How to identify and cope with narcissism in the workplace

If you are managing a strategic business unit in an organisation, or an employee working within one, one this is certain. You need to identify and cope with narcissism in the workplace to some degree, in order to achieve your strategic goals for your organisation!

The Marketing department or strategic business unit (SBU) is generally what I would regard as one of the most important department, since it must interact with all other departments. ‘If your marketing is good, then the sales department reaps the rewards, bringing home continual sales. It is the engine which drives the business. But the marketing department does need to reply on other departments for overall success, and deals with many personalities and different departments, therefore the probability of a Marketer or Marketing Manager running into someone ‘difficult’ is well let’s say, high!

What happens when you are working in an organisation and encounter people which limit you or make it hard for you to drive your marketing projects forward? It can be the same if you are managing the Finance, Service, Sales, IT or Manufacturing department too. What if? You encounter people which are toxic and exhibit narcissism traits?

In marketing we are used to research but do we do enough internal research and understand the ‘people’ dynamic in our organisation? Many of us write off bad experiences to ‘corporate politics’, or is there more to it?

Now what happens when you encounter narcissism in your organisation?

  • Are you able to achieve your goals?
  • Stay on Budget?
  • Work well with other strategic business units?

Many of us have had challenging and sometimes traumatic experiences of dealing with narcissists in our personal lives. So, what do you have to do if you must work with a narcissist, maybe a boss?

Where does narcissism come from?

Firstly, let’s go back to the beginning. Narcissism is a term that originated from Greek mythology, where the young Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. Narcissism is a concept in psychoanalytic theory primarily advanced by Sigmund Freud.

American Psychiatric Association has had the classification of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 1968. The Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) (formerly known as megalomania or, colloquially, as egotism) is a form of pathological narcissism. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV-TR defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as "an all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behaviour), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts", such as family life and work.

Which Industries are attractive to people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)?

Narcissists gravitate toward professions and work which guarantees them an abundant supply of willing co-dependents. Such as:

  • Teaching
  • Clergy
  • Entertainment Industry
  • Corporate Management
  • Medical Profession
  • Military
  • Law Enforcement
  • Politics
  • Sports

Behavioural characteristics exhibited by Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) individuals:

  • A feeling of grandiosity and self-importance, as exhibited by exaggerating accomplishments, talents, skills and even lying about them.
  • A lack of psychological self-awareness.
  • An obsession with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, beauty or sexual dominance.
  • Extreme difficulty feeling or being devoid of empathy.
  • Constantly comparing self to others; envious or jealous of others.
  • Convinced they are unique, special, and not needing to comply with norms and rules that apply to others; a sense of entitlement.
  • Severe problems in sustaining healthy relationships.
  • Hypersensitivity to any insults, or criticism (real or imagined).
  • Interpersonally exploitive—i.e. Uses others to achieve personal needs.
  • Denial of remorse and guilt—Unable to admit fault or apologise.
  • Unable to denote boundaries between themselves and others—see others merely as extension of themselves.
  • Being envious of others and believing others are envious of them.

Their appearance is very important to narcissists, and they continually are comparing themselves to others, wanting to look better. Narcissists are commonly charismatic and charming, with considerable abilities to influence and persuade others. They are also often highly intelligent and gifted communicators. Many narcissists become very successful in terms of wealth, status or fame. They believe and act upon the belief that they are above the law, regulations and social norms, and only adhere to their own personal desires. As a result, they engage in destructive behaviours, often without consequences, which reinforces for them that they can “get away” with anything. Narcissists are unable to empathise with others and consider their feelings or needs.

Narcissists frequently use aggression, anger and abuse to control other people. This erupts to the surface frequently when they are criticised or challenged. Narcissists also try to control others by being unpredictable, ambiguous and contradictory. Right and wrong for them is determined by whatever they want to do in the moment. And they can change their views, actions and rationale for them on a whim, instantly, even if it’s contradictory. Further, a narcissist believes that only he or she has the right to determine the needs of his loyal followers. He or she doesn’t respect or acknowledge others’ independence of thought and action, and will often punish them for anything less than blind loyalty.

