The Narcissistic/ Codependent Culture at Work
“You know it really was a bad night when your bad night was featured on the national news.” Dr. Mosten’s face looked grave and concerned. These words were said to me in parting as my mother and I stepped out of the front door of his professional rooms onto the footpath of the treelined suburban street. From habit I tried to smile and think of something lighthearted to say, but his frown made me change my mind.
Steve and I had spent the previous night evacuating neighbouring motel guests (from 2 miles down the road) to the motel where we live and work. We had been awakened by the onsite mangers of that property, owned by the same investment group as ours, after a mysterious blaze had taken hold in the function room upstairs.
Thankfully no one was injured. My visit to the doctors that morning was for my mothers sake and had been booked many weeks before.
The fire was suspicious, however, as I had 2 computers from our Motel stolen on the same night.
In the after math of the fire, the emotional intelligence skills I teach and value (now that I have regained my composure after a tough week) have alerted me to the fact that the staff culture we live and work under at the motels must undergo urgent change.
Should Senior Officials be Questioned?
The story of our motels involves too many real life people close to me for me to share it in full here, so instead of talking directly about our life and work, I will share some related ideas from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he discusses how a cultural phenomenon he dubbed “Asian cockpit culture” once wreaked havoc with airline safety in Korea.
Summarising his ideas for Fortune magazine, Gladwell said Korean Air’s problem at this time was not old planes or poor crew training. “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical,” he said.
You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S. That’s dangerous when it comes to modern airplanes,” said Gladwell, “Because such sophisticated machines are designed to be piloted by a crew that works together as a team of equals, remaining unafraid to point out mistakes or disagree with a captain.”
Quoting from a later National Geographic article on the same book . . .
To Gladwell, this may have explained why Korean Air Flight 801 crashed into a hill while on approach to an airport in Guam in 1997, killing 223 people. In addition to a series of misfortunes, including bad weather, an offline warning system, and outdated charts, the co-pilot was afraid to question the poor judgment of the pilot, wrote Gladwell—a fatal mistake.
Similarly, Gladwell assigned blame for the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 in Long Island, New York, to human error caused by cultural differences. The plane ran out of fuel while circling JFK, leading to 73 fatalities. The pilots of the Colombian airline did not assert themselves enough with air traffic control when communicating that they were running out of fuel, wrote Gladwell.
Gladwell argued that in Colombia, as in Korea, cultural norms tended to dictate that people avoid directly questioning authority—in this case, the authority of controllers who had asked the Avianca plane to keep holding.”
I would say this problem extends well beyond Asian culture and in the context of narcissism and codependence, don’t believe this situation so unimaginable in the West.
While we may not have the same cultural protocols of blind deference towards elders and authority as they do in Korea, I believe we still have a similar systemic problem here.
Narcissistic men with fragile egos too often are promoted into positions of authority. While many of us have been “groomed” as codependents growing up, to protect these men from facing their faults.
A co-pilot not having the courage to question a pilots error is a very simple example of codependence in the workplace and the dangers it can present.”
More complex is the danger, still present, when a narcissistic leader’s shortcomings such as irresponsibility (due to an inability to look at themselves honestly), playing staff off against each other, overworking and underpaying staff etc. degrade people’s work and home life.
Most of us have experienced this type of workplace, so common we often simply see it as depressing and miss the very real dangers involved.
When people lack a stable and solid social structure to operate within, tempers can flare and people make what can end up being dangerous mistakes.
Desperate people are everywhere and not everyone has a long fuse.
In a marriage this may turn into a shouting match, where in a work place unregulated anger may not be so easily vent directly.
In our real life motel drama, Steve today is no longer playing the narcissistic role. He has often said in the past that many men who are narcissistic at home are codependent at work.
This hen may have come home to roost.
The Koreans, as I will tell in a moment, did the hard yards and turned their aviation industry around. What that story does not tell, however, is the very real and overwhelming fear involved for codependents in learning to speak up, especially with a boss.
Groomed to Protect Fragile Men
If you have grown up with a father with a fragile ego, the elephant in the room in an N/C family (that no one is allowed to talk about) is that dad’s glorified (while distorted) image of himself is something that must be protected at all cost.
More insidious than the kind of deference paid to authority figures in Asia, in the West we are raised to protect these men’s fragile egos and fear upsetting them or making them feel bad. Caring too much about not hurting a man’s pride, however, is a game that can leave families and employees at risk.
Calling out dad or the bosses errors or weaknesses, in our society still breaks many taboos.
A Law Unto Themselves
Men in the west are also often trained to close ranks as peers against any external criticism from above, below or without. Wall St. bankers and stockbrokers come instantly to mind. Despite all of the animosity society feels towards them I have never once seen a banker or stockbroker answer the criticisms levelled against them.
This is a very common phenomenon and I believe NPD and “group think” are very close to the same thing.
To give another example, a friend of mine who is a behavioural scientist who has viewed the hospital system has a dark view of how this can play out.
“As I see it, doctors in Australia are deliberately sleep deprived in their first years on duty. It ensures that mistakes will be made that will later prevent them from pointing a finger at anyone else.”
The good news is that just as the Koreans improved their air safety record, there is hope to overcome the dangers of narcissism and codependence at home and at work.
Writing in Slate, Patrick Smith—a pilot himself—wrote . . .
. . . Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation’s civil aviation system,”
According to Gladwell, that overhaul process included cultural reorientation inside the cockpit, to encourage crew to speak up about any perceived dangers and to voice concerns in plain language—not overly polite, mitigated speech that could be interpreted as vague. (emphasis added)
Those efforts paid off, according to Smith, who noted that a 2008 industry assessment ranked Korean airlines as among the safest in the world.
As they should be, Koreans are immensely proud of this turnaround, and Asiana Airlines, the nation’s number two carrier, had maintained an impeccable record of both customer satisfaction and safety,” wrote Smith.
This kind of turnaround doesn’t come easily, but is as vital at work as it is at home.
It is not about men losing their authority at home and at work, instead it is about them learning that true leadership is not built on false pride and fragile self esteem. Instead it involves a process of making sure everyone in the groups needs are heard and addressed. This encourages team work and trust.
In the last unit of my online support group and master class I have recently posted the staff documents we have put together for changing the staff culture at the motels we manage. Steve will be working through the master class material with us for the next few months too, learning how to better take on the challenge of speaking up with senior management regarding the security of the properties we now manage and making sure staff complaints are heard and addressed.
The change I started many years ago at home is now moving into our workplace.
If you would like to learn the leadership skills necessary to tackle this type of change in your home or workplace. I suggest you start with our free tutorial on the front page of this site.