Narcissism at work: always negative!


Narcissism at work or at the workplace is still not being recognized by everyone. Even worse, if it is recognized it is usually will not be seen as something negative. I still read and hear that many of us don’t think narcissism at work is such a big deal, even that it indeed is beneficial. I would gladly explain here and argue that this idea is absolutely incorrect! And that we have a moral obligation to recognize and deal with this kind of narcissism, especially because it is at our workplace. Narcissism at work is absolutely NOT done! That’s my motto.

To see what I mean you have to know what I consider to be narcissim or a narcissistic personality. You can go to this link: What is a narcissistic personality?

It explains what is so deviant and unhealthy in a narcissistic personality disorder. The word ‘narcissist’ or ‘narcissism’ is being used in public in a rather sloppy way. Persons who seem to have a lot of self-confidence and seem to be arrogant are much too easily called a ‘narcissist’. Of course, they can be a narcissist, but that is not always the case. The essential hallmark of a narcissist is his (or her) long-term anti-social behaviour with a highly related reduced empathic ability. This behavioural pattern is structural and cannot be changed easily by the person himself.

With this definition it is essential to realize that I clearly relate ethical conduct and an abnormal personality. Just read my page about What is a normal personality?

This still doesn’t mean that an abnormal personality such as a narcissistic personality doesn’t have any advantages. Usually a narcissist is extremely clever in certain areas, often creative and can easily get support from many people. Such narcissistic persons can be useful at work, in cooperations. Furthermore, there are quite a few narcissists who can be (selectively) friendly, charming, rich and therefore surrounded by (beautiful) women. However, please be sure we should – at all times – track those personality disorders down and we should re-educate them. Despite all their so-called advantages! I tell you why in a moment.


Narcissism at work reinforces anti-social behaviour

If you accept that narcissism per definition is unethical, an anti-social behavioural pattern, behaviour that indeed damages and hurts other persons, then you can do nothing less than to oppose and attack it. Whenever you see someone stealing something, you should take some action againgst it as well. Because, not doing something, just gives the narcissist the idea that such anti-social behaviour is okay. A narcissist at work feels strengthened whenever he is not confronted with such behaviour. He will most certainly do such anti-social behaviour again. In the end others will suffer and be hurt. Eventually they will behave differently and more a-natural. The consequences are usually serious, not only for these colleagues but also for the organisation. I’ll come to this in a moment.

To condone anti-social behaviour like narcissism at work simply means that more and other anti-social behaviour will be reinforced, increased. Others who see that someone is not punished for exhibiting anti-social behaviour, will tend to show more anti-social behaviours as well. Soon a negative spiral will be seen: many will arm themselves against this anti-social behaviour and therefore become aggressive as well. In social psychology there are many examples of this. The Zimbardo-experiment in a simulated prison is probably one of the most famous examples. See the following link: http://www.prisonexp.org


Narcissism at work weakens the cooperation


One of the most serious consequences of narcissism at work is that it weakens the natural cooperation between humans instead of stimulating it. And if there still exists a cooperation than this will most likely not be in a sincere and genuine way. Usually bonds are made between persons with more influence and power. This is exactly the reason that the SS in the 1940’s and the Gestapo (and for that matter the whole NSDAP of Hitler) could thrive. Out of such anxiety-based subcultures several power circles can exist that can be maintained quite a long time. However, the underlying cooperation, the relationships there, have very little to do with respect and integrity. On the contrary, they are based on dirty tricks, no respect for any adversaries, polarisation, and mostly fear. Such kind of ‘cooperation’ damages people and invites anti-social behaviour.

Working together in a group of different people is not easy. However, the strength of a good cooperation consists of blending the best ingredients and properties of people in an optimal mix. Furthermore, and this is essential, the strong help the weak. A lot of people still do not understand that this is positive for the whole group, in the end. Mainly, because anxiety and distrust is reduced. The fear to make mistakes is reduced. The reality is that everyone will make a mistake in his life once. In a good atmosphere and fine cooperation this is not a problem though. People will feel comfortable and therefore will perform better. It is known from many studies that anxiety increases tunnel-vision, reduces creativity and worsens internal communication. Problem solving will become more difficult under such circumstances. Narcissism at work increases anxiety so it creates such problems.

