The Increasing Prevalence of Narcissistic Traits

Image of the narcissist wearing a mask with his hand up in a defensive stance because he is being performance managed.

Roughly 1% of the general population is afflicted with the DSM-5 recognized, Narcissistic Personality Disorder.[i] Those confronted with this medical condition need to be supported and managed through accommodation and remediation strategies that, necessarily, rely on the assistance of medical professionals. Performance management, including through various progressive discipline streams, is rarely appropriate under those circumstances. To be clear, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not the focus of our discussion today. 

Image depicting a diagnosis of a narcissistic personality disorder

Rather, we are focusing on trends, traits and behaviour prevalent in today’s workplace culture. 

More and more, a greater proportion of the population has narcissistic traits (again, this contrasts with the DSM-5 disorder). In fact, in varying degrees, narcissistic traits are increasingly dominant within the general population, at a rate currently sitting at 65%[ii]

Evolving Safety and Employer Liability Concerns

Graph of with an upward trend

This is not a discussion intending to come from a place of judgement. Nevertheless, we must not turn a blind eye to those who act on the impulses arising from this disposition, with maladaptive behaviour directed towards others. This creates significant workplace challenges, resulting in psychological and emotional harm contrary to Occupational Health and Safety legislation with consequences possibly compensable via Workers Compensation legislation. This harm causing, maladaptive behaviour, arising from a person’s lack of regulation of their narcissistic disposition, is what our conversation today shall be about. 

Confusion on Cause and the Self-Esteem Movement Connection

So, what is narcissism? “Narcissism is described as an exaggerated opinion of one’s own contribution to society or group, otherwise known as excessive self-love or even egocentric personality. The Psychology Dictionary describes narcissists as “[i]ndividuals who express a strong self-love and exaggerated self-opinions.”[iii]

Indeed, the misplaced irony is not lost on me that I write or speak to you today regarding the encroachment of narcissistic behaviour from my blog, podcast and/or YouTube Channel or all from the above. I say misplaced irony and leave this tongue in cheek comment here for your consumption to emphasize a point – to demonstrate a misunderstanding that I had before researching this topic. You see, before preparing for this article, I believed that I would conclude that there is a causal relationship between the pervasiveness of social media and increased narcissism in North American society. I was incorrect.

Given our present-day context, others too may have been under the impression that the predominance of social media might be a factor in society’s narcissistic trend. However, studies show that while social media may indeed be a platform for the narcissist, social media is not the cause of the trait.[iv]Studies show that narcissism has more to do with social networks closer to home, with tendencies normally ingrained by the time one is thirteen years of age. 

Image of crumpled piece of paper, with the writing "I love myself I can self esteem"

More recently, much academic and clinical attention has focused on realizing that increased narcissistic traits within society result from the self-esteem school of thought, which is grounded, unfortunately, in not being better, but rather, in thinking one is better.[v] And this was pervasive for roughly 20 years, with the self-esteem doctrine even supplanted into North American schools’ curriculum, all with good intentions, of course, based on the belief that with positive self-esteem, many positive mental, emotional, and social health benefits would follow. 

Understanding the Narcissist 

Narcissists tend to think highly of themselves and want others to do the same. Further to that, they also tend to want to exert or reside in a place of superiority over others. To get what they want, they deploy tactics and elaborate strategies of manipulation to promote themselves. When confronted with barriers to these objectives, they often experience anger, get drawn into resentment, and retaliate.

Image of crane looking at his reflection in the water (representing the narcissist)

Britannica elaborates – the “Narcissists’ positive but insecure self-views lead them to be more attentive and reactive to feedback from other people. However, not just any response or feedback from others is important to narcissists; they are eager to learn that others admire and look up to them. Narcissists value admiration and superiority more than being liked and accepted. Studies find that narcissists’ self-esteem depends upon the extent to which they feel admired. Moreover, narcissists pursue admiration from others by attempting to manipulate the impressions they create in others. They make self-promoting and self-aggrandizing statements and attempt to solicit regard and compliments from those around them. They also respond with anger and resentment when they feel threatened by others. They are more likely to respond aggressively on such occasions and derogate those who threaten them, even when such hostile responding jeopardizes the relationship.”[vi]

The Narcissist at Work

So now, let us set the stage for the narcissist at work. In so doing, we do not expect, for most, for there to be much cognitive dissonance between the presented descriptions herein and reflections of your own personal experiences. 

