognition she deserves (denying the object). If this is the case, it is quite typical of a narcissist.

Although Angela's team role appears to be a Shaper, thus depicting strong leadership qualities, in this case, the potential benefits of her leadership characteristics may be lost through her narcissistic tendencies. It is a characteristic of narcissism that at the same time that narcissistic personality traits may help managers to rise within an organisation, these same traits impair their ability to lead effectively, and as Belbin stated, "The only option is the effective leader."

With regard to your need to recommend measures to improve business performance in the future, I agree that you will need to be tactful. If you decide to challenge Angela you will have to be very sure of your ground, with solid evidence to support you. It is well documented that narcissists resort to denial, and distortion of facts, and can be extremely persuasive. As you are 'recently employed' and a 'relative outsider' you need to be very careful indeed.

As a first step, accurate recording of time spent on projects is in my opinion essential, as this will facilitate better financial analysis of project costs (although Angela may take such a recommendation as a personal slight against her). Following on from this, production of management accounts at the end of each month would enable loss making projects to be identified at an early stage.

The leadership issue also needs to be addressed. As Angela is a partner, the options appear to be limited. Perhaps the best you could achieve would be to raise the awareness of the other two partners such that they take a more active role in the management of the practice and thereby reduce the domination and control that Angela seems to have. If the partners don't already have a 'minuted' monthly meeting, it may be worthwhile recommending that one is held as soon as the management accounts are produced in order to discuss them.

For more case studies on narcissism and codependency, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.