When thinking about and discussing workplace dynamics, I find it is helpful to understand workplace personalities. I use the term workplace personality to highlight that oftentimes we simply do not know how a person is in their personal life. When we form an opinion about a colleague, it is usually based on how they are in the workplace environment. Knowing about the narcissistic workplace personality specifically can be extremely helpful for three main reasons:
1) it is common, especially in higher-level management positions
2) having to deal with someone that exhibits a narcissistic workplace personality can be professionally damaging
3) equipped with an understanding of how a narcissist operates in the workplace can be a valuable coping tool and successful workplace strategy
Narcissistic refers to the personality type that is quite frankly disordered. Someone that exhibits narcissistic personality traits in the workplace is charming and engaging at first and on the surface. However, the person only has time to consider admiration for him or herself - both self-admiration and admiration by everyone else. The person reacts in a pronounced way and oftentimes with aggression to feedback that is inconsistent with his or her self-perception.
What does a workplace narcissist look like? Believe it or not, a workplace narcissist is very interested in his or her own physical appearance and usually the person is well-groomed with an interest in clothing, accessories - like watches, jewellery, wallets, bags - and personal material possessions like cars, houses, and stock portfolios. That said, if someone has an interest in these things it does not mean that he or she is a workplace narcissist. A workplace narcissist feels much more comfortable talking about things that make him or her feel intelligent rather than feelings (other than anger, pride or elation) or anything related to vulnerability.
There are a handful of behaviours to look for in order to identify a proper workplace narcissist. The workplace narcissist is extremely delighted when anyone agrees with his or her opinion, assessment or passing comments. The person is so delighted that he or she will befriend those that agree and will work to be surrounded by passive agree-ers. To disagree with a workplace narcissist means you have wounded him or her deeply to the core and you will be ousted from the familiar circle. Disagree-ers do not survive long with a workplace narcissist. The workplace narcissist will not recognise that assembling yes-people and casting-away people who display difference of opinion is part of their process. Rather, the workplace narcissist will pick apart the person that disagrees in usually a disrespectful, boundary-crossing way and will highlight anything that could be called a weakness. There is a term I commonly use to describe this - narcissistic annihilation - and it has probably happened to you in the workplace at least once.
The workplace narcissist will also engage in extreme self-promotion, unabashedly taking other people's ideas or humiliating and publicly criticising the work of colleagues, competitors or those that pose a status-threat. In some organisations, attention-seeking through intense negative and non-constructive criticism is not recognised for what it is - a toxic process by which workplace narcissists can thrive. Some organisations have started to reign-in some of these types of workplace narcissistic behaviours. They can be difficult to spot, however, unless you are aware that some people do in fact operate this way.
The workplace narcissist often uses aggression to communicate in organisations. Intimidating body language like pointing fingers, large and fast waving hand gestures and body-blocking are commonly used. As well, raised voices, name-calling, profanity and demeaning language - specifically using "you"-statements in place of more appropriate "I"-statements - go with the narcissistic aggressive territory. Usually the workplace narcissist pushes directives without input and tells people what to do. People often do not feel empowered when they work with strong narcissistic workplace personalities.
Other workers that encounter narcissists in organisations can find themselves stomped-on, ousted or annihilated unless they learn to identify when someone is behaving with this dysfunctional personality structure. If you can identify when someone has a narcissistic workplace personality and process then you can do something to protect yourself and actually out-smart and out-play him or her. Here are some of the strategies:
1) Admire the person just enough to keep them on-side, for example "I like your watch" or "You're so clever to have such a well-performing stock portfolio".
2) Know that out-right and public disagreement will be met with complete ousting and annihilation. That's a fact. Unless you have an advocate that is not a narcissist at a management level above your person then you have no choice but to find another way to disagree. This usually involves whispering and drip-feeding your idea(s), largely coming in from the side and undetected.
3) If you do experience annihilation by a workplace narcissist, then comfort yourself with the knowledge that this was largely about his or her very dysfunctional process, not yours. Many relationship dynamics are contingent on the two people involved. However, if you are dealing with a workplace narcissist, then his or her reaction to you is not necessarily directly related to what you did and is most likely out-of-proportion.
4) Carefully document your work and ideas and share them with colleagues and other members of management, whether they are also narcissists in the workplace or not.
5) Knowing that you work with too many narcissists is important for serving as an indication of when it is time to leave an organisation and find one that is less toxi-fied with workplace bullies.
There are many other traits and behaviours that a workplace narcissist undertakes. This article has highlighted a few of the larger ones. Having a solid peer support network, a non-narcissist mentor and a career coach can help you with the intricacies of dealing with your specific workplace narcissists and other odd workplace personalities and dynamics.
Blogging about mental health issues for personal and professional development. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.