Meeting with a work confrontation.
Meeting with an excluded individual with other co-workers talking about her.
Meeting at the water bottle gossiping.

Narcissists tend to expect things to go their own way and act out, even retaliate, in some way or another, if colleagues do not reinforce their special status and/or treatment within the group. Narcissists are typically self-centred, lack empathy and understanding of others, have disproportionate, aggressive or passive-aggressive reactions to criticism. They will often not hesitate to depart from past or present truth to defend their honour, self-worth—their self-esteem. Also, as part of the rouse, Narcissist like to be associated with higher status people[vii]

They will seek to associate with those superior in title or status within the organization and treat those higher in the organisation chart much differently than they would equals or subordinates. This, at times, may, at least for a while, tend to create a “blind spot” for even seasoned managers. 

As an Industrial Relations and Human Resources firm…not a psychologist, we are necessarily reliant on research versus personal expertise. Kindly indulge as we pause to share a few summaries directly from experts on narcissism as follows. 

Summaries from Experts

Manfred Ket de Vries writes, “Furthermore, narcissistic individuals have a strong sense of entitlement. When they don’t receive the special treatment that they believe they deserve, they become very impatient or get quite angry. Given their self-serving mindset, it’s difficult for them to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others. Empathy doesn’t come naturally. As narcissists are quite thin-skinned, they have difficulty handling criticism; they very quickly feel hurt, overreact, and get defensive.”[viii]

Chart of narcissistic traits

The narcissist would rewrite history, as Theodore Millon put it, “…to freely transform failures into successes, and to construct lengthy and intricate rationalizations that inflate their self-worth or justify what they believe is their right…”[VII] Theodore Millon and Roger Davis pointed out that narcissists “…remember the past as they would have wanted it to occur, not as it actually happened.”[ix]

Two review articles in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Russ et al., 2008, and Caligor et al., 2015) note that NPD may…encompasses three major subtypes, with varying degrees of clinical severity and prognosis…[the less severe]…is less likely to have psychiatric comorbidity and may not necessarily meet the functional impairment criterion for NPD, except during periodic crises or unexpected failures (such as losing a job or undergoing a divorce). They appear to be outwardly successful and generally maintain their ego stability, but they still maintain an essential NPD personality structure; issues with entitlement and self-centeredness may lead to interpersonal issues and exploitative, unempathetic behaviors.”

Containing the Narcissist 

If you notice an employee who acts out in this fashion, remember this is complex, and a multi-pronged approach will likely be necessary. Before we get into coaching tactics, let us spend a moment on containment. This is essentially harm reduction, and this is important as we need to keep in the front of our minds that it is our other employees who will most likely suffer the wrath of the unmitigated narcissist. 

A narcissistic man looking at himself in the mirror.

There is power in numbers. Creating a strong team environment can neutralize the behaviour and set a stage for encouraging peer-feedback, supported by leadership. Feedback from the group dynamic may be a more receptive forum for one with narcissistic tendencies than feedback received from one individual.[x]Safe, group work settings, including space for informal interactions, is an environment that those with narcissistic tendencies will respond to, especially as their need for affirmations will drive their engagement with the group’s peer regulation and cultural norms.[xi]. However, it is important to avoid putting narcissists on teams with teammates that the narcissist can dominate. That would allow the behaviour to fester and will only serve to reinforce the undesirable behaviour positively.[xii]

Always keep in mind, our job is to manage the narcissist while maintaining the physical and psychological safety of the rest of our team…“a manager’s biggest worry should not be losing their narcissist; it should be that other team members will be the ones to resign, tired of the way narcissists need to be catered to. It’s hard to deal with a narcissist’s sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and need to feel special.”[xiii]Until and unless the narcissist learns to consistently regulate their behaviour (which will take consistent structure and multiple 90-day cycles to reset these new neurological pathways), it will be a precarious balancing act to manage the narcissist and protect the safety and inspire patience within the rest of the team.

