Narcissism in the workplace

Narcissism in the workplace is a serious issue that may have a major detrimental impact on an entire organization. Narcissistic individuals in the workplace are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behavior, especially when their self-esteem is threatened.[1][2] Narcissism is both a personality trait and a personality disorder, generally assessed with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.[3]

Oliver James identifies narcissism as one of the dark triadic personality traits in the workplace, with the others being psychopathy and Machiavellianism.[4] These three traits have been found to correlate moderately to strongly with one another.[5] Dark triad traits also share strong negative correlations with Honesty-Humility traits.[6] Narcissism is distinguished from the other dark triad traits by its positive correlations with openness and extroversion.

Job interviews

Narcissists typically perform well at job interviews; they receive more favorable hiring ratings from interviewers than individuals who are not narcissists.[7] Even more experienced and trained raters evaluate narcissists more favorably.[8][9] This is perhaps because interviews are one of the few social situations where narcissistic behaviors, such as boasting, actually create a positive impression; however, favorable impressions of narcissists are often short-lived.[10] Interviewers’ initial impressions of narcissistic applicants are formed primarily on the basis of highly visible cues, which makes them susceptible to biases.[11]

Narcissists are more skilled at displaying likable cues, which lead to more positive first impressions, regardless of their long-term likability or job performance. Upon first meeting narcissists, people often rate them as more agreeable, competent, open, entertaining, and well-adjusted. Narcissists also tend to be neater and flashier dressers, display friendlier facial expressions, and exhibit more self-assured body movements.[12] Importantly, while narcissistic individuals may rate their own job performance more favorably, studies show that narcissism is not related to job performance.[13] Thus, while narcissists may seem to perform better and even be rated as performing better in interviews, these more favorable interview ratings are not predictive of favorable job performance, as narcissists do not actually perform better in their jobs than non-narcissists.

Impact on stress, absenteeism and staff turnover

There tends to be a higher level of stress with people who work with or interact with a narcissist. While there are a variety of reasons for this to be the case, an important one is the relationship between narcissism and aggression. Penney and Spector found narcissism to be positively related to counterproductive workplace behaviors, such as interpersonal aggression, sabotaging the work of others, finding excuses to waste other peoples' time and resources, and spreading rumors.[14] These aggressive acts can raise the stress of other employees,[15] which in turn increases absenteeism and staff turnover.[16]

Narcissistic supply

The narcissistic manager will have two main sources of narcissistic supply: inanimate (status symbols like cars, gadgets or office views); and animate (flattery and attention from colleagues and subordinates).[17] Teammates may find everyday offers of support swiftly turn them into enabling sources of permanent supply, unless they are very careful to maintain proper boundaries.[18] The narcissistic manager's need to protect such supply networks will prevent objective decision-making.[19] Such a manager will evaluate long-term strategies according to their potential for gaining personal attention instead of to benefit the organization.[20]

Preference for hierarchical organisations

Narcissists like hierarchical organisations because they think they will rise to high ranks and reap status and power. They take special interest in acquiring leadership positions and may be better at procuring them.[21] Narcissists are less interested in hierarchies where there is little opportunity for upward mobility.[22] A classic narcissist is more concerned with getting praised and how they are perceived than doing what benefits all of the "stakeholders".[23] Some narcissistic attributes may confer benefits, but the negative and positive outcomes of narcissistic leadership are not yet fully understood.

Corporate narcissism

According to Alan Downs, corporate narcissism occurs when a narcissist becomes the chief executive officer (CEO) (or another leadership role) within the senior management team and gathers an adequate mix of codependents around him or her to support the narcissistic behavior. Narcissists profess company loyalty but are only really committed to their own agendas; thus, organizational decisions are founded on the narcissist's own interests rather than the interests of the organization as a whole, the various stakeholders, or the society in which the organization operates.[24] As a result, a certain kind of charismatic leader can run a financially successful company on thoroughly unhealthy principles (at least for a time).[25]

Neville Symington has suggested that one of the ways of differentiating a good-enough organisation from one that is pathological is through its ability to exclude narcissistic characters from key posts.[26]

Coping strategies for dealing with workplace narcissists

DuBrin suggests the following coping strategies:[27]

