Narcissists at Workplace- Personality and Traits

We have all encountered them in our lives, be it  in social, personal or professional spaces. They can be unmistakably recognized by a sense of  grandiose, entitlement, vanity with a visible lack of empathy and compassion. The list of such attributes is long but the point is that its not difficult to spot narcissists.

For us to understand Narcissism, we need to look into its origins in Greek mythology specifically around the life of Narcissus, a Greek hunter, known for his beauty and vanity. According to one of the stories (and there are a few), he fell in love with his own reflection in water and went crazy thinking it was someone else. It took no time for him to realize that this love could not be reciprocated that his passion ignited to such a degree that he melted into gold and a wildflower.

There are other such stories with varying text and narration however all of them converge to one common ending, his downfall into something inanimate. The story does not in anyway suggest that narcissists are doomed to death but it does give an indication of their behaviours and traits.

Narcissus looking at his own reflection


There is ample indication of a great deal of research on narcissism however it was Otto Rank, who holds the distinction of having published the first paper on narcissism in psychoanalytical terms in the year 1911. He associated narcissism around two traits, self -admiration and vanity. Other major research have been done by the likes of Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney, Heinz Kohut, Otta Kernberg and while we cant dive into each one of them, its evident that narcissists exhibit certain common traits and behaviours. Interesting to note that narcissism can be both a personality trait and a personality disorder and this can be evaluated by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). The method was developed by Raskin and Hall in the year 1979 and since then has been deployed to measure normal or clinical narcissism.

As per the journal published by The Academy of Management Review, July 1997, Volume 2, entitled “Narcissism, Identity, and Legitimacy” by Andrew D Brown, there are six personality traits or behavioral traits of narcissists namely:-

  • Denial – method of coping with a conflict, anxiety leading to overconfidence
  • Rationalization – attempt to justify the acceptance of  unacceptable behavior
  • Self-aggrandizement – overestimation of ones ability and accomplishments
  • Attributional egotism – tendency to offer explanations to self-serving or hedonic events
  • Sense of entitlement- belief that one has the right to exploit others and inability to empathize 
  • Anxiety – not being an ego defense mechanism but that they are designed to ameliorate

In summary and for the sake of simplicity, narcissists have a strong sense of entitlement, feel they need to be specially treated, have a marked sense of feeling superior to others, they hog attention and limelight, go out of their way to impress people, are confrontational, thrive in belittling others and intimidation, lack empathy and compassion (Grapas, Brummelman, Back and Denissen, 2019).


The narcissists, while being labelled difficult and toxic, do display tendencies that are not necessarily evil, in-fact they often are seen to be proactive, taking lead and ownership of projects making them high performers. Narcissists are the most likely set of people who pursue leadership roles and positions and there is a great likelihood they will get selected for the same (Braun S 2017). Most of their so called positive behaviours are clearly demonstrated during these episodes however its only a matter of time that the evil traits that were once masked by the positive ones, emerge and begin to take effect. Its at this juncture that they become toxic not only to people around them but to the teams they are a part of and sometimes to the organization. Such indicators can be referred to as Counter-Productive Work Behaviours (CWB) and the same are exhibited when the narcissist feels threatened or inadequate since s/he tends to have fragile self esteem. Ironically, it can also be observed that narcissists may view the behaviours of their colleagues as threatening hence a sense of their CWM may seem to be justified in their minds.

Some of the indicators of narcissists at the workplace may be as follows:


One of the main characteristics of the Narcissists is that they have a tremendous sense of self and invariably feel they are gifts to the world or the workplace. You will always find a narcissist with an air of superiority in ways that may distress people around. This feeling of ultra- confidence makes them feel invincible and hence don’t hesitate to hoard conversations, interrupt people mid-way and provide their points of view unnecessarily. The objective of such interruptions is not on problem solving but to ensure the focus and attention falls back on them. 


One of the strongest indicators of narcissists at the workplace is their unwillingness to show empathy and compassion. The narcissist is riveted to gain professional attention and admiration and in that quest will be seen to be rude, insensitive and heartless. Its important to note that research shows that narcissists do show empathy and compassion but they are highly selective in doing so. For example, caring for their pets or family members. The simplistic definition of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” and in the workplace they never are sensitive to what the others are feeling or might be going through. In-fact narcissists have all it takes to go a step ahead and use the emotional state of a colleague to their advantage and further their goals and objectives. 


