Sometime in your career, you will run into a boss or co-worker who is so difficult, you will feel hopeless about ever finding a way to work with that person. That individual may well have a narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissistic personality is characterized by an unrealistic or inflated sense of self-importance, an inability to see the viewpoint of others, and hypersensitivity to criticism. Narcissists are preoccupied with grandiose fantasies and unrealistic plans. They tend to be bullies and often resort to verbal and emotional abuse. They exploit people and then thrust them aside. Narcissists will have no empathy and will regard their co-workers as mere instrument, objects, or tools. However, they will also need their co-workers or underlings to be their sources of adulation, affirmation, as well as someone who can be used for potential benefits (such as taking credit for your work and so on). If you work with or under a narcissist, your work life might be described as a living hell.
Workplace narcissists seethe with anger and resentment underneath their public facade. They are also extremely envious; they will destroy what they perceive to be the sources of their constant frustration such as a popular co-worker, a successful boss, or a skilled employee. Narcissists crave constant attention and will go to great lengths to secure it – including by engineering situations that place them at the center. They are immature, constantly complain, and criticize everyone and everything. They are intrusive and invasive in the workplace. They firmly believe in their own power and superior insight. They feel entitled to special treatment and are convinced that they are above the laws, including the rules of their place of employment. Narcissists can be very disruptive and are poor team members; they seldom collaborate with others without being quarrelsome. They are control freaks and feel the compulsive urge to interfere and micromanage everything as well as overrule others.
Unfortunately, Western society and culture are narcissistic. Narcissistic behaviors have long been the norm. The fundamentally narcissistic traits of individualism, competitiveness, and unbridled ambition are the foundation of certain versions of capitalism. Thus, certain forms of abuse and bullying actually are tolerated as a basic part of the myth of today’s corporations. Narcissistic bosses have been idolized.
In many companies, managers and executives probably demonstrate more narcissistic tendencies than others do, but in varying degrees. For instance, the early Steve Jobs and Oracle’s Larry Ellison were the epitome of corporate narcissism. But Bill Gates and Warren Buffet exhibit hardly any traits at all.
- Arrogant and self-centered, they expect special treatment and privileges.
- They can be charismatic, articulate and funny-especially in the beginning or if they want something from you.
- They are likely to disrespect boundaries and the privacy of others.
- They can be patronizing and critical of others but unwilling or unable to accept criticism or disagreement themselves.
- Likely to be anxiety-stricken or paranoid, they may exhibit violent, rage-like reactions when they can’t control a situation or their behaviors have been exposed.
- They are apt to set others up for failure or pit co-workers against one another.
- They can be cruel and abusive to some co-workers, often targeting one person at a time until he quits.
- They may need an ongoing “narcissist supply” of people who they can easily manipulate and who will do whatever they suggest — including targeting a co-worker — without question.
- They are often charming and act innocent in front of managers.
Who can Work with a Narcissist?
Certain personalities mesh well with narcissistic people in the workplace. For instance, someone with a Dependent Personality Disorder, or a submissive person whose expectations are low and are willing to absorb abuse would survive with a narcissist, possibly even thrive in such an environment. But the majority of people in the workforce are likely to suffer ill-health effects, have conflicts with the narcissist, or end up being fired, reassigned or demoted. The narcissistic bully frequently gets his way: he gets promoted, the ideas he stole from someone else become corporate policy, and his misconduct is tolerated. This is due, in part, because narcissists are excellent liars with considerable acting skills – upper management believes them, at least initially, and believes that their abilities are too valuable to lose.
Deciding whether or not to continue to work with someone who is a narcissist also depends on whether the narcissistic bully represents the culture of the workplace or if he is an isolated case. Regrettably, often abusive behaviors in a person’s office or shop floor are merely a microcosm of pervasive bad behavior which permeates the entire corporate hierarchy, from top management to the bottom rung of employment. Bullies seldom dare to express their behavior in defiance of the prevailing culture because if they did go against the grain of their place of employment, they would lose their jobs. Typically, narcissists join already narcissistic companies and fit right in a toxic workplace, a noxious atmosphere, and an already abusive management. If one is not willing to succumb to these customs and lack of ethics in the workplace, there isn’t a whole lot one can do except resign and find another job.
Working in an environment with a narcissist is a dismal landscape indeed. If you cannot leave the job or get reassigned, there are ways to survive without “kissing up” to the narcissist and always being vigilant about what you say and how you say it:
Tips for Working with a Narcissist
- Never disagree with the narcissist or contradict him
- Never offer him any intimacy or personal information
- Look awed by whatever attribute matters to him (for instance: by his professional achievements or by his good looks, or by his success with women and so on)
- Never remind him of life ‘out there’ and if you do, connect it somehow to his sense of grandiosity. You can aggrandize even your office supplies, the most mundane thing conceivable by saying: “These are the BEST art materials ANY workplace is going to have”, “We get them EXCLUSIVELY”, etc.;
- Do not make any comment, which might directly or indirectly impinge on the narcissist’s self-image, power, superior judgment, infinite awareness or insight, skills, capabilities,or professional record. Bad sentences start with: “I think you overlooked … made a mistake here … you don’t know … do you know … you were not here yesterday so … you cannot … you should … (interpreted as rude imposition, narcissists react very badly to perceived restrictions placed on their freedom) … I (never mention the fact that you are a separate, independent entity, narcissists regard others as extensions of their selves)…” You get the idea.