  • Assess the relationship realistically
  • Maintain your professionalism
  • Flatter the narcissistic manager
  • Confront the problem gently and tactfully
  • Document your accomplishments
  • Be willing to accept criticism
  • Over respond to the manager's pet peeves
  • Maintain a strong network

Workplace bullying overlap

In 2007, researchers Catherine Mattice and Brian Spitzberg at San Diego State University, USA, found that narcissism revealed a positive relationship with bullying. Narcissists were found to prefer indirect bullying tactics (such as withholding information that affects others' performance, ignoring others, spreading gossip, constantly reminding others of mistakes, ordering others to do work below their competence level, and excessively monitoring others' work) rather than direct tactics (such as making threats, shouting, persistently criticizing, or making false allegations). Studies of adolescents using self-reports and teacher evaluation also indicated that narcissists are more likely to integrate aggressive and confrontational behaviors due to low self-esteem.[28][29]

The research also revealed that narcissists are highly motivated to bully, and that to some extent, they are left with feelings of satisfaction after a bullying incident occurs.[30] Despite the fact that many narcissist will avoid work, they can be eager to steal the work of others. In line with other dark triad traits, many narcissists will manipulate others and their environment so that they can claim responsibility for company accomplishments that they had little or nothing to do with.[31]

Sexual harassment

There are strong links between narcissism and sexual harassment, associated with ego centrism and willingness to exploit others.[32] Additional research has also been done that directly correlates narcissism with a proclivity to engage in sexual harassment.[33] Relevant correlates include sociosexuality, unrestricted sexuality, and extroversion.

Productive narcissists

Crompton has distinguished what he calls productive narcissists from unproductive narcissists.[34] Maccoby acknowledged that productive narcissists still tend to be over-sensitive to criticism, over-competitive, isolated, and grandiose, but considered that what draws them out is that they have a sense of freedom to do whatever they want rather than feeling constantly constrained by circumstances, and that through their charisma they are able to draw people into their vision, and produce a cohort of disciples who will pursue the dream for all it's worth.[35][36]

Others have questioned the concept, considering that the dramatic collapse of Wall Street and the financial system in 2009 must give us pause. Is the collapse due to business leaders who have developed narcissistic styles—even if ostensibly productive?[37] Certainly one may conclude that at best there can be quite a fine line between narcissists who perform badly in the workplace because of their traits, and those who achieve outrageous success because of them.[38]