The fact that Narcissists will “use” whatever they have on you to further their agenda contributes to a lot of toxicity at work. One of the main caveats while dealing with narcissists is not to show ones vulnerability. Research shows that the narcissists may use the vulnerable state of mind of colleagues to self- promote, self-aggrandize and control the behaviours of others. This control of others is a means to undermine what the other person is thinking or feeling and make them behave as per the narcissist. 


Narcissist’s are convincing lairs and they resort to lying for a number of reasons. First its a defense mechanism that allows them to remain invulnerable. They would rather lie and keep their ego intact than submit to the realities and take a hit. While the narcissists have a huge ego, they have a shaky self-esteem. The other reason they lie stems from the belief that they don’t go wrong or make such decisions and even if the decisions were made, that the fault lied with someone else. At the outset its extremely important to note that a lot of what the narcissist feels about him/herself may not be true. In short their sense of entitlement, admiration, attention, overestimation of their abilities are lies they are feeding to themselves which in time becomes so believable that it seems to be the reality.


The narcissists are highly unpredictable and hence its difficult to trust them or even work with them. At any given moment and at similar situations, their behaviours and responses vary between such a wide spectrum that the other parties could only hope for a better response without being certain of the time and occasions. It is this very trait that also makes managing expectations a huge challenge when dealing with narcissists’ especially when hey are in leadership roles.


Narcissists have a strong need to seek admiration, to be the center of attention and will deploy a lot of effort to get there. One of the surest and easiest way is to take disproportional credit for ideas, plans or any successful business outcomes. One of the observable trait is that they always find a way to insert themselves, or their influence or their expertise in successful situations even if the chances of their involvement were slim. Taking a step further, they are the first ones to touch base with the senior management and take credit for ideas that were discussed in groups or informal meetings. Worst still is they would totally ignore the person from whom these ideas originally came and disregard their role and involvement. 


Narcissists have this false sense of infallibility and as per their wiring, the reason for failures is always attributable to someone else. Narcissists lie because they live in deception and when faced with failures they are very quick to transfer the responsibility to someone else. Proactively, when a narcissist knows that a project or an assignment is headed towards unfavorable results, they are very quick to highlight the inefficiencies and shortcoming  of other colleagues in order to get a clean chit from peers or supervisors. 


Narcissists at the workplace and even in their personal lives have an anchor in place. In workspace, the narcissist need for the anchor is vital to his/her continuity of the tyranny. The Anchor is usually someone the narcissist’s has developed a close relationship with, usually a person who is at a powerful position and who has the ability to direct or keep a check on the narcissist. The Anchor is vital for the dominance of the narcissist since the anchor also becomes the medium for the narcissist to promote his/her objectives. The narcissist being charming, smart and proactive invariably manages to garner trust and goodwill from the anchor and hence cements his/her position in the organization. The anchor, in many cases also starts looking out for the narcissist ensuring a sense of security and protection for the to continue with the theatrics.


While the Anchor is at the superior position to the narcissist, the sidekick is generally a level lower (direct reportee for most parts) whos main role is to ensure the continuity of the agenda of the narcissist. The sidekick has a dual role to play, the first is to ensure his/her role is fulfilled as per organizational objectives and second to ensure that the ego and the agenda of the narcissist has to be kept in momentum as well. The sidekick has a powerful role to play since the narcissist begins to see the sidekick as his /her extension and often will attribute his success to the efforts of the sidekick.  


There has been ample research on Narcissism from various angles and vantage points however we cannot disregard that some of the narcissists have emerged as successful and powerful, have been inspirational to many, have a strong followership and have created impact in the organizations they have been working. The other-side of the story is that their behaviour and traits put in roadblocks within the inner working of the team or the organizations tearing apart the culture and well-being.

So is there a balance to the whole story or a middle path ? There may not be so because while some of them have catapulted to the top, they are still plenty of them scattered within organizations and societal communities doing more damage than good.  

How organizations handle narcissist’s depends on the values and culture that have been set-in. There are organizations where such behaviours are overlooked, some where such behaviours are never highlighted and hence work continues as usual and some where such behaviours are checked and corrected with guidance and coaching. To take corrective actions hence becomes the prerogative of the individual/s in the midst of the tyranny of the narcissist. Its important to speak-up and voice concerns to the authorities in-charge and if such actions yield no results, its important to go out and find a space where one is comfortable.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
― Margaret Mead


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