Narcissism in the workplace. And what to do about it.

It’s that feeling you get when you walk into Abercrombie & Fitch. You lose your swagger. You feel too fat, too tall, too…. fill in the blank. You are just too, too much. A flood of insecurity sweeps over you. So you go buy that perfume your friend wanted and run out as quickly as possible. Or maybe you turn heel and figure out a different present that is sold in a less narcissistic environment. Rite-Aid perhaps or Target.Narcissism in the Workplace

This reminds me of the scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” when the magazine editor, played by Meryl Streep, interviews her potential assistant played by Emily Blunt.  Meryl says as she looks down at her newspaper, “And you have no style or sense of fashion”, and Anna retorts, “Well, I think that depends…” Meryl cuts in shaking her finger, “No. NO! That wasn’t a question.” Textbook narcissist. Actually a textbook grandiose narcissist!

So apparently in our culture of social media, it’s a breeding ground for narcissism. Think “Selfies”. The postcard for the narcissistic environment. Check out this data from an article called How to Deal with A Narcissist: 5 Secrets Backed By Research, “In data from 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present, with the shift especially pronounced for women. The rise in narcissism is accelerating, with scores rising faster in the 2000s than in previous decades.” I think you’re going to run into a lot more coworkers who are out to make you feel insecure.

So here is what you do about it:

1. Don’t hire them to begin with. This is actually a tall order. The reason is that narcissists can be so damn charming. An ex of mine is a great example. Every interview he went on, he got the job. He was confident. Attractive. What’s not to love? Narcissists, especially the grandiose kind, are so confident and self-assured in an interview, they always get the job. There is not a doubt in the candidate’s mind that they can do the job, so the interviewer buys in and wants to hire them. If you aren’t sensing an ounce of humility; or if all they talk about is how, “I did this…I accomplished that”; instead of, “We did this and we did that” – You’ve got yourself a narcissist; and pass.

2. Kiss up. As written in Am I the Only Sane One Working Here, by Albert Bernstein, “There is no way around this. If you want to communicate effectively with narcissists, you have to admire them, their achievements, and their toys as much as they do. Typically, this won’t require any great effort. They’ll be more than happy to come up with reasons to congratulate themselves.” I’ve suggested this to co-workers that complain about an arrogant peer. They roll their eyes and say, “No way”. Why add to their ego? Yes, but you will have an ally. And if it happens to be your boss? You probably don’t have a choice.

3. Zip your lips. Criticizing a narcissist is their kryptonite. You criticize them and you will have an enemy for life. You have now damaged their carefully crafted image. This is known as the “narcissist injury”. They perceive themselves as some sort of superior genius that entitles them to special treatment wherever they go. So, at the first sign of the possibility of narcissistic injury, they become arresting, antagonistic and detached. Mortally wounded, they take flight into a fantasy of grandiosity and they become fixated on getting revenge. You don’t want to light that fuse! Keep your mouth shut.

4. Give them avenues to show off. If you have fallen into the trap of hiring a narcissist, make sure you are giving them avenues to get attention for skills that align with the company goals. They, after all, are compelled to be competitive. Make sure that they are compelled towards group goals that will let them shine. You will frequently see narcissists show up as salespeople for this reason. They want the attention, and in sales, that aligns with the company’s goals.

5. Keep them from infecting others. Vulnerable narcissists are skilled at making others feel unworthy. Think of the coworker who gives you the once over when you come in wearing your new suit but fails to acknowledge or compliment it. Their insecurity is making you feel insecure. This is an important insight from Dr. Whitbourne in Psychology Today, “Being able to detect insecurity in the people around you can help you shake off the self-doubts that some people seem to enjoy fostering in you. Taking the high road, and not giving in to these self-doubts, may also help you foster feelings of fulfillment.” Don’t let the vulnerable narcissists in your workplace infect the place with insecurity.

6. Keep the standards reasonable. Both vulnerable and grandiose narcissists are really good at complaining about the poor standards around them (because they are just too good for them). The company leadership needs to make sure that they don’t have standards that start creeping up to the unreasonable standards the narcissists want to set. If you let them loose, pretty soon everyone will be jumping through insurmountable hoops and productivity will come to a standstill. If someone is complaining about the standard, make sure they are attainable.

As I write this, I am suddenly realizing how many past co-workers were narcissists and how detrimental they were to the companies they worked for. It takes a strong leader to reign in a narcissist especially one in a leadership position. Oh and if you want to find out if it might be you (actually if you are a narcissist, why you are even reading this)? Take this free assessment. Full disclosure, I was a 7 out of 40.

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