How to Spot a Narcissist in the Workplace

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Can a co-worker’s unhealthy perception of self affect your career?

The origins of the Greek mythological figure Narcissus is the subject of some debate. The most commonly related version is that the young man attempted to quench his thirst at a pool, but upon seeing his reflection in the water, fell in love with his own image. As his thirst grew, so did his affection for his own reflection. Eventually, Narcissus perished due to thirst.

The lessons to be taken from this tale, like most Greek myths, are numerous. Unfortunately, so are the modern-day perceptions of traits attributed to a narcissist. Some believe it’s a person with an inflated sense of self-worth, while others look at the original tale and narrow their definition to an individual’s preoccupation with their appearance.

Most agree upon the following characteristics of a narcissist:

  • Excessive need for admiration
  • Disregard for others’ feelings
  • Inability to handle criticism
  • Inflated sense of entitlement

So how does this pertain to your work life? Only you can answer that, but research suggests that you are more likely to encounter a narcissist in the C-suite than you are at the grocery store or in your neighborhood. An accumulation of research led to a study that found a positive relationship between narcissism and leadership emergence (but no relation to effectiveness) as well as a tendency for narcissist to perceive themselves as particularly strong leaders.

The belief is that the same characteristics that make narcissistic individuals so unbearable in your personal life are the ones that are effective in helping them rise through the ranks—need for validation, controlling behaviors, lack of empathy.

Are you working with—or for—a narcissist? Here are a few of the signs:

The person is a “bad sport”: In a competitive situation, this can manifest as excessive arguing with officials if the person or his team loses, or as excessive gloating and belittling of opponents in the case of a victory.

In a professional situation, this would look more like the following: two approaches to solving a problem are suggested, one of which is preferred by the narcissistic individual. If the other strategy is chosen, this person will sulk or show reluctance to go along with the plan or ‘join the team.’

The person constantly feels underappreciated: Sticking with the example from above, this person will desire credit for having “the best idea” or “remember, I’m the one who thought of this.” According to Joseph Burgo, PhD, the author of The Narcissist You Know, this person is a “vulnerable” narcissist, prone to holding grievances against the world at large, feeling entitled to something better, and believing they aren’t receiving the recognition they deserve.

The person thinks they are smarter than others, or that others lack intelligence as a whole. Some narcissists tends to make friends quickly, but they have a difficult time maintaining these friendships due to their inability to believe they could be wrong, or an unwillingness to consider another’s viewpoint as worthy or valid.

This leads to a decided sense of superiority, or a “my way is the only way” approach to making decisions.

The person tends to swear excessively. Not much explanation needed here—the narcissist has a tendency towards argumentative behavior and is unaware or uninterested in the modesty of colleagues or their reservations toward such language.

The person enjoys being in charge or ‘leading’ others: Experts believe narcissists’ need for validation leads them to actively seek positions of leadership, where people will report to them directly and serve as an audience to fulfill their need for positive feedback.

Unfortunately, these same traits are used by the narcissist in justifying their unkind or cruel behavior to others. As one Business Insider article puts it, “Vindictive narcissists generally know vengeful or antisocial behavior isn’t acceptable. But they feel okay about acting that way because they constantly feel they’ve been wronged.”

They tend to be entertainers, whether by profession or by nature. “A narcissistic monk would not be good,” said one psychologist in a Psychology Today feature, “but to be Kanye West and a narcissist is fantastic.”

The person waits for their turn to speak rather than listening. A narcissist prefers the conversation remains focused on himself or herself, accomplishing this by speaking loudly, making exaggerated hand movements, or interrupting frequently.

Dealing with Narcissists in the Workplace

Psychology Today suggests three steps for dealing—and working productively and successfully—with a narcissist. The first step they suggest is the attached personality test, but this requires taking the exam in the place of the person who causes you concern. It’s not as if you can call a staff meeting and have each employee take the test individually.

So perhaps a more productive suggestion is taking the time to learn how the mind of a narcissistic person operates. If the individual’s sole concern is with himself or herself, they will operate under their own set of rules regarding co-worker interaction. Keep this in mind if the person attempts to befriend you or ask you for certain information—chances are, they’re just seeing what they can get out of you.

Narcissists do not handle criticism well, so be prepared for a very aggressive response should you ever blame the individual for wrongdoing or any mistake.

Finally, when a narcissist wants attention, they want it immediately. Be prepared for emails to be followed quickly by persistent phone calls until they are assured that their problem or question—no matter how trivial it may be—has received top priority.

Some experts suggests merely ignoring this behavior—always a risky proposition with a narcissistic individual—but the theory states that eventually, the person will move on and find someone else to fulfill their need for attention.

SOURCES: Psychology Today, Business Insider

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Rob Senior
Rob Senior

Rob has 15 years of experience writing and editing for healthcare. He previously worked for ADVANCE from 2002 to 2012.

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