Narcissists at Work: How to Handle Them and Get Promoted

Robert Morse

He believes in himself.

Even if you’re secure enough to stay away from narcissists in your personal life, you often have to deal with them in a business environment. The narcissist’s strength in self-promotion and manipulation can serve them well for a time in the race to climb the corporate ladder, and you find them overrepresented in executive suites of major companies with weak management integrity. Narcissism and other Dark Triad tendencies can make the borderline psychopath or consciousless manipulator an apparent success as they leave damage in their wake.

Here’s the Wall Street Journal take on the topic, by Sue Shellenbarger:

Every office full of ambitious people has them. And we have all worked with at least one—the co-worker with an inexplicable ability to rise in the ranks.

“How do they do it?” we may ask ourselves or whisper to friends at work. They don’t have more experience. They don’t seem that brilliant.

But such co-workers may possess a dose of one of the personality traits that psychologists call the “dark triad”: manipulativeness, a tendency to influence others for selfish gain; narcissism, a profound self-centeredness; or an antisocial personality, lacking in empathy or concern for others. These traits are well-known for the bad behavior that they can cause when dominant in people’s personalities. At milder levels, however, they can actually foster skills that can help people rise through the ranks.

For instance, people with narcissism, who want to be the center of attention, often make a good first impression on clients and bosses, says a 2014 review of more than 140 studies on people with mild, or “subclinical,” levels of dark personality traits. They also can be persuasive when pitching their own ideas.

Manipulators influence others for their own gain, using flattery or deceit if necessary. But these personalities—also called Machiavellians—can also be charismatic leaders and forceful negotiators, says the study, in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. And while antisocial personalities lack empathy or concern for others, they can be creative because they often enjoy testing limits.

Researchers are increasingly studying the dark triad because it is “a well-organized framework for a big chunk of individual differences that are relatively unstudied, especially at work,” says Seth M. Spain, lead author of the 2014 research review, and an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York. Learning to spot the traits in employees can help employers improve their career paths through training and wise job assignments.

Also, “everybody can learn from” understanding how narcissistic or manipulative people use subtle skills to gain influence, Dr. Spain says. It can also help co-workers and bosses spot extreme cases early and rein them in before they cause grumbling and discontent.

People with dark traits are often attractive job candidates because they display charm, assertiveness and apparent leadership ability, the research review says. Researchers believe narcissists tend to do well in training programs because they want to be seen at their best.

“It’s hard to go anywhere and not find such people,” says Toby Bishop of Toronto, past president of the 71,000-member Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and an independent antifraud strategy adviser. They are often skilled at making a good first impression, and “people who can talk a good talk and impress others will at least initially be respected and put in positions of authority and command by others,” he says.

The flattery often used by manipulative people is helpful in getting named to corporate boards, but only if it’s used skillfully, says a 2010 study. Managers who framed flattery as a request for advice, such as, “How were you able to pull off that strategy so successfully?” improved their chances of winning a director’s seat, the study found.

Those who were clumsy about it, however, stating flatly, “I really admire you,” or, “You’re the greatest,” hurt their chances, says the study of 1,822 managers, CEOs and directors in Administrative Science Quarterly.

Manipulators are also skilled at forming political alliances. “One of the reasons these people climb so high in the company is that they’re very forceful,” says James D. Ratley, president of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

The careers of people with these characteristics tend to derail over time, in part because they tend to focus on short-term benefits for themselves rather than long-term results for their organizations. Colleagues may come to view them as hostile, harsh or arrogant, Dr. Spain says. And when present at extreme or clinical levels, these traits disrupt lives. One thing that trips people up, Mr. Ratley says: “They think the rules don’t apply to them.”

Mr. Ratley and other corporate accounting experts cite former HealthSouth Corp. CEO Richard Scrushy as an example of a manipulative personality who could also be forceful and persuasive. Mr. Scrushy used charisma and salesmanship to build the chain of outpatient surgery and rehab clinics he founded in 1984 into a $4 billion publicly traded giant.

“He’s a classic good salesman,” says Aaron Beam, a former chief financial officer at HealthSouth, and a speaker and author of a book on the experience. “He had this magical ability to get people to agree with him.”

