Almost every environmental factor of your life has a positive and negative affect: This is true even when searching for that positive affect, proves tiresome. Likewise there are productive and unproductive narcissists. If you’re reading this you’re likely uninterested in the productive angle. Today we’ll focused on the identification, challenge restatement and how to the redirect energy of unproductive narcissists; the self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ who are driving your organization into the ground day-by-day.
First let’s begin with a clear definition, setting the stage and laying a common framework for our discussion. According to the Mayo Clinic the definition of a narcissist falls into the classification of a personality disorder. “A narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. [A narcissistic] may be generally unhappy and disappointed when [they] are not given the special favors or admiration [they] believe [they] deserve. Others may not enjoy being around them”, because a relationship with a narcissist is unfulfilling (Mayo Clinic, 2015).”
According to the Mayo Clinic many experts use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose mental conditions.
The DSM-5’s criteria for narcissistic personality disorders includes these features:
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
- Lying about your achievements and talents
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner (Mayo Clinic, 2015)
Typically, rejection is the most impactful action that a narcissistic leader will understand. This could be an employee leaving a company or even rejecting a job offer. Both of these are triggers that drive a narcissist to build an even thicker mask of ultraconfidence: the mask is not real, of course, it’s a mirror simply to deflect emotions. This narcissist’s negative energy will then be redirected towards individuals inside the organization.
How You Identify Narcissistic Leaders
- Over Confidence – Confidence is a great trait to embrace. However, in this case the self-confidence a narcissistic leader exhibits is grandiose and goes far beyond their intellectual capability. Often they are speaking on topics they know little about; this leads to self-proclamation and verbal rants similar to a child. Typically a narcissist will talk about ideas (often taking ownership for ideas, they did not originate) and view their personal daily activity as the most important to the company.
- Power Obsession – Everyone enjoys power, although some admit this more freely, it’s a general assumption that individuals within society are seeking greater power. This is the core will that drives everyone. However, in this case the narcissist pursues power at all cost and lacks conventional inhibitions in its pursuit. This trait becomes embellished when dealing with leaders of other organizations and even internal leaders. Two affects occur as a result. The first is a divergence away from the path of integrity to pursue more control. The second is the exploitation of internal employees’s motivations for personal gain. Often this is cloaked with a ‘what is best for the company mantra’ however, everyone in the company knows this is not the case. This power obsession also is linked to their inability to control their emotions. Quite often they are known to shout at employees and even swear in extreme cases, when losing emotional control.
- Lack of Empathy – This is most prevalent when a narcissist is disconnected from the reality of the situation, due to poor listening skills and a lack of a conscience. This last missing key element drives their dramatic sensitivity of any criticism. Narcissists have a hard time expressing their feelings and as a result there are known to make grand speeches and dominate meetings with their subordinates instead of absorbing knowledge to make more informed decisions. As a result their depth and breadth of knowledge is frequently very narrow, fuel their feeling of inferiority.
The Challenge with Narcissistic Leaders
Narcissist are incapable of anything but taking. At first this effect on the organization as a whole is not so pervasive. However, quickly this insecurity and low self-esteem impacts the organization’s goals and infects the DNA of an organization driving down the company’s capacity for growth.
The most visible, if you’re looking for it, is a dramatic drop in organizational morale; the motivation and satisfaction of employees plummets. This will be presented in unproductive paranoia against any type of organizational culture survey or attempt to provide a reasonable pulse into the organization, threatening to make vocal the narcissist’s constant criticism of others.
Freud defined three main types of personalities: erotic, obsessive and narcissistic (Maccoby, 2004). The erotic include teachers, nurses and social workers. The obsessives include process improvement, accounting, and financial areas of interest. Lastly the narcissistic includes a heavy dose of self-proclaimed industry ‘experts’ who want to be admired not loved. Anyone who calls them self an expert is likely hardly an expert.
