Is There a Killer on your Staff?


Who is Assassinating Your Profits and Killing Employee Passion?
This is an article about costly manipulation and deception that often goes unrecognized in many business units and companies; instigated by narcissistic middle managers engaging in selfish power plays designed for the sole purpose of creating their own personal fiefdoms. If not proactively addressed by senior management, earnings and morale will suffer, a healthy teamwork environment will be disrupted, expenses will increase unnecessarily, inefficiencies will certainly occur, human resource headaches will ensue, lawsuits may become reality, and good staff members will either become less effective or seek employment elsewhere. Yes, it can be that bad.


Therefore, it’s extremely important for senior managers to remain vigilant in identifying the telltale signs of disruptive, albeit well-camouflaged, behaviors. Many leaders aren’t adept at identifying subtle characteristics found in some self-serving staff members who disguise their intentions. It is upper management’s responsibility to acknowledge and challenge power plays, and the actors behind the veil, once they are discovered.

During the 20th century, pathways to successful corporate advancement had less to do with teamwork and collaboration, and more to do with self-interest. Self-serving managers were often lauded for their tenacious, take no prisoners, approach to business. Although team-focused problem solving is increasingly commonplace in contemporary business environments, vanity and ambition continue to direct the paths of many managers. While organizational hierarchy is not immune to self-serving activities, disruptive internal power plays are more likely to occur with middle managers.

narcissitMiddle managers, like most others, seek ways to expand their workplace opportunities. However, narcissistic “it’s all about me” mid-level managers often engage in activities that initially, and incorrectly, appear consistent with corporate priorities. These personality types become easier to identify with experience and time; and their indicators become increasingly recognizable.

The following are three examples I’ve personally experienced:

I was once hired by a public company and had the misfortune to have been placed under the simultaneous authority of two vice presidents with polar opposite agendas. One VP’s power was real and was the natural result of his large financial holdings at the company. The other’s power came from what he could ostensibly bring to the company in the form of market share; and his upside was a lucrative bundle of stock options. He was driven and spent whatever it took to get the job done. The major stockholder sought a more deliberative path for the company.

tug-of-warUnfortunately for me, I was their horse. I had two riders and they tugged me in opposite directions. “Don’t tell him about this or that” was often in conflict with “What’s he doing about this or that?” The continual tug-of-war was grossly unfair and untenable. Their many secrets involving actionable items resulted in gross inefficiencies and other problems. It was a garden variety power play. The Board, CEO, COO, and President were aware of the problem, but failed to act. That neglect was an important catalyst in the genesis that led to the company’s eventual failure.

Shortly after I joined a large company as a senior manager/executive, a mid-level manager approached me with an organizational chart and argued for restructuring, role changes, and adjustments to titles. He was smart, presented logical arguments, and deftly countered many of my concerns. In the end, he sold me on the concept and I was successful in convincing company leadership to move forward with the plan.

ahhhhhI was new to the team and didn’t know the players that well. In that, I failed to recognize his agenda. He camouflaged his real goal by shifting other individuals on the organization chart in the process. I eventually discovered he simply wanted a lauded resume-building title without further responsibilities. In the process, other staff members were given responsibilities and authority that resulted in unimaginable conflict. In the ensuing years it became clear corporate leadership recognized the underlying purpose for those lobbying efforts; but failed to reveal their knowledge of the real intentions of the lobbyist. They didn’t take any constructive actions to address the resulting issues either. Transparency would have prevented many problems.

empirebuilding3. EMPIRE BUILDERS
These are the worst offenders in a business environment. They’re destructive, manipulative, and self-centered. In contrast to their outward behaviors, Empire Builders are generally very insecure individuals who seek self-validation and security; at the expense of all others, including the company. They covet power and prestige, thereby attempting to convey their value and legitimacy to superiors.

Empire Builders can be a single person or a small group of individuals that attempt to control important projects, key responsibilities, and company direction. Here are some key indicators consistent with Empire Builders:

Foot in the Door
“Can I help you with this project?”
“Can I do this part of your job for a few weeks, just so I understand it better?”

passiongoneThese are common methods used by Empire Builders to take over projects, duties, even entire divisions. They get their foot in the door and do whatever is necessary to expand their authority and responsibilities in that area. Once their foot is in the door, the singular goal is to expand, rather than relinquish, control. In doing so they intentionally marginalize others, undermine trust, and diminish the conscientious passion of their victims.

Just Getting the Job Done
“I’m sorry he was offended that I took care of the need. I was just trying to make sure the job got done.”

“She shouldn’t be upset that I handled it. I thought it was important to get the job done.”

The excuse of “getting the job done” is simply that – an excuse. When an Empire Building coworker deliberately steps on the toes of another and blankets the sleight in the guise of “getting the job done” they are accomplishing four goals.

Getting their foot in the door (see “Foot in the Door” above).

Diminishing the value of their coworker.

Elevating their own perceived value.

Enhancing their job security.

No Mistakes
frustratedEmpire Builders are extremely insecure and engage in blame shifting to avoid accepting responsibility for errors. They seldom concede mistakes and avoid accepting responsibility when they err. I once witnessed this childlike behavior, involving an Empire Builder, over something trivial. No reasonable adult would ever engage in conduct like this:

A color laser printer and a monochrome laser printer served a suite of offices, and were shared by 6 or 7 individuals. The color printer jammed and “Stacy” removed the jammed document.

As the Empire Builder, “Monique” approached the jammed printer to retrieve her document, “Stacy” pointed to the crinkled color printout and said, “This was jammed in the printer.” The Empire Builder quickly retorted, “That’s not mine. I printed mine in black and white. I’m not responsible for jamming the printer.” The jammed color document was clearly part of “Monique’s” coveted project; a project that only involved one person – “Monique.”

headdownEmpire Builders are master manipulators who thirst for credit at every turn; and will throw coworkers under the bus at every opportunity. Their behavior is often sycophantic, but only when their target is positioned to enhance the Empire Builder’s agenda and career path. Their self-serving interests trump corporate needs and budgetary concerns. If left to their own devices they will squander company resources in their driven narcissistic quest for power and control.

Empire Builders are, at their core, dishonest individuals. They are accomplished liars. They are greedy, mean, and contemptuous. I often refer to them as EBITDA Eroders, Corporate Culture Crushers, and Enthusiasm Exterminators.

Power plays, corporate ladder climbing, and empire building are all counterproductive and unhealthy workplace activities. They are counter to healthy collaboration and harmful to team centered efforts. Those engaged in such activities are profit assassins. Once identified, senior management should quickly act to discourage and eradicate these destructive behaviors.


Seahorse photo courtesy of Coby Bidwell
Name Tag photo courtesy of Paul Brigham
Good Against Bad photo courtesy of Michael Heiss
Passion Gone photo courtesy of Johnny Wave
Empire State Building photo courtesy of Shawn Hoke
Screaming Eve photo courtesy of Lisa Brewster
Frustrated Lady photo courtesy of Robert Semk
Laptop photo courtesy of Marsmettn Tallahassee

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Steve provides ghostwriting services that include online articles and White Paper development. Additional writing services include collaborating with clients needing assistance in drafting critical correspondence, and other written works, tailored to specific goals.

Steve is also available as a consultant for businesses needing to identify underlying issues impacting business viability; as well as the development and deployment of solutions necessary to improve profitability, culture, and opportunities.

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