At the same time, narcissists, lie frequently in order to feed their self-image and grandiosity, even if the lies eventually catch up with them.

About the Narcissistic Leader

The narcissistic leader has a source of supply of employees and colleagues who can continuously provide flattery, attention and sometimes blind obedience. Narcissistic leaders generally can be successful in achieving short-term success, but in the long-term, damage employees and their companies. It can be deduced that narcissists actual do not perform any better than others in a leadership role. But it is not surprising that they become leaders, since they like power, are egotistical, usually charming and extroverted.

When does narcissism occur in the workplace?

Corporate narcissism occurs when a narcissist becomes CEO or other leadership roles within the senior management team and gathers an adequate mix of co-dependents around him or her to support their narcissistic behaviour. Narcissists profess company loyalty but are only really committed to their own agendas, thus organisational decisions are founded on the narcissist's own interests rather than the interests of the organisation, the various stakeholders, or the society in which the organisation operates within.

Strategies in Dealing with The Narcissists in the Workplace First, I would argue that attempts to control, change or modify the behaviour of an individual with NPD will likely be unsuccessful and backfire, based upon my review of the research and my experience coaching narcissistic leaders. My best advice would be to get as far away from them as possible. The help they need is with an experienced psychotherapist. With respect to narcissists who don’t have NPD, but exhibit less pronounced narcissistic behaviours, here are some suggestions to deal with them:

  • Ignore them and don’t react if they are abusive. They’ll move on to another target;
  • It’s not about you when you get attacked. Their behaviour is a disorder;
  • When you communicate something that is needed or desired, do so in terms of his self-interest and image. For example, “It’s great that you’ve introduced a policy of more time off for employees on Friday afternoon…that’s really generous of you.”
  • If you decide to avoid them, don’t change your mind.
  • Watch out for their attempts at “gaslighting,” where they try to get you to doubt your perceptions, memory and conclusions.
  • Make good eye contact and speak confidently but not in a critical manner or aggressive manner; don’t show a lack of confidence.
  • Don’t try to appeal to their empathy or compassion.
  • Do not ask them to put themselves in your shoes to see your point of view. They are not capable of that.
  • Never disagree with the narcissist or contradict him particularly in front of other people; he will punish you for doing so.
  • Do not make any comment, which might directly or indirectly affect their narcissist's self-image.
  • You can stand your ground without justifying or defending yourself; you can say “you’re right,” about his or her perception without agreeing with the substance of his or her view. Important Do Not Argue!
  • Never offer him or her any personal intimacy - narcissists don’t value that.
  • Look awed by whatever accomplishment or attribute matters to him or her.
  • • Do not say things like the following: "I think you overlooked … made a mistake here … you don't know … do you know … you cannot … you should,”
  • If you are attacked abusively, respond by saying, “That’s not okay,” and walk away.

A word of caution: Don’t think you can outsmart a person with NPD, because for you to do so you would have to become like him or her!

5 types of Narcissists at work

The Know-It-All Narcissist

This co-worker is always eager to give his or her opinion, even when unsolicited, and believes he or she knows more than anyone else, no matter the topic under conversation. He or she usually finds it difficult to collaborate because they consider themselves smarter and more insightful than anyone else. They like to lecture, and have a hard time listening because they are too busy thinking about what they want to say next.

How to cope: If possible, ignore the “helpful” suggestions, or offer polite thanks and move on. A direct challenge will most likely lead to escalate efforts to prove themselves cleverer or better informed. You might also try modelling humility and expressing a flexible point of view. Be open to their views without necessarily endorsing them. It also helps to have a sense of humour. If you’re not triggered by their superior or condescending manner, you might find the Know-It-All Narcissist a bit absurd and ultimately harmless.

The Grandiose Narcissist

This type of colleague more obviously demonstrates the familiar kind of narcissism we all recognise. They see themselves as more important and influential than everyone else. Touts their own accomplishments, exaggerates their importance, and wants to elicit your envy or admiration. they believe they are destined for the highest positions in the company. When charismatic and driven, their achievements may actually match their ambition, and you may find yourself drawn into an admiring orbit around them.