Diverse team collaborating at work. Happy scene.

When things go awry…

As is normal through the course of working within an organization, micro-blunders happen. While (fortunately) not all places have office politics akin to contact sports, even the tamest environments involve inadvertent slights between co-workers, unequal or inequitable distribution of credit or gratitude for jobs well done, real or perceived blame apportioned when outcomes differ from expectations. Offices are not sanitary in lab environments. They are human and thus – messy, some more than others. Real or perceived slights will happen. It is not a question of if but rather – when. 

Those prone to narcissistic tendencies, who lack the mindfulness and coping skills required to regulate reactions, will start to run into trouble when these slights occur – even under reasonably healthy workplace conditions. This is when reactions become disproportionate, and it is when interferences or disruptions to work colleagues are more likely to occur. 

Slide with header "when things go awry"

These normal day-to-day slights are likely overly felt by the narcissist. As author Kristin Neff explains, “Any threat to [their] mental representation of who [they] are, therefore, feels like an actual, visceral threat, and [they] respond as powerfully as a soldier defending [their] very life.”[xiv]When narcissists receive put-downs from others, their retaliation can be fast and furious, even violent. Narcissistic anger serves an important function for the narcissist: it deflects negative attention away from the self toward others, who can then be blamed for all the dark emotions being experienced.”[xv] And, as James McDonald Jr (a lawyer) pointed out, “When the narcissist ultimately fails, the fall will be long and hard. Litigation is likely to result, so it is essential that the narcissist’s performance problems, disruptive conduct, and abuse of others be thoroughly documented as they occur.”[xvi]

Care and thoughtful, calculated practices need to be adopted by organizations and managers when confronted with these situations.

Performance Managing

Managers: Prevent the Narcissist from Hiding Out in Your Blind Side

The narcissist treats their superiors often differs remarkably from how they treat those lateral to them and differs from how they treat their subordinates. Because of that, managers need to be on guard for the possibility of one of their direct reports hiding out in their “blindside.” 

If an employee always seems to have the right answers for you, but during their tenure, they seem to be consistently surrounded by noise and persistent signs of relationship trouble from co-workers and their subordinates. It would be wise to reserve judgment and do a little investigation. 

Narcissists are people-pleasers to those in elevated positions, so they will be skilled in sending their manager comforting signals about their own performance. There are reasons why narcissists are often promoted before the organization realizes their true character. I know it is an overused phrase, but “trust but verify” makes sense. It is worth investing effort to understand co-workers or subordinates’ perspectives who may be having a difficult time with your employee. The last thing you want to do is to enable a narcissist to sit in your blind side, operate (by some extension) under your authority, all the while leaving a path of destruction in their wake. 

Woman stresses out a looking like she is being yelled at. Man hold a little red toy car in his hand. An image of the word "rules" in scrabble letters.

Be wary of requests for special treatment; it is a common sign you are dealing with a narcissist, and giving in will not only reinforce the behaviour. Also, conceding will create resentment among other team members. 

Once you suspect you are dealing with one with dominant narcissistic traits, get in the habit, so it becomes normal for both you and the individual of having a witness present during any coaching, expectation-setting, pre-discipline and certainly discipline related performance management discussions. Take notes and keep a personal file. If performance interventions are required, take a structured approach and determine what performance management or discipline stream you are on – and stick to it unless new facts come to light that inspires you to change course. A very transparent, quite frankly – boring, and obvious performance management approach will be useful later. What I mean by this is, try to, if things don’t improve, to be on a linear progressive discipline path (Step 1, 2, 3) if possible. These files don’t lend themselves well to culminating incident justifications, particularly due to the subjectivity normally associated with interpersonal strife. If things go side-ways, it is likely to get litigious.

