How to Deal with People Who Think They Don’t Need You

When people think they can do it all themselves, new research shows what to do.

Posted Feb 05, 2019

You might work for, or be close to, someone you think has a “God Complex.” Even though you agree to share the effort in an important task, you find that this person just takes over and completes it without waiting for you. Is this just a simple case of narcissism? The picture doesn’t seem quite that simple, because the person is generally quite congenial and doesn’t go to great lengths to achieve recognition or self-aggrandizement. Maybe, instead, the person is just used to doing things alone, and rather than having a god complex, is just more comfortable as a solo performer. The problem for you becomes one of feeling like you are literally playing “second fiddle,” and will never have a chance to become part of the decision-making process.

In some ways, having a partner or coworker who does everything for you can allow you to spend more time on other things. In reality, though, you’d actually like to have input into the final product. If this is a work-related task, perhaps you don’t agree with the steps that this person is taking to get the job done. If you're dealing with a take-charge partner, part of you may feel it’s nice to have someone else do the less pleasant chores around the home. However, here too you might prefer having more input. Perhaps you've discussed re-potting some of the overgrown houseplants around the home, and by the time you returned from work, they're all sitting in their new containers. It's not how you would have done it, but now it's too late to change.

What may be almost worse than dealing with people who do things on their own is when they ask you for your input but then go on to finish the job without actually taking your perspective into account. Later, they may complain about having to do everything themselves, at which point you’re thinking “martyr complex” may be the more appropriate label than just plain "soloist." This only makes you feel more annoyed and helpless. Who can complain about a martyr, after all?

As common as this problem can be, it may surprise you to learn that psychology hasn’t specifically examined the causes and consequences of people who have the need to be soloists in everything they do. However, a new study by University of Bergen psychologist Cecilie Schou Andreassen and colleagues (2019) provides some answers. Focusing on “workaholism,” the Norwegian authors examine why people feel they need to put in effort above and beyond the call of duty and why, further, they feel they have to do everything themselves. Just to clarify, the research team defined workaholism “as a pattern of heavy work investment, long working hours, working beyond expectations, and an uncontrollable obsession with work” (p. 1).

Feeling that you need to “do it all” could certainly be related to the tendency to overwork yourself. Some of the personality factors the Norwegian authors believe can contribute to workaholism would seem to incorporate the soloist mentality, including narcissism, perfectionism, Type A behavior pattern, and even some neuroticism. The work environment can further heighten workaholism if it is one in which there are high job demands and the reward systems are built around an individual productivity model. Other features of the workplace that can contribute to workaholism include the leadership style of the boss, and particularly whether the boss shows abusive behavior toward employees.

Andreassen et al. tested a total of 9 hypotheses to understand the predictors of workaholism from workplace factors, beginning with a randomly drawn sample of 5,000 employees registered by the Norwegian government (which tracks statistics on all workers in the country). About one-third of the employees the research team contacted actually completed the questionnaires, yielding a sample of 1608 participants averaging 45 years old, with one-third holding a supervisory position of some form. The workaholism measure tapped 7 items reflecting the “core addiction symptoms” of salience, tolerance, mood modification, relapse, withdrawal, conflict, and problems, with the obvious connotation that workaholism is truly an addiction. The work environment predictors included job demands and control, problematic aspects of the work role including ambiguity and conflict, and being the target of negative acts at work (bullying, ostracism, and the like). Leadership style, personality traits, and abusive behavior on the part of the individual’s immediate superior became the final component of the workaholism equation.  

In this sample of Norwegian workers, about 7% fit the criteria for workaholism, but among all participants, scores on the workaholism scale were related to negative working conditions reflecting, in the words of the authors, the possibility “that workaholics are driven by motives such as escapism, immersion, and personal achievement.” The workaholic becomes addicted to work in an attempt “to escape uncomfortable stress” (p. 5). Unlike prior research, in which low work control is most predictive of high levels of stress, the findings from this sample suggested that workaholics work even harder, and become more stressed, when they feel in charge. A toxic work climate further contributed to workaholism, but the workaholic may create that work climate inadvertently due to “difficulties communicating, socializing, and being intimate” (p. 6). Abusive leadership seemed to have little effect on workaholic behaviors in employees, but supervisors who left the employees to decide their own work activities on their own were more likely to produce a work climate that fostered workaholism.  

Returning now to the relationship between workaholism and that soloist performer mentality, the Norwegian study suggests that people adopt this approach to life when they lack specific guidance on how else to behave when a job needs to be completed. The addiction analogy is particularly interesting in this regard. The soloist-to-be's might feel, either early in a romantic relationship or in their career, that to succeed, they have to outdo everyone else. Without knowing otherwise, they take on more than they should, and when they’ve done so, they get rewarded particularly when they receive recognition for their dedication. It’s even possible that this behavior began to take shape early in life, when their parents or teachers reinforced their belief that to gain recognition, love, and appreciation, these individuals had to show that they could succeed on their own.

Because they didn’t measure the personality traits associated with workaholism, Andreassen et al. may have missed an important set of contributors, a possibility reflected in the fact that they could only account for 28% (out of 100%) of the variation in the workaholic mentality. Furthermore, they didn’t look at workers who occupy the top of the workplace hierarchy and therefore had no bosses. Perhaps these are the people most likely to take on the soloist mindset as their jobs depend on being able to take charge. Their behavior is not only demanded, but scrutinized by all stakeholders and rewarded when their decisions turn out to be right. In relationships, there are no “CEO’s,” but there are people who may come into relationships after years of living on their own and having to do everything themselves. 

To sum up, to handle the people who act like they don’t need you, try to find a moment when you can have an honest conversation about how they make you feel. Try to break their “addictive” cycle of doing everything themselves by rewarding them for including you. Seething with resentment over being co-opted will only create a more negative environment. The key to fulfillment in relationships, whether at home or at work, is cooperation in those tasks that matter the most to you and your partner.

References

Andreassen, C. S., Nielsen, M. B., Pallesen, S., & Gjerstad, J. (2019). The relationship between psychosocial work variables and workaholism: Findings from a nationally representative survey. International Journal of Stress Management, 26(1), 1–10. doi: 10.1037/str0000073