Collectives and a Bad Case of the Narcissists

The non-hierarchical, consensus-based, mission-driven collective remains and pervades activist organizing bodies of every level. We love them, apparently. Yet I’ve seen the most collective energy drained to nothing when any one of those elements (the hierarchy, the consensus, the mission) is implicitly or explicitly challenged, and often from within. Someone is in some way not operating non-hierarchically, in a way that is supportive of consensus or, some would argue, in alliance with the mission, and the whole collective devolves into a miserable landscape of extra meetings and long emails with many feelings. Collectives work, often brilliantly, until they don’t. At least, collectives who haven’t put anything in place to avoid such situations. Collectives such as these can empower individuals to participate and learn from the get-go, stemming from social intelligence and group wisdom. However, collectives can also create the perfect framework for a narcissist to completely take over, invisibilized by the nature of the collective itself.

One elder member of a collective I’m a part of provided a specific skill to one of the working groups that was very much needed in order to do the work. She had been either unreachable or hostile when called during high-stress situations where both her skill, experience, and tact were necessary. In those situations, she would alienate everyone she spoke with, several times collaborated with law enforcement, and generally left nearly everyone, and certainly all of the younger members, deeply distrusting of her. As such, they were unable to do the work. She was confronted during debriefs of the incidents and during one particularly awful meeting held with the intention of holding her accountable.

It was miserable to bear witness to these younger members from the working group putting enormous emotional labor into every word of explaining how she had hurt them and how they couldn’t trust her, only to have each point counteracted in truly olympic backflips of retelling and gaslighting by the elder lady. The worst, or the most impressive lack of listening, was when members informed her that we would be looking for others with her skillset to act separately from her when we needed them. That was when she pulled out the big guns: “You can’t get anyone better than me,” “I am the best you’re going to get,” and “I won’t allow it.” I recognized something in her tone and exclamations. Ah, I realized. This all made sense now. We were dealing with a narcissist.

I am not a psychologist and I certainly cannot make a diagnosis, but I can point to a few key behavioral traits that popped up in this situation (going right down the list here), under which “narcissist” is a fitting umbrella term. She evidently needed constant admiration from others, in her frequent self-tributes to her own experience and value, and clearly she expected special treatment and obedience from others as a result of her skills. Her lack of listening could be attributed to an unwillingness to empathize with others’ feelings, wishes, or needs, and her self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions was in full force as she defended her role as the sole purveyor of her skills, and that she should continue working alone, when the whole meeting had shown that we found her alone to be inadequate.

The narcissist, in this situation, caused ripples of anguish and wasted energy throughout the whole organization, and continues to, as the parties remain at an impasse, more meetings are called for, more strategizing done for how to overcome this blockage. Much of the work has ceased and doing outreach for more with her skills is equally at a standstill. Is this what she wants? A lot of attention, and to feel special and powerful? The collective, a collection of utterly brilliant organizers, is vesting all of its energy into this one blocked pipe, and is burning out.  As my wife described it when we discussed this recently, “Narcissists make collectives stupider.” The smart collective had lost its edge.

When an experienced member of a collective pulls a power play, such as making an ultimatum or blocking a consensus, such a move exists behind a massive collective blind spot, because every collective member has implicitly agreed to specific values and actions– non-hierarchical, consensus-based, mission-driven– by their presence, and everyone gives everyone else that best faith that they’re operating under the same principles. A paradox emerges wherein within the definitionally non-hierarchical, collective, someone has pulled rank, which makes it, thus, a hierarchy. Whoops!

Power, particularly power over, will not fail to infuse our every interaction just because the space had been declared a power-free zone, like a banished evil spirit. Being non-hierarchical must be as ongoing of a process like the external work itself. We see this play out often when larger collectives of people must reckon with internalized trans/homophobia, racism, misogyny, ableism, etc., which all inevitably bubble up in diverse settings of collective members with unchecked perspective and privilege. And power itself, not just how it plays out on vectors of oppression, must be wrestled with; that is, if the space bills itself as non-hierarchical.

Because otherwise, the application of the non-hierarchical label implies we can be safely disarmed of our need to compete with others for power within a space. As a result, most members enter into a collective group setting in the spirit of working together and collaboratively finding solutions, assuming that everyone else does, too. This is a setup. Those with little to no regard for collaborative values have all but been handed the opportunity to use coercive tactics on a group of people without recourse. Disarmament only works when everyone’s on board.. When that someone isn’t and asserts their power by blocking a consensus or just group process in general, it’s a big problem.

The non-hierarchical, consensus-driven collective does not, as a rule, account for assholes. I saw this when I taught a summer leadership program for youth from a war-divided country. We assembled them in Arizona Town Hall-style decision-making bodies, trying to get them to work on seeing through each other’s differences in order to build consensus. But we did not account for the assholes! Two students among the whole group would block consensus whenever they could, simply because they could. The process was ultimately inordinately frustrating for everyone.

I do not have a solution here. It seems that if people are going to be involved in collectives, they should have a collective ethos at the very least. But so much organizing is already done in good faith of our fellow organizers, or in the best faith we have following whatever vetting we do, that I’m not sure how to be on the lookout for that, or to be vigilant as collectives are in process. I think thinking through group processes in less-than-ideal scenarios would be more useful than best-case scenarios. Accounting for the narcissists and the assholes seems wiser than assuming that everyone’s going to work together once an intention for a group is set.

So, how do we avoid an overt concentration of power, and, as a corollary, concentration of skillsets among members? How do we prevent blocks to process, valuing motion and action, in particular the unimpeded flow of energy, such a rare resource when it comes about? How do we foster collective values among members but also not force it when the shoe simply doesn’t fit? Overall, how do we make our organizations smart and responsive, rather than bogged down in process and capable of being held up by a single person, while also not steamrolling individuals or succumbing to groupthink? These are the questions we need to  incorporate into the care and keeping of our organizing bodies, into collectives that build upon all of our smarts and require equitable buy-in of collective-maintaining emotional energy from all of us, not allowing for opt-outs and manipulation from those who would prefer to hold up group process instead.

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