Again, we recommend against reinforcing behaviour by succumbing to the narcissists’ desire for special treatment[xvii], maintaining a principle and rules-based approach to management, and stick to simple and clear performance management messaging. 

Failure to do this leaves your throat open. When you become a threat to the narcissist, they will retaliate against you and exploit any vulnerabilities you have revealed to them in handling the file.

Having the Discussion

State the Issue knowing it will likely be taken very personally (Have an HR staff person Witness the exchange)

Be direct. Take extra effort to separate the behaviour from the person as you proceed to explain the concern. Example: “You bring much skill and passion to the team. Reacting versus responding and talking at or about people instead of to them; is causing a great deal of friction. That behaviour is creating problems for our department in meeting our objectives. This gossiping and the emotional, impulsive responses must stop. We need you to take a moment before responding to gather yourself, and we need you to raise concerns directly with your co-workers and avoid gossiping. Can you make these adjustments to how you interact with your co-workers?”

A woman having a serious and difficult conversation.

Describe what you will MONITOR and Book a Follow-Up Meeting

Example: “So, unless something comes up from a safety or ethical perspective, I want escalation about concerns you have with others to be brought to my attention together with the other person involved so that we can talk about it together. That way, you can also see how I communicate while we get out of the practice of talking about versus to our colleagues. I will try to provide a good example for you. Also, I will drop in to observe a few of your team meetings over the next couple of months. Let’s get together in May to check-in and review where we are at with this. If you have questions, want coaching or support in making this behavioural change, please drop in.”

Continue to check-in and where the manager sees authentic effort on the part of the employee to change, offer positive feedback. Remember, narcissistic tendencies are normally set within a person when they are thirteen years of age. It will take effort and focus for the employee to adjust their responses and communication style. Where behaviour is not changing and where the behaviour contributes to a lack of safety or exposure to psychological harm to work colleagues, escalate in a dispassionate level as appropriate using sound progressive discipline practices. Managers need to protect themselves by keeping good records and having witnesses available for key discussions where possible.

Try Not to Further Oppress the Oppressed

Lateral Violence and its Co-existence with Maladaptive Narcissistic Behaviour

It is recommended that companies and managers consider the broader issue of lateral violence. Address it as a leading indicator that may be suppressed through preventative measures and talking spaces. Also, depending upon underlying causes of experienced lateral violence, unfortunately, it may have to be addressed as a lagging, after-the-fact mitigating factor – weighed against Occupational Health and Safety obligations to ensure employees are free from violence, physical and psychological harm. 

There is no doubt that there is significant overlap between the maladaptive narcissistic behaviour we have been discussing and, “Lateral violence [which] is a term that describes the way people in positions of powerlessness…direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful than themselves…Lateral violence is believed to occur worldwide in minorities and particularly Aboriginal peoples…”[xviii]“Lateral violence is the expression of rage and anger, fear and terror that can only be safely vented upon those closest to us when we are being oppressed.” In other words, victims of a situation of dominance turn on each other instead of confronting the system that oppresses them. The oppressed become the oppressors.”[xix]and it must be acknowledged it is also “a form of bullying that includes gossip, shaming and blaming others, backstabbing and attempts to socially isolate others”[xx] 

Image depicting colonization, image of mother and child in poverty, image of diverse group of women at work

This is particularly acute about instances of colonialism, trauma, and intergenerational trauma. It must be addressed and accepted as a complex issue, particularly within the context of employers engaged in Truth and Reconciliation section 92 (ii) efforts with Indigenous Communities. “Research suggests that as many as 95% of bullying [experienced by Aboriginal People] occurs amongst Aboriginal people themselves.”[xxi] This should not be surprising as, “[t]he roots of lateral violence lie in colonization, oppression, intergenerational trauma, powerlessness and ongoing experiences of racism and discrimination, factors mainstream bullying programs do not take into account.[xxii]…[Society]…can (inadvertently or deliberately) create the environment for lateral violence through a lack of recognition and engagement and by pitting groups against each other.[xxiii] Employers need to look inward to check on their own organizational health. Have an honest look to see if factors at work inflame or exacerbate the issue. While bullying and psychological harm must be addressed individually, the systemic aspects will only improve through holistic organizational, community and individual approaches. 

