Do not betray your values to indulge self-absorbed clients.
I was waiting for a train when I ran into a big celebrity. We’ve known each other for years. When I was a reporter who covered his comings and goings, he gushed at my presence. When I ran for political office he contributed to my campaign and even called on occasion. When I wrote a book, he was happy to be quoted and see his name in print. Yet recently when I walked up to him with a big hello and outstretched hand, he barely acknowledged me saying “oh hi, nice to see you” and then quickly walked away.
At first I was surprised. Surprise turned to annoyed. Annoyed turned to insulted. Then I realized caring at all was a waste of energy. Most of us have come across people like this. They welcome you with open arms when they think you are in a position to help or possibly hurt them. When you no longer hold those cards, they discard you like a used tissue. Their former smiles, grandiose gestures and attentiveness were never sincere to begin with.
My psychologist friend classifies many of these people as narcissists; people who believe the world revolves around them. She says they tend to be charming but use their charm as a means to get what they want. She says they often have a sense of entitlement and have no problem taking advantage of others which can be dangerous both personally and professionally.
So by now you’re probably thinking of someone you know who fits that description and perhaps wondering what you can do about their behavior if it’s affecting you or others in the workplace.
For starters, understand that most of these people probably don’t realize or care that you consider their behavior inappropriate as they do not share your values. So you have three choices:
1. You can ignore their conduct and kiss up to them because you think you need them.
2. You can develop strategies to deal with them especially if you have to interact with them in the workplace.
3. You can avoid them completely.
Years ago we received an urgent Saturday afternoon call from a CEO begging for help. His company was about to take a public beating. His reputation was at stake and he wanted us to help strategize the right way to approach the problem and communicate to different stakeholders; specifically the media. We dropped everything to work through the weekend and then some. When all was said and done, the negative coverage was minimal and his public problems went away.
Yet when we sent a bill, he didn’t pay the full amount. Thinking it was an honest mistake; I called him and learned he paid less on purpose. During the course of the event, he asked us to stretch the truth at someone else’s expense which we would not do. Despite the quick positive results he said he wasn’t satisfied because we didn’t agree to his demands. Stunned, we never recovered the money but learned never to work with people who do not share our core values.
I know a highly paid professor who is adept at getting others to do her work for her. While she is paid to teach at an Ivy League institution, every week she invites a subject expert to teach her class, but does not pay the speaker. She claims she’s giving these people opportunities and hints that because she is well connected in business and politics there will be professional payoffs down the road. I used to buy this and conducted classes as well as provided free counsel for her many times until I realized I was being used. When I stopped accepting engagements she asked why so I told her the truth. She told me I was making a mistake.
Today, she is in a powerful position and we no longer work together. People have questioned why I won’t rekindle the relationship when she could throw big contracts our way. Some have advised me to step down from my moral high horse and go with option one. Others suggest having strategies in place to interact with her is a wise compromise because it would keep the relationship with this powerful person intact.
I chose option three which probably cost us some business and definitely cost us referrals. But my reasoning is simple. We do not share the same values and ethics therefore she is not the right fit for our company, clients or brand. When you betray your core values, you know it in your gut. You feel queasy, lose sleep and can obsess over it.
But when you surround yourself with partners, friends and colleagues who share your values, you feel more grounded. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius told his son “to thine own self be true.”
When we fail to listen to our inner voice, not only can we ignore our values and deceive ourselves, but we can also mislead those who believe in us.
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