Mr. Beam says Mr. Scrushy also made life hard for employees who disagreed with him. “He would literally scream at you,” belittling and berating employees at weekly staff meetings, says Mr. Beam, of Loxley, Ala. He also spent lavishly on a flamboyant lifestyle.

HealthSouth hit the rocks when regulators uncovered a $2.7 billion accounting fraud, and Mr. Scrushy was fired as CEO in 2003. Mr. Scrushy was acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the fraud, but a state court later imposed $2.88 billion in civil damages against him for fraud. Mr. Beam served three months in prison for bank fraud. Mr. Scrushy got out of prison in 2012 after serving five years in connection with a different scandal, for bribing a state official.

“I do accept responsibility that it [the accounting fraud] happened on my watch,” Mr. Scrushy says in an interview, but he admits no personal wrongdoing.

For more perspective, consider how you might adopt some of the tactics of the narcissist and fight back when their manipulations are harming your team. This Psychology Today entry by Neil J. Lavender is worth a full read, with these key strategies:

Stay in Your Lane

Another simple yet often overlooked strategy is to simply do your job and not to get distracted by the narcissist. We believe that this is always the best work strategy. Being known to your employer as a good and conscientious employee will protect you from the slings and arrows aimed at you by narcissistic coworkers. Don’t get involved in the office gossip about or with narcissistic people. If the narcissist invites you to do something outside the office, such as playing golf, politely decline. If the narcissist asks you to do special favors, simply say you are too busy doing your work. If she starts denigrating another of your coworkers, excuse yourself and go back to your job. It may take a while, but eventually the narcissist will get the picture and troll for supplies elsewhere. And don’t forget that when you stay in your lane, do your work, and resist the bait (“Wow, you’d make a great addition to my political action committee!”), you are supporting your organization’s goals, which makes you an invaluable employee who is worth protecting. Even from narcissists!

Don’t Get Taken in by the Flattery

Remember the process of splitting? After the narcissist adores you, he hates you. The narcissist will flatter the heck out of you in the beginning, projecting his fantasies of perfection onto you. If you have something that is valuable to him, he will think that you are wonderful. If you accept the flattery, you will have opened the door to a relationship. When the narcissist inevitably finds out that you are only human, he will become disappointed and then will totally devalue you, and you will be persona non grata. So, don’t be deceived by the flattery in the first place.

Lookout for Possible End Runs

If a narcissistic coworker is someone whom you have to work with or go through on a regular basis, sometimes you may choose to go around and not through her. For example, suppose you are doing a report with a narcissistic coworker who is grandstanding and wasting time by trying to expand her portion of the report. Rather than telling her to speed it up and risk a vitriolic and self-serving attack about how you cannot appreciate all the wonderful things she is putting into the report, go to the narcissist’s boss and ask the boss to ask your coworker to speed things up.

It helps to be a strong networker and to cultivate relationships with others who may have more influence over the narcissist than you do. You may be able to find common ground in your organization with key individuals. Although someone might be three layers of management above you, that person is your equal while the two of you attend the same church or when both of you collect and have an affection for old vinyl records or when both of you belong to the local Rotary Club. Maybe you have a mutual friend. It would be very difficult, indeed, for your narcissistic boss to abuse his boss’s outside-of-work associate, that being you!

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More on Workplace Issues:

Introverts in Management
Malignant Narcissists
Teaching Narcissists to Activate Empathy
“Big Bang Theory” — Aspergers and Emotional/Social Intelligence

More on Attachment and Personality Types:

What Attachment Type Are You?
Type: Secure
Type: Anxious-Preoccupied
Type: Dismissive-Avoidant
Type: Fearful-Avoidant (aka Anxious-Avoidant)
Avoidant: Emotions Repressed Beneath Conscious Level
Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster
Anxious-Preoccupied: Stuck on the Dismissive?
Anxious-Preoccupied / Dismissive-Avoidant Couples: the Silent Treatment
nxious-Preoccupied: Clingy and Insecure Relationship Example
Domestic Violence: Ray and Janay Rice
Histrionic Personality: Seductive, Dramatic, Theatrical
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
On Addiction and the Urge to Rescue
Sale! Sale! Sale! – “Bad Boyfriends” for Kindle, $2.99
Controlling Your Inner Critic: Subpersonalities
Porn Addiction and NoFAP

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