Is My Millennial Co-Worker a Narcissist, or Am I a Jealous Jerk?

Is My Millennial Co-Worker a Narcissist, or Am I a Jealous Jerk?

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My co-worker seems to work more for their (I don’t want to specify gender) personal brand than for the company. This team member posts their whereabouts on Slack: They’re at a conference, at class (coursework tangential to their job), working from home! They keep us up to date on the minutiae of their travel (leaving at 11 a.m.! on a train without Wi-Fi until 7 p.m.!). They meet their goals, but I’m not privy to what their results look like — are they treading water or exceeding their goals?

I could be glad this younger co-worker is out and about so much, but the department doesn’t benefit in any way. (We’re in marketing.) When this co-worker reports on conferences, they don’t say how what they learned will help us.

Another co-worker and I try to sort out if we’re jealous. (We have family obligations and perhaps we’re a bit stodgy?) But I think if someone is getting smarter on the company dollar, they should share with their team. Instead, we’re on the outside, watching our co-worker flit from thing to thing, polishing their own brand.

Am I not thinking the new-think? Or is this person a workplace narcissist? Why does it bother us so much? What language can I use with co-worker’s supervisor and the department head that doesn’t make it seem like a personality issue, but about adding value to the organization? Or is it just that co-worker’s personality and mine are far apart and I should look for my own classes and conferences and polish my own brand?

What’s the balance between what’s good for the individual vs. good for the team?

— K.C.

I’ve previously outed myself as a millennial in this column, and I suppose I should further disclose that I recently (and quite publicly) quit my job and got a new one thanks in part to my largely positive reputation in an industry known for absurd levels of upheaval. So! I am impressed by your colleague’s savvy brand-building, which I strongly suspect has less to do with narcissism than with their experiences making a career in a post-financial crisis world. I have never had a job that didn’t feel tenuous, which means I have never had the freedom to not obsess over my personal brand and whether I’m doing enough to burnish it through work, social media, skill-building and networking. Of course we would rather quit Twitter and stop going to conferences and professional mixers and take all our vacation days and develop real hobbies and deeper human connections, but the entire economic system has shown us over and over that we cannot, because we will end up broke disappointments to everyone we know. (Malcolm Harris’s excellent book “Kids These Days,” which details how millennials were shaped by economic trauma, is a worthwhile read on this subject.)

If you are interested in taking classes and attending conferences, why not take your company up on its ability to pay for them? If you’re not in a position to attend because of your family commitments, that’s O.K. too, but it doesn’t mean your colleague needs to stop attending. If opportunities aren’t being doled out unequally and you aren’t being forced to take on extra work to cover for their absence, whether they are an average performer or a superstar really doesn’t concern you. The fact that you are not responsible for this person’s work outcomes and that you are considering complaining to their supervisor — who is responsible for said work outcomes, and surely knows where their employee is on a given day — suggests it is not in fact about “adding value” but pure resentment.

This is the economic system’s fault, too. You’ve been set up to resent millennials just as much as we’ve been set up to resent you. The good news is that you can still break the cycle.

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