In fiction

See also


  1. Bushman, B. J.; Baumeister, R. F. (1998). "Threatened egotism, narcissism, self-esteem, and direct and displaced aggression: Does self-love or self-hate lead to violence?". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 75 (1): 219–229. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.219. PMID 9686460.
  2. Penney, L. M.; Spector, P. E. (2002). "Narcissism and counterproductive work behavior: Do bigger egos mean bigger problems?". International Journal of Selection and Assessment. 10 (1–2): 126–134. doi:10.1111/1468-2389.00199.
  3. Judge, T. A.; LePine, J. A.; Rich, B. L. (2006). "Loving Yourself Abundantly: Relationship of the Narcissistic Personality to Self- and Other Perceptions of Workplace Deviance, Leadership, and Task and Contextual Performance". Journal of Applied Psychology. 91 (4): 762–776. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.4.762. PMID 16834504.
  4. James O Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks (2013)
  5. Furnham et al. (2017)The Dark Triad of Personality: A 10 Year Review
  6. Lee, Kibeom; Ashton, Michael C. (May 2005). "Psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and Narcissism in the Five-Factor Model and the HEXACO model of personality structure". Personality and Individual Differences. 38 (7): 1571–1582. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2004.09.016. ISSN 0191-8869.
  7. Grijalva, E., & Harms, P. D. (2014). Narcissism: An integrative synthesis and dominance complementarity model. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 28(2), 108-127.
  8. Brunell et al., 2008 A.B. Brunell, W.A. Gentry, W.K. Campbell, B.J. Hoffman, K.W. Kuhnert, K.G. Demarree. Leader emergence: The case of the narcissistic leader. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34 (2008), pp. 1663–1676.
  9. Schnure, K. (2010). Narcissism 101. Industrial Engineer, 42(8), 34-39.
  10. Paulhus, D. L. (1998). Interpersonal and intrapsychic adaptiveness of trait self-enhancement: A mixed blessing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1197-1208.
  11. Back, M.D., Schmukle, S.C., & Egloff, B. (2010). Why are narcissists so charming at first sight? Decoding the narcissism-popularity link at zero acquaintance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 132-145.
  12. Berscheid, E., & Reis, H. T. (1998). Attraction and close relationships.
  13. Campbell, W. K., Hoffman, B. J., Campbell, S. M., & Marchisio, G. (2011). Narcissism in organizational contexts. Human Resource Management Review, 21(4), 268-284.
  14. Penney, L. M., & Spector, P. E. (2002, June). Narcissism and Counterproductive WorkBehavior: Do Bigger Egos Mean Bigger Problems? Retrieved February 24, 2018, from
  15. Colligan, T. W., & Higgins, E. M. (2006). Workplace Stress. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 21(2), 89-97. doi:10.1300/j490v21n02_07
  16. Thomas, David. Narcissism: Behind the Mask (2010)
  17. A. J. DuBrin, Narcissism in the Workplace (2012) p. 143
  18. A. J. DuBrin, Narcissism in the Workplace (2012) p. 143 and p. 181
  19. S. Allcorn, Organizational Dynamics and Intervention (2005) p. 105
  20. A. J. DuBrin, Narcissism in the Workplace (2012) p. 122
  21. Braun, Susanne (2017). "Leader Narcissism and Outcomes in Organizations: A Review at Multiple Levels of Analysis and Implications for Future Research". Frontiers in Psychology. 8: 773. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00773. ISSN 1664-1078. PMC 5437163. PMID 28579967.
  22. Zitek E, Jordan A Research: Narcissists Don’t Like Flat Organizations Archived 2017-01-07 at the Wayback Machine Harvard Business Review 27 Jul 2016
  23. "Narcissism at Work: The Arrogant Executive". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2018-02-22.
  24. Downs, Alan: Beyond The Looking Glass: Overcoming the Seductive Culture of Corporate Narcissism, 1997
  25. Robin Skynner/John Cleese, Life and how to survive it (London 1994) p. 101
  26. Neville Symington, Narcissism: A New Theory (London 2004) p. 10
  27. A. J. DuBrin, Narcissism in the Workplace: Research, Opinion and Practice (2012)) p. 197
  28. Washburn et al. 2004 Narcissistic Features in Young Adolescents: Relations to Aggression and Internalizing Symptoms
  29. Kerig & Stellwagen, 2010 Roles of callous-unemotional traits, narcissism, and machiavellianism in childhood aggression
  30. Catherine Mattice, MA & Brian Spitzberg, PhD Bullies in Business: Self-Reports of Tactics and Motives Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine San Diego State University, 2007
  31. "10 Signs Your Co-Worker / Colleague is a Narcissist". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2018-02-25.
  32. Jones, Daniel; Paulhus, Delroy (2011-10-01). "The role of impulsivity in the Dark Triad of personality". Personality and Individual Differences - PERS INDIV DIFFER. 51 (5): 679–682. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.04.011. Archived from the original on 2018-04-29.
  33. Lee, Kibeom; Gizzarone, Marie; Ashton, Michael C. (2003-07-01). "Personality and the Likelihood to Sexually Harass". Sex Roles. 49 (1–2): 59–69. doi:10.1023/A:1023961603479. ISSN 0360-0025.
  34. Simon Crompton, All about me (London 2007) pp. 157–58
  35. Maccoby M The Productive Narcissist (2003)
  36. Crompton, p. 158
  37. Jay R. Slosar, The Culture of Excess (2009) p. 7
  38. Crompton, p. 159

Further reading

  • Gerald Falkowski, Jean Ritala Narcissism in the Workplace (2007)
  • Samuel Grier Narcissism in the Workplace: What It Is - How To Spot It - What To Do About It (2011)
  • Belinda McDaniel The Narcissists in Your Life: Coping with and Surviving Narcissists in the Workplace, at Home and Wherever You Are Forced to Associate with People Suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (2014)
  • Sam Vaknin, Lidija Rangelovska The Narcissist and the Psychopath in the Workplace (2006)
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