Right now, there is a leader on the world stage that is capturing all of our attention. We just can’t look away. In doing so, we’re all getting a lesson on something that was previously the domain of professional psychologists or psychiatrists alone – or maybe the odd executive coach. We’re getting up close and personal with a narcissist and trying to understand what ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ (NPD) is and how to make sense of it. How it will impact society and culture has become the subject of dinner conversations across the globe. Suddenly, we’re all experts. So, while we’re all having this conversation, I wanted to take it up a notch, and discuss it with just a dollop more seriousness.

What is narcissism? What happens when it hits the workplace? Is it that ‘essential element of all leaders’ – the confidence to put yourself first? Or, is it the most damaging and devastating thing that can happen to any organisational culture?

Of course, like ‘corporate psychopaths’, ‘corporate narcissists’ have long been the subject of jokes or off-handed comments – ‘He/she/they are such a narcissist’, but it’s rarely been an actual consideration by all. And luckily, few people have had the awful life experience of working for one. Let’s get more familiar with NPD and its impact on culture.

What is Narcissism?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a disorder where someone has an inflated sense of self-importance, often called ‘grandiosity’. This excessive craving for admiration, disregard for the feelings of others, inability to handle any criticism, combined with an inflated sense of entitlement, together form a pretty lethal combo. Whether you look at the Australian Psychological Society or a sea of other professional journals, there’s generally 9 traits to look for (I’ve listed them below this article if you’re interested).

Like any serious personality disorder, it takes a professional clinician to diagnose, and the general consensus from that group of clinicians is that NPD takes a long time to properly diagnose, and that treatment is long and complicated as well.

So, while we wish all those involved well, what does that mean for the rest of us?  Specifically, what does it mean at work?

Narcissism at Work

Work is a very unique environment. We get to choose who we share our homes and lives with, but not always who we work with. The new colleague that is dropped next to you, the new boss that arrives from outside, or the newbie that transfers into your team. These are most often not people you have chosen, but it’s likely that you will get to know them (quirks and all), and get along well.

The estimate from sane.org is that between 0.5% and 1% of the population have NDP – not a large group. Interestingly, HR Magazine in the UK did a large study of NDP in 2017, and found that 5% of CEOs were classified as narcissists, so slightly higher than the general population. That said, in the same study they also found that 60% of CEOs were high in humility, so 12 times more likely to be humble than narcissistic.

So what happens when you get that .5%-1% as your boss?

Let’s start with how you will know?

Well, this is a really interesting one. I must declare that I feel the need at this point to declare (is it cathartic?) that I did spend three years working for a person who I suspect was a narcissist. Admittedly, I did two years not knowing that, and then I found myself in a wonderful conversation with a great friend of mine who is a clinical psychologist. She simply said “You know you’re probably dealing with a narcissist don’t you”, and pointed me towards a series of reputable papers on the topic.

As I waded through them, and returned for long conversation, after even longer conversation with my friend, I found that there are some really common elements to look for. Here’s five that I use as my go to now.

  1. They are NEVER satisfied. No amount of extra effort or time or added detail will ever be enough. The bar is always set just above wherever you can get to.
  2. Feedback always has an edge. It’s not ‘here’s some coaching and ideas’. Instead, it’s ‘here’s how to be more like me’.
  3. They make people cry and feel really sad, yet don’t seem to care. They leave someone else to mop up the tears and the exhausted people who didn’t quite make it to perfection.
  4. They have few to zero long-term friendships or relationships. This is different from most of us who collect colleagues as friends and seek out the best people we’ve worked with in the past, to work with again as soon as we can. Well, they’ve never worked with anyone who was worthy of keeping.
  5. They never leave a successor. The grandness in their self-perception is so complete, that no one else comes close. They’re critical of everyone, except the person who is complimenting them in that moment. Everyone else is criticised and diminished every time they talk.

And while I do like lists of five, if I could add a sixth on just this one occasion…

  1. They seem really nice, until you realise they’re killing you. Your confidence is down, you can’t work any harder, you can’t protect the team from them, and you won’t win them over.

What happens to culture?

Around a narcissist, culture collapses.

Under constant criticism, confidence drops. People are tired and trying harder and achieving less. But there’s something much worse and that’s the collapse of relationships.

Narcissists create a ‘hub and spoke’ model for the team. They are the hub and everyone comes to them. They don’t’ encourage relationships across their team, and in fact get suspicious of others getting along well. There’s a theory that is because they actually lack confidence and hold their superior position by diminishing others and not letting others connect well.

Teammates start to distrust each other. They hear each other being criticised by the narcissist and all of a sudden it is hard for safety to be maintained in the team.

Gradually, all that adds up, and it is often misdiagnosed as a ‘dysfunctional team,’ rather than a ‘dysfunctional leader’. The best advice, again from that clinical friend of mine – ‘when you see a dysfunctional team, look up’.

What to do

If you’ve spent some time with a person you now suspect is a narcissist, then everything I’ve written so far, is not new news. It’s just confirmed your fears. Maybe, if you’re like me, it took a while to add up all the dots, but eventually you do.

And my advice, RUN!

You will not win them over.

You won’t ever be considered good enough.

There will always be a gap between your very best (and even excellent) efforts and where you should be.

That team you’re in will stay dysfunctional for as long as they lead it. Just as every other team they’ve led has done the same. Culture will become unbearable.

Just RUN!

If you’re a CEO…

My final few words goes to CEOs.

Don’t put a narcissist in charge of other people.

If you see a dysfunctional team, look above them.

If you’ve never heard that leader say something good about anyone on their watch – or that there is no one that could possibly replace them – ask yourself whether they’re really so unlucky, or whether they are in fact the problem?

Good leaders attract good people. They create great teams and good culture. They build confidence and a sense of purpose and achievement. If that’s not happening, and a leader has been in place for a year or more, then the fault is with them, not the team.

One last reminder

Life is short. Don’t spend a moment with a leader who isn’t good for you and the team.  You deserve better!


9 Traits of NPD*

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance
  • A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people
  • A need for excessive admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally exploitive behaviour
  • A lack of empathy
  • Envy of others or a belief that others are envious of him or her
  • A demonstration of arrogant and haughty behaviours or attitudes.

Source: Medscape.com