Narcissism in the Workplace

I. Introduction and Purpose

Having an encouraging self-attitude, being self-assured, and having high self-esteem are worthwhile attributes in both work and personal life; some take these positive attributes to the extreme and become self-regarding, self-adoring, egocentric, and show little empathy for the problems and concerns of others. These people can be considered narcissists, and they can be especially problematic in business settings. Narcissists in work organizations, I believe, are more problematic than beneficial. They tend to cause problems in the workplace due to their toxic personalities.

The purpose of this research paper is to prove my point that narcissists are more harmful in a workplace environment than helpful.

I will point out the failures of companies due to narcissistic leaders. Although there are companies that are successful who have had a narcissistic leader such as Jack Welch and his company General Electric, it will not be covered in this paper. Secondly, I will make the point that narcissists as leaders are toxic for companies due to their relationship patterns and how it can hurt the business.

Freud’s three types of personalities relate to interactions between people that helps further prove the point that narcissists are not beneficial in workplace environments. Thirdly, I will discuss possible techniques to cope with narcissistic leaders and how employees can get their opinions across to their leaders.

II. Failures due to Narcissistic Leaders

As narcissists become progressively self-assured, they act more impulsively. They feel free of constrictions, and their ideas and beliefs flourish. They believe they’re invincible, which further inspires followers’ enthusiasm and feeds into feelings of grandiosity.

One example of a company’s failure due to narcissism is Pehr Gyllenhammar and Volvo. He had a vision that attracted a broad international audience—a plan to transform the industrial workplace by substituting the dehumanizing assembly line mimicked in Chaplin’s Modern Times. His wildly popular vision called for team-based craftsmanship. Model factories were built and publicized to international praise. But his success in pushing through these dramatic changes also sowed the seeds for his downfall. Gyllenhammar started to feel he could ignore the concerns of his operational managers. He pursued chancy and expensive new business deals, which he publicized on television and in the press.

On one level, you can credit Gyllenhammar’s falling out of touch with his workforce simply due to faulty strategy. But it is also possible to blame it to his narcissistic personality. His overestimation of himself led him to believe that others would want him to be the leader of a worldwide enterprise. In turn, these fantasies led him to pursue a partnership with Renault, which was extremely unpopular with Swedish employees. Because Gyllenhammar was deaf to complaints about Renault, Swedish managers were forced to take their case public. In the end, shareholders aggressively rejected Gyllenhammar’s plan, leaving him with no option but to resign.

At the University of Amsterdam, a study was taken by Nevicka Babora to determine whether or not narcissists make for good leaders. The study recruited 150 participants that were divided into groups of three. One person was randomly assigned to be the group’s leader; all were told they could contribute advice, but that the leader was responsible for making the decision. Then they undertook a group task: choosing a job candidate. Of 45 items of information about the candidate, some were given to all three, and some to only one of the participants.

The experiment was designed so that using only the information all three were privy to, the group would opt for a lesser candidate. Sharing all the information that was given would lead to the best choice. After the interviews, the participants completed questionnaires. The leaders’ questions measured narcissism; the others assessed the leaders’ authority and effectiveness. As expected, the group members rated the most narcissistic leaders as most effective. But they were wrong. In fact, groups led by the greatest egotists chose the worse candidate for the job. Barbora said “The narcissistic leaders had a very negative effect on their performance. They inhibited the communication because of self-centeredness and authoritarianism.”

III. Narcissistic Relationships in the Workplace

As narcissists move higher up in position in a company, they are more likely to maintain relationships with coworkers who are willing to conform to their ideas and motives. Some people believe narcissists benefit the workplace environment because they are good at making relationships quickly with groups of people by charming people with their charismatic personality at the first initial meeting. They also benefit the company by them willing, and able to make whatever personal sacrifices are necessary to gain reputation and position. Taken to a certain degree, these narcissistic traits are valuable to the person and the organization. They signal “leader.” Yet, as Manfred Kets de Vries has said, “narcissism is a strange thing, a double-edged sword. Having either too much or too little of it can throw a person off balance.”

Narcissists will often become obsessed with gaining power and control. They tend to make decisions on impulse, with no second thoughts, leading to potential problems. Narcissists have trouble working with others and they often do not take blame for their mistakes and they do not like to share credit for successes. Leaders with a narcissistic personality often like to surround themselves with an unquestioning loyal and uncritical staff because they do not like to feel threatened by a colleague. Also, they exploit others; forming relationships only with those he or she feels will advance his or her goals and self-esteem. Jon Carlzon, former CEO of the Scandinavian airline SAS, is a textbook example of how a narcissist’s weakness can cut short a brilliant career. Carlzon compared the ideal organization to the Brazilian soccer team; there would be no fixed roles, only innovative plays.

