Flying monkeys and falling under a narcissist’s spell
Like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, a narcissist will have at least one or two indignant, highly loyal flying monkeys at their beck and call to execute their orders.
Despite the colourful metaphor, this kind of narcissistic behaviour can seriously affect staff morale and individual mental health.
And not knowing the signs and allowing it to go unmanaged can put your people and your business at risk.
What is a narcissist’s flying monkey?
While they may not be inciting their flying monkeys to kidnap the nearest pig-tailed, ruby-slippered teenager, a narcissist relies on their loyal followers to fight their battles for them.
In the workplace, flying monkeys are usually colleagues who have been subtly manipulated into feeling sorry for, protective over, and/or loyal to a narcissist.
They are typically easy-going, empathetic people who tend to be easily led. They are unlikely to question someone else’s version of events, especially if that person is telling their side of the story with the utmost conviction.
They won’t realise that they are being manipulated, lied to, or used by the narcissist.
How do flying monkeys serve the narcissist?
To ensure that their version of reality is upheld, a narcissist needs people who agree with and enforce their perspective.
Say a narcissist is unhappy with a manager’s decision to change the rota because they see it as a personal snub. They might turn to their flying monkey and say: “Isn’t this unfair? The manager changed the rota to make things difficult for me. I don’t want to cause a fuss, but I am not the only one who is upset. Honestly, it’s shocking!”
The flying monkey wouldn’t question the narcissist’s perspective, and the next thing you know, the monkey is charging into the manager’s office accusing them of poor management.
In that moment, they’re genuinely incensed and bitterly angry towards the manager. But it’s not because that’s how they feel themselves; they’re being fed this perspective by the narcissist, who vastly prefers having others fight their battles for them.
How a manager can tell someone is being manipulated at work
When it comes to identifying a potential flying monkey, context is key.
Your colleagues are absolutely within their rights to defend a co-worker or express concerns about the workplace. It’s important to investigate each instance carefully without making assumptions.
However, keeping an eye out for patterns in behaviour can help you diffuse the situation. When a usually content, motivated, affable colleague begins to exhibit the following behaviours, it’s time to take note:
- They bring up an issue and justify it by saying: “I’m not the only one who feels this way!” If pressed, they may be vague or unsure about who else is unhappy.
- They express concerns followed by “I’m not unhappy, but I’ve heard that there are bad things going on.” Again, they may not know where they heard this from.
- They start buddying up with a new work-friend around the same time that their behaviour, performance and/or attitude changes for the worse.
- They and this new buddy accuse another member of staff of bullying or misconduct; this is known as the triangulation effect.
Again, it’s all about context here. These behaviours aren’t an absolute guarantee that someone is becoming a flying monkey, but they’re worth keeping an eye out for.
How can I tell if someone is trying to make me their flying monkey?
Just because you’re a non-confrontational person who sees the best in others doesn’t mean you have to fall into the flying monkey trap.
There are plenty of behaviours you can watch out for that could indicate that someone’s a potential narcissist, including:
- Targeted or excessive gossiping.
- Making a habit of accusing others of bullying or misconduct.
- Hearing the same “I am the victim” narrative again and again.
However, the biggest litmus test to determine whether someone is trying to recruit you to be their emotional flunky is that they will not respect a very reasonable boundary.
A narcissist is only interested in “befriending” people who are not going to challenge them; they want someone malleable and who will compromise their own needs.
Let’s return to the original example of the rota change. Your boundary could be as simple as responding to a narcissist’s version of events with: “Oh, I don’t think that’s the case. I’d rather not talk about this, if you don’t mind, as it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.” That small but very firm line in the sand would get you dropped by the narcissist faster than a Kansas farmhouse that’s been spat out of a hurricane.
How can a manager help a flying monkey?
As a manager, you have to reckon with the knowledge that your unhappy, dissatisfied colleague might never have felt that way if it wasn’t for the narcissist’s manipulation tactics.
In a worst-case scenario, you’ll have a popular, productive member of staff putting in their notice because they cannot stomach the injustice they’re “seeing”, even if it’s not really occurring.
Here’s how you can better manage and protect your staff if you suspect someone is being made into a flying monkey (FM):
- Ensure you have a robust relationship with any potential FMs, so they have less reason to take up the narcissist’s cause.
- If the FM comes to HR with a complaint, emphasise that you truly want to help and that the best way to do that is to encourage the person who’s having an issue to come to HR directly.
- If you’re in the thick of a dispute, let the FM know that there’s a path back. Reassure them that it’s OK to have serious frustrations with the business and that they can return to how things were afterwards.
Narcissism and its corresponding behaviours can cause serious damage to a business. From sabotaging morale to causing huge personal rifts to form amongst staff, it can be a huge threat to the health and happiness of your people.
While this personality type can pose a significant challenge to managers and colleagues alike, there are steps you can take to mitigate the wrath of the narcissist. Check out the next blog post for the best ways to manage narcissistic behaviour in the workplace.