Over the many years of working with teams, helping them to develop high-performance, I have often had discussions about bullying, especially carried out by those in positions of power. However, more recently, I have been having conversations with individuals about behaviour that goes beyond bullying which has led me to understand the issue further. Whilst we all encounter people who we feel have treated us badly, this goes far beyond this type of unacceptable behaviour and frighteningly, whilst occurring frequently in the workplace, is very rarely understood or tackled as it is a personality disorder.
The disorder is called Narcissism and can occur equally in men and women. Richard Boyd, an eminent psychotherapist, quotes “The word narcissism comes from the Greek mythological figure, Narcissus, who upon seeing his own reflection in a pond, fell obsessively in love with himself and his own image. The true unhealthy Narcissist we see today, while maintaining a false self or “mask” of achievement, perfection, and the attainment of all the symbols of success and power, hides underneath a self-hating, insecure, fragile real self, which fears being uncovered and exposed at any moment.” It is the latter that becomes so destructive if you are the one to uncover or expose them in the workplace as you will feel the full force of their wrath.
According to body-mind researcher and M.D, Alexander Lowen, in his book, Narcissism – Denial of the True Self, Narcissists share many common traits with bullies, but due to their ability to project a compelling false, idealised self-image, and high intelligence, are more likely to “get away with it”, and escape accountability. This is the frightening part when you work with someone with these traits. An H.R. Director I spoke to recently was aware of this condition however said that the problem was that these individuals were extremely convincing in interviews and it wasn’t until they were employed that the problems began.
So What Are The Most Common Traits?
- Arrogant and self-centred
- Can be charismatic and articulate
- Likely to disrespect boundaries or rules
- Reacts badly to criticism or challenging their opinions and views
- Critical or dismissive of the views and opinions of others
How The Narcissist Operates
Narcissistic personalities normally have a strong rigid-perfectionistic streak which gives them the discipline to set goals, focus and achieve, but there is a clinical coldness or unfeeling aspect to their natures (Lowen:1986). Many unhealthy Narcissists appear to achieve but in fact are predators who feed off victims they encounter in life, using their victims’ efforts, skills, and hard work, which get assumed and taken by the Narcissist as their own, without remorse, recognition or meaningful reward for those around them (Babiak:2006).
In a Narcissist’s world, It’s all about them, as Narcissists possess no real empathy, they feign or act empathic, while they delude themselves that they are entitled to special treatment, and to not having to bother with detail or drudgery (Babiak:2006). These Narcissists often gather a following of helpers or “sidekicks” to manipulate into doing any effort based work for them. Instead they spent their time managing their “image”, being a “visionary”, being “strategic”, establishing key “contacts”, that they argue only they are able to successfully do (Lewi-Martinez:2008). Loyalty is not a long-term 2 way street. “Sidekicks” eventually get “drop kicked” or betrayed when it suits the Narcissist.
In organisations the “special” end game is to get to the top, get on the Board of Directors, and/or be the MD where money, power, publicity, status and greatness all lie in wait for them. They are ruthless and exploitative in business and personal relationships, and paranoid of betrayal by others. They claim more than what is their actual entitlement without remorse, do not feel a need to justify themselves, and believe that as special, unique rules should operate in their favour. They are both jealous and paranoid of those above them in the world or the organisation or indeed have better relationships with others than they do. With these people, they employ a combination of seduction, control, manipulation, character assassination, undermining and avoidance. They may attempt to initially befriend them to “work them out” and decide if they can overcome them, especially where they cannot be “converted” into a follower, or at least sidelined into neutrality.
Narcissists have learnt that truth is a subjective reality and work to create perceptions in their favour, utilising lies and truth interchangeably. The Narcissist reacts to and is overly sensitive to any criticism or threat of being exposed, which is countered with rage and retribution. As the Narcissist is always right in their own mind, and will lie without conscience, you cannot constructively argue or negotiate with them. They will attack and humiliate those who they already judge as inferior, which is most of the rest of us.
Narcissists in general will use gossip, confidential one-on-one chats or talks, using a mask of either “being concerned” about the person they are attacking, or with a trusted “sidekick”, will outright denigrate or belittle, lie, defame, and otherwise destroy their reputation, knowing that perception creates reality and doubt. In general, they cannot be compromised with, mediated, or negotiated with, in good faith. They are obsessed with winning and not win-win, whatever the cost. The other person(s) in the dynamic are unimportant to the Narcissist and its winner take all, with the narcissist always feel a sense of entitlement to what they crave.
Finances And Addiction
The Narcissist may either completely control finances, and be secretive about their own or household finances as a form of manipulation or control of partners. Alternatively they may have a secret addiction and spend money impulsively, or be incompetent and unable to manage finances, relying on trustworthy “sidekick” partners to manage and prop up financial matters and routines.
Narcissist often have an underlying but often secret addiction which they use to self-soothe with, or to emotionally numb out their stress and anxiety that they keep hidden from public view. Addictions may include one or combination of alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, shopping, smoking, internet, etc.
Common Triggers Of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Narcissists often have troubled childhoods with a difficult relationship with either their mother or more often their father. This then has a knock-on effect with the relationships they have with other family members and relationships in general which tend to be shallow and dysfunctional. They will often shy away from discussing their childhood or give sketchy details as for them, this is a painful period in their life that has helped shape their Narcissistic disorder.
Their Game Plan
Paul Babiak PHD, in his book, “Snakes in Suits”, notes that Narcissists use a 3 phase game plan when engaging with victims. The first phase is selecting their victim or prey based on assessing the potential victim’s utility value, and identifying their psychological strengths and weaknesses. The second stage involves manipulation of the potential victims with carefully crafted messages plus using constant feedback from the potential victim to build and maintain rapport and control. Phase 3 occurs when the Narcissist has finished “devouring” the victim and whose utility value has been exhausted. The drained and bewildered victim is abandoned without remorse as the predatory Narcissist looks afield for new victims higher up the corporate ladder, which equates to more power in their reality.
In summary, Richard Boyd concluded that it can be seen that unhealthy Narcissistic people are deceptive and who can go through life largely undiagnosed, and who can be on appearance sane, rational and charismatic, often achieving success in their field. However on closer inspection one finds under this mask of grandiose perfection and self- righteousness, a dark shadow of deceit, manipulation, self-serving, lying, and potentially criminal behaviour that acts without remorse or compassion or consideration for others. Indeed they may devour and possess others as a means to get power, status, wealth and other externalised symbols of success.
What Can You Do If You Are The Victim?
So what can you do if you are faced with someone who exhibits these traits in the workplace and where you have become their victim?
- Don’t take anything personally, it’s not about you, it’s about them
- Try to avoid situation that make yourself a target
- Line up emotional support with trusted close friends or colleagues
- Prepare for the worst as Narcissists will try to win at all costs
- Gather evidence as to what has happened to you and when.
- Keep a record of emails, voicemails, interactions and those who were present and witnessed what happened.
- Speak to someone in authority, your Line Manager, or someone in your H.R. department as it may not only be you who is suffering.
I hope that the above may help those people who have been the victim of a workplace Narcissist to understand what has happened to them and to enable them to do something about it if they need to do so.
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Wishing you continued happiness and success in both work and life.
Yours behaviourally, Nick