When another input of thought of a more military form of organization was added that disagreed with Carlzon’s belief, he stated, “Well, that may be true, if your goal is to shoot your customers.” He did not engage in serious dialogue with his subordinates, displaying his trait of self-interest. He also ignored the issue of high costs, even when others pointed out SAS could not compete without improving productivity. He spent tons of money investing in unnecessary items right before his company filed for bankruptcy. Carlzon’s self-image became so enormously inflated that his feet left the ground.

Freud: The Three Types of Personalities

Freud identified three main types of personalities: erotic, obsessive, and narcissistic. Most of us have elements of all three; therefore, we are all somewhat narcissistic. One type of personality will dominate over the other, making us react differently to success and failure. i. Erotics tend to be the compassionate and caring. They care about being loved and believe that it is most important. Erotics are dependent on people they fear will stop loving them. Erotic’s are generally teachers, social workers, and nurses; positions which help others in need. Erotics do not make the best leaders because they try to avoid conflict as much as possible and they make people dependent on them. According to Freud, they are the outer-directed people. ii. Compared to erotics, obsessives are more inner-directed. These people tend to be more self-reliant and conscientious. They make the most effective managers in a workplace environment due to their ability to create and maintain order.

They are constantly looking for ways to help people listen and understand better to resolve conflicts and find win-win opportunities. Obsessives want to constantly improve due to their conscience and their sense of moral improvement. The best obsessives communicate effectively and set very high standards. They make sure that all procedures are followed according to plan and within the budget. The most productive obsessives tend to be great mentors and team players. iii. The third type of personality is narcissistic. Narcissists are not easily impressed and independent. In business, they are driven by their innovation to gain power and glory.

The best narcissists go above and beyond being experts in their industries and they crave the knowledge to know everything about the companies and products. Compared to erotics, they want to be admired not loved. They are not afraid to express their feelings and put others back in pursuit of their goals. At the moment of success, narcissists are at the greatest risk of isolating themselves out of all three personality types. Narcissists constantly look for enemies due to their independence and aggressiveness. The most toxic relationships to be made are with narcissists out of the three personality types because they are the most unstable. Generally, a relationship with a narcissist is short term because of their fear of having someone be more superior than them and due to their independence.

IV. How to Cope

Narcissists are not likely to realize they do not have narcissistic personality disorder nor do they know how to react when they sense they are being targeted. The best thing for a person to do in order to work well with a narcissist is to follow along with the narcissist’s ideas or plans. The best way to determine if a leader is a narcissist is finding certain qualities that narcissists display. If he or she talks frequently about him or herself, and constantly uses the word “I” and bullies and abuses those who work for him and intimidates others to get his way, these are signs of a narcissist. Also, another sign would be in public if he or she presents himself or herself as patient, congenial, and confident; however, in private is smug, arrogant, snobbish, and patronizing to subordinates and coworkers.

The biggest situation you should try to avoid is not to confront the destructive narcissist directly. Confrontation with them can lead to rage and a feeling of being attacked, causing a highly malicious response. Whatever happens, stay as calm as possible and behave in an admiring manner to calm the narcissist down. Never show that you are afraid of a narcissist for they will try to use it to think that you are of lower authority than them. Get everything you can in writing and keep notes of things that narcissists may lie, bluff, threaten, and deceive about.

Narcissists are likely to apologize when they have no one on their side if a mist of an argument or disagreement. They will confess their wrong doings and ask for forgiveness however, they will not mean or believe what he or she is saying. Narcissists rarely see their wrong-doings until they have no one that is admiring them, so they may fake their emotions in order for the person to feel guilty and put the blame for the situation on themselves. This also relates to narcissists taking back the things they say in order for themselves to get out of tight situations. Expect the destructive narcissist to break contracts and agreements. Protect yourself emotionally and financially from betrayal. Have a backup strategy should the destructive narcissist go back on his word, which he or she probably will.

V. Conclusion

Narcissistic leaders are bad for companies due to their constant admiration of themselves and inability to take criticism well. They listen to only the information they seek and they don’t learn easily from others. If a company is at its highest stress level, adding a narcissist to the stress load may cause the company failure.

Works Cited

Boyett, Joseph H., Ph.D. “Surviving the Destructive Narcissistic Leader.” Apr. 2006. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. Bruner, Robert, and Robert Spekman. “Alliances: Lessons from Volvo- Renault.” 2 Apr. 1998. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. Grunes, Dennis. “MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936).” MODERN TIMES (Charles Chaplin, 1936). 06 Nov. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. <>. Konnikova, Maria. “The Narcissistic Leader: Not as Good as He (Or You) May Think.” 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <>. Maccoby, Michael. Harvard Business Review. Proc. of Weaknesses of the Narcissistic Leader. 02 Aug. 2006. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <>. Maccoby, Michael. “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredile Pros, the Inevitable Cons.” Jan. 2004. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. Nevicka, Barbora. “Narcissists Look Like Good Leaders—But They Aren’t!” Association for Psychological Science RSS. 09 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. <>.

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