NARCISSISM AT WORK: WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
[This article was originally written in June 2016 as a predictive exercise]
Of late considerable media attention has been given to a certain un-named (non-NZ) politician and some strong consistent characteristics, particularly around communication and response to criticism, that have been demonstrated by said individual. The terms in the media I have heard used to describe this person include that they are a bully and Narcissistic, and on the surface it is true there are some (at times alarming) similarities with what a psychologist might consider were narcissistic characteristics. Such characteristics are not the exclusive realm of politics, far from it. They exist across the world of work, and most often manifest in a minority of those holding positions of power and influence. It is not power and influence that creates such qualities, it is that individuals with certain traits are often attracted to roles of power and influence, or feel deserving of them. After all, if you really believe you're fantastic you're going to want a position that allows you to show that!
However, we also need to be careful of what I commonly see happening - diagnosis by media and public acclamation. We may see a glimpse of someone on television or through an interview on line, or judge someone by reputation and not personal knowledge. As repeated or emotional as they may be, those sources present only a portion of the facts, filtered through the lens of someone else. Narcissism is a classic example of that - a powerful collection of traits that becomes confused with other factors in an effort to explain and make sense of what we are seeing. So let's start with clearing up a few myths about Narcissism, by defining what it is in a broad sense, and then translating those qualities into what you could expect to see if you were dealing with someone who was genuinely Narcissistic at work (or anywhere else for that matter).
In broad terms Narcissism is a stable personality characteristic dominated by unusually high levels of self-love, self-regard, conceit, and egotism. It is way beyond self-confidence, not merely someone with who is aggressive, or someone who seeks attention or believes they are particularly talented or special in what they provide. There is a level of belief by someone Narcissistic that, without them, little can and will be achieved of any value - that they are irreplaceable. They seek admiration not just for what they have accomplished but for who they are, because the two are intertwined aspects of their personality. The focus of someone genuinely Narcissistic is on what can be achieved for them, how an endeavour makes them look in the eyes of others (those in positions of 'power' or 'influence'), and what is in their interests (if that aligns with the interests of others then that is fine but not a major consideration). Basically, it's all about them. They are the most intelligent, talented, original, creative and successful person in the room. Someone who is Narcissistic will believe that but they won't tell you it - because they already expect you to know. Hence the offense taken and dismissal of someone's intelligence of worth when that self-belief is not respected
People who are Narcissistic can lead very successful lives, have families, have friends, study, have a career and engage with society quite effectively. On the positive side they are confident, often charismatic (because of that confidence), have determination, are pragmatic, are goal-oriented, and have big ideas (often grandiose). They see nothing as being beyond them if they put their mind and will to it. Unfortunately, like any true pathology Narcissistic individuals have what I refer to as fatal flaws. These are flaws that, over time, leave a litany of destruction behind them as they pursue their goals and are 'fatal' not in the sense they are life threatening, but that they are beyond alteration or change with tremendous negative impact on many around them. Eventually, workplace Narcissists are discovered (or maybe uncovered or finally recognised) but not without considerable pain along the way. The following are the most common fatal flaws we can expect to see in the workplace by someone genuinely Narcissistic.
1) Narcissists don't have true friends, they have people who agree with them. And they are very loyal to those who agree with them....as long as they are useful. Friendship is based on mutual admiration, not acceptance of faults. Narcissists have no real faults in their own eyes - mistakes are due to the action of others, incorrect information given, or misinterpretation of the message.
2) Narcissists will learn not through personal recognition of a lack of knowledge, skill or character, but through realising they need to develop a new way to achieve what they want. In this they can be quite pragmatic and will adapt for those they see as their equal or superior and not for someone they see as inferior, which is most people. They see very few as their superior or equal.
3) Narcissists do not listen to others unless they are useful or in a position of influence. Respect for others as a basic principle is lacking and they often treat those below them differently from those they view as peers. They respect what others can do for them that aligns with their goals and perspective.
4) Narcissists struggle to apologise in a manner most would see as sincere. Apologies are provided rarely, grudgingly, and often with a caveat that reduces the seriousness of the incident they are apologising for or avoids taking complete responsibility for an error made (e.g. someone let them down).
5) Narcissists don't get angry they get even. Strong offense is taken against those they believe have done them wrong or harmed them, particularly in regards to their status, influence or authority. They hold grudges and see most criticism as personal.
6) Narcissists tend to employ those who agree with them, follow them, or who will not cross them. They value personal loyalty, will generally surround themselves with that loyalty when possible, and will reward personal loyalty as a consequence but often in an inconsistent way.
7) Narcissists are convinced of their version of 'the truth', irrespective of the facts or objective evidence displayed before them. Contrary evidence is dismissed as irrelevant, incomplete, or based on sources lacking credibility in their eyes. The narrative developed as a result reinforces a worldview that has the Narcissist at the centre.
Those seven fatal flaws are probably enough for any workplace to be mindful of.