Does your department have a narcissist or a Machiavellian?

I work in a wonderful Psychology department. It is everything the last place I worked isn’t. Collegiality actually means something here. Senior staff actually take on senior roles, instead of dumping it on junior staff (except, of course, the REF/RAE, where a prof, the one I am actually about to talk about, headed that up. But his idea of ‘heading up’ the REF/RAE is to farm it out to everyone else and then use cut and paste), teaching is taken seriously, and students and staff welfare matter.

A couple of months ago, a book was published by a well known psychologist who you see in the media regularly, about nefarious colleagues. You know, the ones that you watch your back with. Apparently, they can be divided into sociopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellian’s. Sociopaths are, apparently, so skilled you’d never know you were working with one. But I’ve had the dubious pleasure of working with the other two types. In the same department.

The narcissist was relatively easy to avoid, as I never really crossed paths with him. But there were certain staff that he enjoyed making their life a misery. Luckily, after about a year most people cottoned on to him. They may be devious, and complete wankers, but subtlety isn’t in their nature.

Two others in the department were Machiavellian’s, a senior member of staff and a more junior one. They were best of buds, of course. The pair of them, working together, effectively set up factions in the department. There were certain people that, for some unknown reason, they took a dislike to, and anyone associated with the person they disliked tended to be on the receiving end of some very subtle, devious, behaviour.

Factions occur in lots of departments. Usually between senior staff as they are the only ones who can get away with such appalling behaviour. A strong HoD can reign this in. If, however, there is weak leadership, trouble will brew, and it makes for an extremely unpleasant and hostile environment.

Machiavellian’s, coupled with weak leadership, is a particularly toxic combo for junior staff caught up in the middle. Ever tried applying for promotion when a Machiavellian doesn’t like you and is on the promotion committee? Suddenly, your publication and grant record isn’t good enough. Ahh…ahhh…they say. Your publications aren’t in the right journals (read: Nature and Science. Response: neither are yours!). You don’t do enough teaching (response: I actually teach just above the average, at undergrad and postgrad), you don’t have PhD students through to completion (response: gee, thanks for the vote of confidence), you don’t go to enough conferences (response: well, give me some money and I’ll go to more). One colleague in the same department got similar comments despite the fact that she did three times the amount of average teaching and goes to around three international conferences a year.

And, yet, Prof Mach’s protégé can get promoted despite having not actually conducted any research in five years.

Basically, if you have a Machiavellian in your department, get out now….


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