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The workplace narcissist


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

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 ...

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.

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis


  • Yes, the only safe way to handle people like this, either in or outside of the office is to distance yourself as much as possible. Confronting the narcissist is up there with one of the worst things you could do. The repercussions on you for taking a stand with these people often causes many more issues - for you - than it solves.

    Unfortunately, often resigning is the ultimate solution.

    D Trump
    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 1:11PM
    • I was in a situ last year where a narcissistic lawyer blamed me (law clerk) for his deliberate theft of another lawyers client at the law firm.
      It was a horrible environ to work in and I felt sick being there.

      Interesting that there are so many head cases in law in Aus... julia is a lawyer and look at her performance- Now she never lies nor does she cover up the truth for her own self interests does she?

      Date and time
      April 28, 2012, 10:25AM
    • Yes, unfortunately going elsewhere is usually the only solution that works. For the narcissist they will always be right, and disagreeing only makes things worse. They are a pain socially as well, they are always better at things than anyone else, and continually run everyone else down as incompetent.

      Date and time
      April 29, 2012, 1:35PM
  • Thanks for the article. Of course, office narcissists are often more complex than the simple description you quoted. Some bosses are only a little narcissistic, and aware of it, thus good at disguising it. They're the really dangerous ones.

    Are you going to write up the office Adonis, James?

    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 1:38PM
    • one of the most challenging and often neglected aspects of such beliefs is that we can be VERY quick to point fingers at others missing the three pointing back at us... for the same thing!

      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 2:25PM
      • I know of a very dysfunctional office where the Manager is actually in the hands of a manipulator and possible psychopath. It is very difficult for co workers and the manager is so weak, the narcissist is setting agendas and manipulating and attention seeking. That person can have very poor morals and zero empathy and phrases everything in terms of their entitlement view of the office environment and the wider world. A stronger manager would have dismissed the person long ago.

        Date and time
        April 27, 2012, 2:36PM
        • What happens if you live in a city where narcissism emanates from pretty much the entire population? I know I'm generalising, but gee whiz, its as if every person in this city has a form of self-centrist attitude that seems to have gone cancerous to the point that Copernicus would have revised his whole theory on the universe and WE would be at its centre!

          Jay Hash
          Sydney (Unfortunately)
          Date and time
          April 27, 2012, 2:47PM
          • Fully agree about Sydney! Come to Canberra, we aren't like that here.

            Date and time
            April 27, 2012, 3:29PM
          • I spent a dozen years working in the law and encountered these nightmares in Melbourne, Sydney AND Canberra. Twenty years in the workforce before becoming a lawyer, very rarely did I encounter these personalities. The legal fraternity is littered with them. I tried Canberra for a second time as a last ditch effort - encountered almost the worst yet. Gave up. Don't want to be a lawyer anymore. Could be on big money in Sydney. I'd rather eat my own eyeballs.

            Date and time
            April 28, 2012, 8:15PM
        • I worked with a narcissistic co-author. Charming, charismatic, and a toxic personality disorder. When I found out that he was informing everybody that he was the actual author and employed me as his research assistant I confronted him. He then began a smear campaign, informing people that I was crazy...all aimed at damaging my credibility, of course.

          Anonymous for now
          Date and time
          April 27, 2012, 2:54PM

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