Next to the fact that fear of making mistakes increases when the social consequences are serious (i.e., loss of status, respect), with narcissism at work the motivation to work together is seriously reduced. The motivation to be competitive however, is increased. So being better than another, at the expense of another, will be stimulated. This reduces the natural tendency to share important information with each other and this in its turn reduces the chances of better and quicker solving any problems. Furthermore, more bonds are being formed between people who already think in much the same way, because that’s a more safe and trusted way to do. This as well will not stimulate further creative solutions.

There are, unfortunately, a lot of people who think that a narcissist can stimulate the working together of several persons. Often this misconception is caused because a narcissist is indeed one of the first to initiate and introduces new projects. This creates an atmosphere of joy and curiosity. Usually people are more enthousiastic and curious about new things. A narcissist can bond with people in new projects by giving them certain interesting positions. In this way, differences are deliberately created between members of the same team: the ones that may do new things and the others who just have to stick to what they have been doing for several months. In doing this, the narcissist knows he can count on those who he assigned a new post, he has made some new ‘friends’. This strategy is a Macchiavellian tactic called ‘divide and conquer’.

Many will now probably think: wait a minute, such assignment of tasks isn’t so bad is it? It happens all the time in project management. That’s absolutely right. Such assignments are indeed a normal way in project management and cannot be seen as a sign of narcissism at work. I would be an incompetent psychologist if I thought otherwise. However, this is also the reason why a narcissistic strategy is so difficult to recognize. Many will indeed built up some respect for this person who initiates a new projects and gives them a chance to develop themselves further. But, narcissism at work should be viewed in its entire context.

A narcissist can be detected fairly easy by several things:

  • First of all: he/she does not tolerate criticism and usually reacts rather extreme to criticism.
  • He/she is selectively friendly: some persons can do almost anything and get away with almost anything, others cannot do anything right in the eyes of a true narcissist.
  • A narcissistic personality will not change his own ideas lightly, not even when there are sound reasons and criticisms. But the best hallmark of a narcissistic personality is its selective unfriendliness. Whenever this is the case it should ring a (alarm) bell saying: ‘watch out: probably a narcissist, look for other signs’. The persons to whom a narcissist is friendly will not recognize any abnormal behaviour. But the persons who are the subject of hatred and unfriendliness will see and recognize there is something wrong here. And because it is a personality disorder, that is: a rigid and structural behavioural pattern, not easily to be changed, a narcissist will rather quickly reveal him- or herself. Very simply put: a narcissist cannot help being selectively friendly. It is almost impossible for a narcissist to stay friendly to everyone, all the time! This is the largest difference between a self-assured, self-confident and seemingly arrogant but healthy normal personality and a narcissistic personality: taking everyone into account and treating them equally is a priority number 1 of a normal healthy personality. For a narcissistic personality this is next to impossible.

Narcissism at work: negative consequences for the content

Narcissism at work suffocates, although at first it seems as if a narcissist makes rather intelligent remarks, initiates nice new projects and can motivate people. It takes some time to identify the clear signs of a narcissist: selective unfriendliness and unable to endure criticism. Both typical hallmarks of a narcissist only emanate from one thing: a weak self-image of the narcissist. This has to be understood clearly: it is not so much that a narcissist thinks he or she is weak, on the contrary. With a weak self-image I do mean that this image strongly deviates from reality. Just because these deviations from reality are so extensive, the frustrations it develops are equally intense (both sadness, anxiety). To withstand these emotions, anger automatically sets in (a scared animal becomes aggressive as well, a fundamental biological defense mechanism). This costs a lot of energy and in occassions when this anger is not enough, usually there is a breakdown, either in the form of depressive moods or anxiety (panic) attacks. In this sense a narcissist does not have a strong self-image, it’s fundamentally weak and fragile.