How to cope: Their assertions of superiority might make you want to stand up for yourself and compete. Don’t. Any challenge will only cause them to escalate their efforts to appear superior. On the other hand, you may find yourself drawn to a Grandiose Narcissist with charisma because you want to share in their superiority. They might strike you as a sort of celebrity, a person you’d like to submit to and serve. Be careful not to give too much. The Grandiose Narcissist won’t feel grateful and will do nothing to advance your own career unless there’s something in it for them. If necessary, they will discard you without a second thought.

The Seductive Narcissist

Unlike the other types of Extreme Narcissist discussed, this one manipulates you by making you feel good about yourself. At the office he or she will appear to admire your work and value your contributions highly, but their ultimate goal is to make you feel the same way about them, so they can use you. They want your support and admiration and will flatter you to get it. But when they have no further use for you, they with give you the cold shoulder.

How to Cope: It helps to be humble. Don’t be swayed by flattery or excessive admiration, as wonderful as it may feel to receive it. Watch how they treat other people who can’t advance their career or who may be their rivals. Seeing your colleagues suffer under their callous indifference or ruthless competition might give you a glimpse into your own future, once you’ve outlived your usefulness.

The Bullying Narcissist

This is the man who builds himself up by humiliating his colleagues. Though he may share common traits with the Grandiose or Know-it-All Narcissist, he is more brutal about the way he asserts his superiority. He often relies on contempt to make others feel like losers, proving himself a winner in the process. He will belittle your work product or ridicule you at meetings. When he needs something from you, he may become threatening. At his most toxic, he will make you doubt yourself and your ultimate value to your employer.

How to cope: As cowardly as the advice may sound, avoid ruffling his massive ego whenever possible. Don’t fight back in direct ways to stand up for yourself: A direct challenge will only escalate his brutal assault on your personality and work product. In the face of his attacks, you’ll need a very strong belief in your own self-worth without having to prove it, and if you find you can’t bear such treatment in silence, you might want to transfer to a different department or look for another job.

The Vindictive Narcissist

While it’s possible to co-exist with a Bullying Narcissist, provided you don’t pose too obvious a threat, once you become the target of a Vindictive Narcissist, he or she will try to destroy you. You may have challenged their winner status in some way you don’t even recognise, and as a result, they need to prove you are the ultimate loser by destroying you. They will talk trash about you to your superiors, withhold crucial information to sabotage your work product, and pursue your destruction without regard to truth or fairness. If he or she is your boss, they may have it within their power not only to fire you, but also to ruin your chances of future employment.

How to cope: Whenever possible, look for another job before the damage to your psyche and your reputation has gone too far. More than with the other types of Extreme Narcissist, your approach here must be legalistic: Vindictive Narcissists often know how to disguise their true nature from people other than their victims, so your survival will depend upon having hard evidence. Document everything, especially proof of your work product. Preserve all toxic emails and other communications. Get witness statements from your co-workers whenever possible.

Extreme Narcissists are inevitable in the workplace, as they are in all walks of life, but if you understand the winner-loser dynamic that drives them, you can protect yourself and avoid exciting their most toxic behaviours.

I hope you find this enlightening and since the ‘Marketing Department’ interacts with all other departments daily. Know that you may come across a head of department or a critical employee in another department which exhibits some of these behaviours. In order for you to achieve your goals, on time, all the time and every time as the saying goes. Then know this, we all learnt that you need to understand your target market, understand your customers wants and needs. So, by saying this; you need to NOT forget about your internal customers too. Those other departments critical to your overall success and by understanding some behavioural characteristics of your other strategic business units (SBU) and their employees, will only empower to make the right decisions for your success while helping you navigate through some of the ‘office politics’ which are at play in organisations daily.

I hope this article empowers Marketers and other Senior Managers to make the right call by saying the right thing at the right time and place, in order to continue being successful.