I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Greek mythos behind the handsome hunter Narcissus.
Narcissus was so entirely self-absorbed he ignored all advances of love and affection to instead gaze longingly at his own handsome reflection in a river for so long he starved to death.
This ancient tale is the origin story of what we consider to be the very first example of grandiose narcissism — a belief that one is superior to everyone else around them and that only a very special few truly understand them or rise to their unrealistic standards of brilliance and beauty.
Narcissus serves as a cautionary tale to those that operate within this mindset. Narcissists who believe very few are worthy of their praise or admiration often reach disastrous ends in their interpersonal relationships. However, some malignant narcissists rise to prominence in corporate leadership roles and the following study published recently in Personality and Individual Differences outlines the various reasons why.
CEOs lauded as innovators often get there through exploitative means.
The author of this study, Charles O’Reilly begs the question, “Given that there is overwhelming evidence of their destructive qualities, why do they rise to positions of prominence? My friend and co-author, Jeff Pfeffer, has long been interested in power and has long argued that power in organizations comes from a willingness to violate norms in the pursuit of influence. We decided to test some of these ideas.”
The case study
Experts in the field of psychology define grandiosity to be an unrealistic sense of superiority characterized by a sustained view that one is better than all others around them usually expressed in volatile acts of belittling others that don’t match their own perceived greatness. Grandiose narcissists have an exaggerated sense of self, power, abilities, and importance.
One easy way to easily vet out a narcissist in your workplace is to see if they strongly agree with the following blanket statements regarding workplace politics posited by psychologists Jeff Pfeffer and Charles O’Reilly. The first statement that resonated heavily with narcissists was “people in this organization attempt to build themselves up by tearing others down.”
Of course, they agree with this sentiment, this is one of the many ploys narcissist leaders have historically engaged in to rise the ranks in prestigious institutions.
Another statement generally agreed upon by leaders displaying narcissistic tendencies is “engaging in politics is an attractive means to achieve my personal objectives.” This impulse to “play the game” is stronger in midsize to large companies because more people are cloying after limited resources and positions of power.
Healthy competition can breed innovation but when you start maliciously undercutting members of your team to rise the ranks this will only limit future possibilities for future collaboration, ultimately hindering company growth and besmirching workplace culture.
The third statement psychologists found narcissists to agree with more so than their colleagues who didn’t outwardly display this toxic behavior is “I am particularly good at sensing the motivations and hidden agendas of others.” Those people who exhibit grandiose personality traits usually suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder and one symptom of this disorder can be paranoid delusions. They assume everyone around them is trying to exploit them so they use this to justify their own selfish behavior.
While the behaviors of a grandiose narcissist allow them to quickly climb the ranks since they’re extremely adept at office politics this doesn’t mean they are better leaders. In fact, institutions with narcissists at the helm usually don’t fare well overall for a few reasons.
Joshua Evans, founder and managing director of Culture Consulting Associates, explains the detrimental effects narcissist leaders wreak on the organizations they infiltrate in a recent interview. “Office politics comes in many forms, but it’s always people vying for more power, more prestige, and more money. Sometimes people feel justified or rational in their behavior because they believe it will be best for the organization, but ultimately, company politics breeds distrust and suspicion throughout the organization. This stifles innovation and collaboration, which will destroy a company’s growth plans.”
There’s not much we can do to control others’ questionable actions but there are tips to dealing with a narcissist delicately to preserve your working relationship and peace of mind.
Don’t take things personally. If you’re the most recent target of a narcissist they must feel threatened by the value you bring to the company which is why they were trying to “take you down” to make themselves look better comparatively in the first place.
Don’t reveal personal information about yourself to a narcissist as this is fuel for them to attack your character and if they do so unjustly make sure you record or have this hurtful email correspondence in writing to send to HR.
The more awareness companies have on the insidious nature of narcissists in the workplace the easier it will be to spot them and separate them from the pack of qualified leaders.