You're so vain ... you probably thinking this article is about you.<i>Illustration: John Shakespeare</i>

You're so vain ... you probably thinking this article is about you.Illustration: John Shakespeare

In ancient Greek mythology, a hunter named Narcissus was famous for his handsome looks. And he knew it. Infatuated with himself and derisory towards others, he rejected all those who yearned for his attention. One day, upon seeing his own reflection in a pond, Narcissus fell in love. Happy just to stare all day at the beautiful image in the water, he soon forgot to eat and drink, and eventually died. But his name lives on … in the form of the workplace narcissist.

According to Dr Roy Lubit, author of Coping with Toxic Managers, Subordinates and Other Difficult People, the narcissist is a person with a grandiose sense of self-confidence who pursues power at any cost. It’s the person who uses others to get what he (or she) wants, and feels no remorse for the trail of betrayal left behind. Often caused by childhood trauma that resulted in diminished self-esteem, the narcissist makes up for it by being ruthless as an adult.

A narcissist, they say, is probably a narcissist for life. 

It can be your boss, a colleague, or an employee. But since many narcissists use their charisma to fulfil their obsession for career success, they’re usually found in the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy.

Often caused by childhood trauma that resulted in diminished self-esteem, the narcissist makes up for it by being ruthless as an adult.

Often caused by childhood trauma that resulted in diminished self-esteem, the narcissist makes up for it by being ruthless as an adult. Photo: Steve Baccon

Professor Keith Campbell, from the University of Georgia, is the author of The Narcissism Epidemic. He told me the main difference between narcissism in bosses compared with narcissism in colleagues is the issue of power.

“In both cases, I would suggest maintaining the best boundaries you can,” he says. “Do not be overly trusting, keep records of interactions, temper your feedback so that the narcissist does not get overly reactive – and find better co-workers at the soonest opportunity. However, this advice is especially relevant with the narcissistic boss.”

Temper. Your. Feedback. Three important words, and they’re important because giving a narcissist feedback can sometimes make the problem worse. Realising they’ve been caught out, they end up becoming more sinister – only this time they’re careful to stay undercover.

But they rarely stay undercover for long. In a study of over 100 CEOs conducted a few years ago, researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that narcissistic bosses were more likely to engage in risky strategies. Why? Because of their need for visibility. After all, the more daring their vision and strategy, the higher their chances for attention. They desperately want to be noticed – not necessarily adored, but noticed.

You might be that narcissistic CEO. Dr David Thomas, author of Narcissism: Behind the Mask, reckons narcissistic leaders are responsible for the global financial crisis. 

If you’re one of them, can you be cured? Dr Thomas’s research indicates it can’t be done via feel-good seminars and workshops. Other academics posit that therapy is the answer, while some insist there’s no cure at all. A narcissist, they say, is probably a narcissist for life. But, really, if you were a narcissist, you wouldn’t care. That’s the whole point.

In the meantime, the workplace suffers. An analysis by Florida State University concluded, unsurprisingly, that workplaces with narcissistic people have lower levels of job satisfaction and productivity, and greater amounts of stress.

Approximately one per cent of the population can be diagnosed with narcissism, and here’s the curious thing: it’s more prevalent in men than in women. But women are catching up. Psychology professors Jean Twenge and Josh Foster have calculated that growth in narcissism since 2002 has been stronger among the girls than the guys.

For those of you left to endure a workplace narcissist, take heart (so to speak) in a study released earlier this year by psychologists at the University of Michigan. They discovered that narcissists are more prone to health problems, particularly hypertension and heart disease, because they’re always so aggressive.  

Let’s just call it karma.

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