For example, a narcissist thinks he is ‘very smart’. However, confronted in reality with a mistake, or another person is just a bit more smarter than he is, a narcissist cannot stand this and he will automatically (unconsciously) rationalize. Rationalizations like ‘this is his fault, not mine!’ (anger), ‘he just had some luck, I am still smarter than he is’ (again some anger and jealous). Such automatic thoughts surface instantly to uphold the own unrealistic image of himself. Feelings associated with these thoughts are always anxiety and/or sadness. However, having learnt nót to feel such emotions via rationalizing, a narcissist will almost always react in an aggressive way. Very typical is that he or she cannot control these impulses, só strong is this anger.

This is exactly the reason that you can expose a narcissist: by having criticism and keep going all the way. A narcissist is often already so angry (because of being confronted with criticism) that not much has to happen before he explodes. The more dangerous narcissists are those who fully realize that they should not explode in public. Often they only explode when they are alone with the one giving the criticisms. Such an emotional outburst is always extreme, out of proportion and not fitting in the context. Of course, everyone can have such explosions once in a while but with a narcissist this is a structural, long-standing pattern. I myself love to trigger such explosions because I usually detect them much quicker than others do. I remain friendly but keep going on to deliver correct criticism on whatever they are planning or suggesting. Either they explode almost immediately or change the subject quickly. Another ‘strategy’ they use is that they stop the conversation firmly but politely but they will not forget this incident. From then on they will do anything to make your life a lot more difficult at work. If they have hierarchical power over you (e.g. by being in a management position) they do anything to finally get rid of you. Because you have detected them, so you are now a threat to them.

Especially because a narcissist can be an example to others in being full of initiatives, introducing new exciting things, his behaviour can be copied by others. Those who also have a weak self-image will probably interact more with narcissists. In this way ‘out of the box-thinking, sceptical thinking will be reduced. Especially the idea of narcissists that they are always right and never make mistakes, will diminish critical self-reflections because it simply will not be allowed. That's why narcissism at work increases the risk of projects with unrealistic targets and therefore risks for the company as a whole will quickly become reality. Narcissism at work, combined with anti-social personalities, can quickly drag a company into a whole lot of trouble financially and socially. Many examples can be found in the news today. The financial crisis just shows what can happen when there is narcissism at work all around.

But there is a much more serious threat to the content development within a team or company, due to narcissism at work: reduced trust. The culture of fear expands that much that no one in an organisation will trust each other anymore. Not only there is less communication and sharing of thoughts, also new and creative ideas or creative solutions are put forward less often because of fear of how the reaction of a narcissist will be. But also because of the fear of losing a good idea to other ‘colleagues’ who will quickly go to the narcissistic leader with your ideas. Brainstorming with others about new ideas will be discouraged so that a narcissist can come up with ‘his’ ideas, also without fearing that there will be much criticism. Furthermore, the rich melange of different competences of all employees will not be optimized. It reduces the risk of other opinions and losing control over the progress in a project. You have to be pretty good in empathic abilities to lead a good discussion allowing several ideas to quickly pass the arena. A narcissist lacks such empathic skills and will not tolerate such ‘loose’ discussions arguing that they are only a ‘waste of time’.


Summary: narcissism at work should always be attacked and not approved or condoned

Narcissism at work is suffocating all cooperation and good problem solving because of the increased fear of making mistakes. Anxiety reduces creative thinking, increases tunnel vision, reduces sharing of information with each other and directs all energy into self-centered thoughts instead of solving problems creatively. The recognition of narcissism at work is hindered because there are always positive points to every personality disorder, also in a narcissist. Most people just follow the flow a narcissist can create and they just don’t see that a narcissist is only selectively friendly and really damages some persons, deliberately. They will normally not become overly skeptical so they won’t trigger a narcissists’ emotional outbursts. A narcissist then thinks that his behaviour is okay and it normally increases his anti-social behaviour. Eventually, and that can take a long time, the damage to a company and other people can become so obvious that the management has to interfere. Allowing anti-social behaviour for quite a long time will unfortunately increase more anti-social behaviour. It will then take much longer to correct this kind of anti-social behaviour. Another reason to try to detect narcissism at work much sooner than we do right now.


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Excellent book about detecting narcissists on nearly every level in daily life: