Narcissists At Work

Ever feel like it’s all about your boss or co-worker?

You may be working with or for a narcissist. These people can make working life difficult for everyone by fostering fear, resentment, mistrust and suspicion. Productivity and morale both suffer at the hands of the narcissist. Coping with their destructive influence on the workplace can feel like a full-time job.

Narcissists have difficulty empathizing with others. Walking in another’s shoes is a challenge. They have a strong sense of entitlement (they believe they deserve deferential or special treatment), they come across as arrogant or condescending and see themselves as special, important and are adept at drawing attention to themselves. They strive compulsively for perfection and make adequate standards seem substandard. They may abuse alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with their inner emptiness and express aloofness, disapproval and even rage if unable to get their needs or agenda met.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the clinical diagnosis used to describe and treat people with these traits. However, a co-worker, colleague or boss does not need to exhibit the full-blown disorder to wreak havoc at work (in fact few people exhibit the full personality disorder). Just a few of these traits can make a workplace difficult.

According to Sandy Hotchkiss, in her book, “Why is it Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism”, narcissists and those who exhibit some of their traits typically engage in behaviours that have a negative effect on the workplace. You may have observed some or all of the eight following characteristics in your co-worker or boss:

1. Difficulty with Boundaries
Separateness for a narcissist or an individual with these traits is viewed as threatening and as a result they have difficulty respecting others boundaries. For example, at work this can manifest in the much touted idea that everyone at the office is “family”. Describing a workplace as a family environment creates diffuse boundaries where workers may be asked to stay later and later for no pay, or endure probing questions about their private lives. At other times, subordinates may be requested to do favours for the narcissistic boss that are difficult to refuse. They will often fail to observe boundaries you have set and require constant “reminding” that you don’t want them to stand over your shoulder while you work, ask for details about your weekend or borrow your stapler, record book or office manual. You may field constant invitations to get together after work even after you have said you’d rather not. Or, they may constantly “give” you help, re-load your paper tray, dump your trash and the like, when you really don’t need or want them to. Your boundaries are considered an obstacle to fusing with you so that your autonomy is undermined. The narcissist needs this lack of separateness to feel secure. By ignoring your boundaries, the narcissist ensures that you continue to supply whatever he needs, whether it is work-related or emotional.

2. Shaming and Humiliating Others
Narcissists experience a great deal of shame but hide it. It comes out in belittling or humiliating behaviour towards others. It can be shown in cutting putdowns disguised as jokes, nasty looks or dismissive comments if you’ve made a mistake that might make the narcissist look bad or subtle deflation of your confidence by insinuating that you need the narcissist’s help to achieve your goals. Remaining one-up is key to the narcissist’s mindset, as he or she likes to stay in a superior position and will go to great lengths to maintain the “top-dog” spot.

3. Perfectionism and Grandiosity
Narcissists can be seen striving for perfection in everything they do to the point that they create new standards of adequacy. Anything below the narcissist’s “perfect” standards is considered lacking. Yet living up to these unmanageable expectations is arduous. The narcissist will drive herself and others to hit these unrealistic standards in pursuit of the narcissist’s personal goal of perfection. Some narcissists will create an inspirational vision that others are supposed to assist him with requiring long hours and dedication to cause.

4. Favouritism
Narcissists are adept at playing favourites. They have a need to be special and in so doing, surround themselves with “special” people. Sometimes these people are other narcissists in the office; at other times they are chosen by the narcissist because their talents or admiring attitude shed a positive light on him or her. Sometimes the individual with narcissistic traits will choose a mediocre worker for special status because the narcissist isn’t threatened by these individuals.

5. Entitlement and Exploitation
Those with narcissistic tendencies experience a sense of entitlement: they believe they deserve recognition, special treatment, benefits, appreciation or attention. If they don’t receive these “goodies” in amounts they consider their due, they can be sulky, self pitying and display a “what about me?” attitude. Conversely, they can fly into a temper tantrum as they demand better treatment. Those with these traits may use others, driving them mercilessly, criticizing, demeaning or dismissing those who fall short of the mark by making a mistake (and subsequently embarrassing the leader) or firing them when they are no longer needed.

6. Envy
Narcissists experience a great deal of envy and although much of it is buried, they privately or subconsciously wish to undermine, spoil, destroy or reduce anything that evokes feelings of inferiority. They have difficulty sharing the limelight, appreciating colleague’s talents or honouring others’ achievements, especially if they cannot share in the triumph or benefit from the reflective glow. They experience a reduction in confidence, feel inferior and strive to restore the perceived imbalance by devaluing the talented co-worker (making them feel bad for exercising their unique skill), competing for attention, putting the envied individual down or insinuating themselves into the unlucky colleague’s achievement – noting how they were somehow involved the person’s achievement.

7. Requires Admiration
Narcissists require admiration, they pull attention onto themselves and strive to keep it. They tend to “hold court”, seek appreciative comments, engage in “displays” of all sorts including demonstrating superior knowledge, lofty opinions or other shows of cleverness or superior intellect. Or, they may engage in ostentatious behaviour such as shows of wealth or athletic prowess. It can be relatively easy to express adulation for narcissists, since they are often extremely talented people (a result of their need for perfection) and they need the attention to bolster underlying feelings of inadequacy or fears of not being good enough.

8. Mood Swings
Narcissists are moody, and can become depressed and self pitying. Conversely, they can be angry and resentful when feeling out of control. Their inability to adequately soothe themselves makes them unpredictable and emotionally draining to contend with. Co-workers or subordinates may find themselves on an emotional roller coaster when a narcissistic colleague or boss is anxious and having difficulty calming his or her nerves.

You may recognize a co-worker or boss as having some or all of these characteristics. If you do you are in the company of an individual with unhealthy narcissistic needs and coping with and surviving these types can be difficult. In our next column we will discuss how to survive a workplace where a narcissist is in the next cubicle or at the helm.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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