The dangerous safety narcissist
Stand up to boorish, self-absorbed arrogance
Recently, I came across Aaron James’ latest book, (Editor’s note: To avoid offending readers, we are not using the book’s title nor repeated references taken from the title describing a part of the anatomy. Google Dr. Aaron James to get his precise definition). Dr. James provides a three-part “theory” for these tactless, intolerable people, which is:
In interpersonal relations, this condescending egotist:
1. Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
2. Does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
3. Is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.1
This person truly believes he is very special with very special privileges. The “entrenched sense of entitlement” is grounded in his motivational makeup. The feeling of entitlement is not something that surfaces out of some periodic urge, but is “entrenched,” revealing itself as the norm2. In all likelihood this guy will never see any reason to change and in many ways is afflicted with narcissistic personality disorder.
What is a safety narcissist?
Drawing upon Dr. James’ theory (i.e., definition), I’ll take a stab at categorizing a Safety narcissist into two groups of individuals – the employee version and the safety professional version.
Employee Safety Narcissist3
The employee narcissist tends to take exception to the various safety rules and procedures he is expected to follow during the course of his work. He may not verbally express his indifference to safety protocols, but in all likelihood will display it by cutting corners, failing to properly wear safety gear, deliberately ignoring safety requirements, placing fellow employees in harms way, not watching out for anyone but himself, systematically thinking of ways to beat the system, intentionally disobeying direct instructions from supervisors, accusing management of being more interested in profits and productivity than employee safety, etc.
Other employees often become outraged when having to work or deal with a narcissist. The outrage surfaces because the narcissist does not see himself as an equal to his colleagues in any shape, fashion, or form. Consequently, when a complaint is lodged against him, he remains unaffected due to his robust sense of entitlement. Even if his colleagues isolate him from their conversations and daily routine, the narcissist is very accepting of this response because this is what he does to those around him all the time. In essence, it is his way of surviving.
Safety Professional Narcissist
Of the arrogant, inconsiderate safety professionals I have known, most have been well into their career as opposed to just starting their career. These so-called professionals tend to be self-absorbed in their demeanor and are not phased by criticism. Often they believe their employer does not value employee safety and consequently they assume the role of being a crusader for employee safety with a twist.
The twist comes in how they go about advocating their safety point of view. For example, they might use monitoring equipment in such a manner that provides false readings that indicate an unsafe environment to work, which can be used to argue for increased and more costly protection measures that are unnecessary. Or cavalier statements will be issued saying management is signaling the organization to not report injuries in order to portray a safe organization to stakeholders.
The odious, entrenched sense of entitlement comes from a cynical opinion of management at all levels, supervisors on up, and a complete lack of trust in management’s intentions when it comes to safety. This so-called professional holds his resentment to himself, sharing it only with employees to garner trust with the alleged downtrodden employees.
When a plant manager complains to this guy’s supervisor, very little happens. The supervisor placates the plant manager, has a conversation with his subordinate, who likely has a pat response to the complaint, and life goes on.
How to manage boorish behavior
As a cancer survivor, I metaphorically liken the safety narcissist to a “cancer cell in our midst.” Allowed to continue his behavior, the “cell” metastasizes into a significant morale issue that may lead to employees exhibiting poor safety judgments and becoming injured.
When the employee safety narcissist does not follow a safety procedure or fails to wear PPE and is not held accountable for his behavior, others in the organization may start to think this behavior is condoned and mirror it.
The safety professional narcissist version may take exception to a safety colleague’s directions to a work crew, counteract the directions, which then leads to confusion among the work crewmembers and possible injury.
Realize this boorish, “cancerous” behavior is unlikely to change. Here are some general approaches you can take:
Dr. James draws upon the Greek Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who wrote, “If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you.”4
So consider your response before taking action. Is the irritation something you need to act on or just want to? Focus on the safety of employees as opposed to the reformation of the narcissist. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it is on your terms, not his terms.5
Also, “take a stand at the right time.” When is the “right time?” Dr. James suggests “often enough.” Again, think about preserving your own self-respect and upholding the rights of other fellow employees.6
Personally, I believe taking a stand does not occur often enough. It is why employee and safety professional narcissists and boors persistently get away with being rude boys. With the litigious nature of our society, people shy away from taking action for fear of being sued. This fear has been raised to the level that almost any corrective action is paralyzed, leaving the malcontents to continue their ways. In some cases, this inaction is due to the employee or manager being duped by the jerk.
We all have choices to make. You can ignore the safety narcissist and retreat into your personal comfort zone or you can decide to take a stand at the right moment. If you decide to take a stand, pick your timing carefully to increase your chances the fix will stick. Always remember to focus your action in the best interests of your fellow employees, not on unchangeable behavior of the boorish narcissist.