Getting a handle on Lateral Violence

Within the organization, and preferably before and separate from specific occurrences, “[n]aming lateral violence is the first step towards exerting control over it, and [is in itself] an act of prevention.[xxiv] Therefore, awareness campaigns, communications, sharing circles, and peer discussions can significantly improve and de-risk this issue. “To tackle lateral violence, Richard J. Frankland suggests that you “out it. Name it for what it is, a destroyer of Indigenous culture and life. Publicly admit it is happening and then take steps and measures to deal with it… Find ways to deal with it, end it, eradicate it from our lives and communities.”[xxv]. “Others suggest to apply traditional ways of resolving disputes, such as learning and healing circles and shared care.”[xxvi] 

“…More companies are being made aware of lateral violence and the effects it can have on their staff, as well as the overall performances of employees. Businesses are taking this problem seriously, and people who are caught engaging in acts of lateral violence could find themselves being reprimanded or dismissed from their positions.”[xxvii] “Awareness of the problem is the first step in resolving it and, like sexual harassment, lateral violence should be discussed with employees so that they are aware of what it is and how to report it if they are victims of it or see it happening. Preventing lateral violence will help create a more harmonious atmosphere on the job.”[xxviii]

Conclusion

Narcissism is prevalent in today’s workplace, with a current frequency of 65% of the general population possessing narcissistic traits in varying degrees. It is almost as if, if you can’t spot the narcissist in the room, you’re probably it. 

Image of team working around a table
Image of happy group photo work team mates
Image of diverse group of hands brought together into a circle (like a team)

By promoting and allowing space for healthy discussions within your workplace, certainly has a very deliberate and focused strategy as part of ongoing and specific deployments of your section 92 (ii) Truth and Reconciliation efforts while ensuring the safety including psychological safety of all employees; will assist managers and companies meet this with maturity and compassion. 

Workforce Delivery Inc. thanks you for your time today and wishes you all the best on your journey.

Respectfully submitted,

Sam Kemble

Industrial Relations & Supply Strategist, Negotiator, Investigator

Workforce Delivery Inc.

Collaboration – Strategy – Sourcing – Logistics

(780) 886-1679

https://www.workforcedelivery.com

Bookshelf in library.
Image of references use for article.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism

[ii] Self-Compassion, pg. 147

[iii] https://psychologydictionary.org/narcissism/

[iv] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201211/is-social-media-blame-the-rise-in-narcissism

[v] Self-Compassion, pg. 140

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/science/narcissism

[vii] https://www.management-issues.com/opinion/6207/how-to-manage-a-narcissist/

[viii] https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-manage-a-narcissist

[ix]Millon, T. and Davis, R. (2000), Personality Disorders in Modern Life, Wiley, New York, p. 294. In https://winning-teams.com/narcissism_manage.html

[x] https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-manage-a-narcissist

[xi] https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-manage-a-narcissist

[xii] https://www.management-issues.com/opinion/6207/how-to-manage-a-narcissist/

[xiii] https://hbr.org/2017/05/how-to-manage-a-narcissist

[xiv] Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion (p. 151). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

[xv] Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion (pp. 143-144). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

[xvi] McDonald, J. J. (2005), The Narcissistic Plaintiff, Employee Relations Law Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, p. 97 in https://winning-teams.com/narcissism_manage.html

[xvii] https://www.management-issues.com/opinion/6207/how-to-manage-a-narcissist/

[xviii] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn1

[xix][xix] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn5

[xx] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn1

[xxi] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn3

[xxii] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn3

[xxiii] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn6

[xxiv] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn8

[xxv] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn1

[xxvi] https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/bullying-lateral-violence#fn3

[xxvii] https://futureofworking.com/lateral-workplace-violence/

[xxviii] https://futureofworking.com/lateral-workplace-violence/