Unfortunately emotional imbalances at home quickly penetrate into the office environment creating an unsafe and unstable environment for employees and consultants. The disruption creates a theme of unproductivity that spreads like an airborne virus across the organization.
Redirecting Energy from Unproductive Narcissistic Leaders
We discussed the definition of a narcissist, traits of the personality disorder, how to identify and the raw challenge – so now what? There are three effective approaches that cater to a narcissistic leader’s ego.
First, listen to everything they have to say. You don’t need to offer original ideas, because they are not listening anyways. You actually don’t need to listen either, but you do need to repeat or mirror their comments and ideas as being the most effective. These comments and ideas likely will be poorly formed delusions that in reality will never work if implemented – that doesn’t matter. Appear to be actively listening.
Second, disconnect emotionally. They are not going to help you grow and learn. Known for over promising and under delivering they rarely keep their word and as a result have a lot of people around them at all times. Few are actually friends and most are simply using them for one thing or another. Everything is a game to a narcissist. Their life at work is often turned into a virtual reality game, they see things that are not there. They flip-flop on decisions in what appears to be on a whim: losing the confidence of the employee base. This becomes a major reason many leaders close to them and within their organization will shortly leave after they take a position of power. Narcissists will stab their most loyal employees in the back with a flip of a coin, there is no loyalty. You need to know this, don’t expect loyalty, focus on your career and remove yourself out from under the negative shadow they cast. When playing these games they believe they are the great player in the world, the most skillful and the savviest with how they appear to deceive. This ultra-confidence is unfortunately misplaced because typically they have a history of poor performance in school, supported by limited intellect.
Third, praise them. The organization and team knows their true nature. However, a narcissist needs constant praise to feel validated that they are superior. Feeding their ego, helps to protect your team.
You must create a fantasy where the narcissist appears to always be in control. Be quick to self-criticize even joking how you’re working to improve to only come close to their impressive status. Remember narcissists have a personality disorder and you won’t be fixing it while employed there. They will eventually kill their company and the good to great employees will see this happening and will leave.
5 Questions to Ask: Are You Working with A Narcissistic CEO?
- Have more than 3 senior leaders left your company, in the last 6 months?
- Does everyone know the organization has a morale problem, except the leader?
- Are decisions made in the dark, then communicated last minute without the proper input from impacted roles?
- Does the leader have unbalanced emotional swings, apparently happy one day and borderline enraged the next?
- Does the organization lack an executive strategy?
Note, that I didn’t say strategic objectives, most have that documented somewhere. I’m talking here about a strategic direction. For example the market targets for the organization, growth rates, areas of consolidation and areas of expansion.
Organizations with narcissistic leaders hurt teams, hurt the organization and most importantly damage the value, beliefs and ideals that motivate employees. Your best option is leave and look for opportunities in a new environment. Let them lose on their one, it may just take some time.
Burgemeester, A. (2013). Business Leaders and Narcissism – The Narcissistic Life. Retrieved September 11, 2015, from http://thenarcissisticlife.com/business-leaders-and-narcissism/
Daskal, L. (2015). How to Deal With a Narcissistic Leader | Inc.com. Retrieved September 11, 2015, from http://www.inc.com/lolly-daskal/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissistic-leader.html
Maccoby, M. (2004). Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2004/01/narcissistic-leaders-the-incredible-pros-the-inevitable-cons
Mayo Clinic. (2015). Narcissistic personality disorder – Mayo Clinic. Retrieved September 11, 2015, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/definition/con-20025568
New York Times. (2015). Why narcissists are bad for business (Online Image). Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.afr.com/leadership/company-culture/why-narcissists-are-bad-for-business-20150308-13yqcu
Vachss, A. (2015). House of Mirrors: How To Cause Narcissistic Injury Without Really Trying. Retrieved September 11, 2015, from http://house-of-mirrors.blogspot.com/2013/03/how-to-cause-narcissistic-injury.html