A Narcissist in the Workplace: Does It Matter?

10/29/2013 09:23 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The frustrating answer is: it depends.

What does it depend on?

  • If it's truly a personality or if it's some narcissistic behaviors or a narcissistic episode
  • The person's role
  • The ability of people around the narcissist to handle it
  • The support systems available to people around the narcissist

Narcissists can be creative, visionary, inspiring, highly motivated, connected, charming,
fun, in the know, ambitious for themselves and therefore for the project or organization.
All of these elements can be very useful in the right situation.

Narcissists can be easily affronted, angered, and threatened, distrustful, isolated,
independent, controlling, unpredictable, and poor communicators.

At work, narcissists may humiliate others publicly, they may intimidate or bully. Other
narcissists may be more subtle and use passively aggressive techniques. They are
likely to infringe on privacy, interrupt, use people's weaknesses and fears against them.

Their style is essentially management by making others feel bad. It's management by
fear. For some, this is highly motivating -- they want to avoid that feeling so they work
hard to please. They do whatever they can think of to avoid incurring the narcissist's
attention or wrath; this can make for highly creative, hard-working people. For others,
this is highly motivating in a negative way, leading to avoidance, aggravation, stress,
and a host of related problems.

Narcissists tend to prefer people who agree with them, and in situations where this
develops, the workplace is likely to be peaceful but can suffer from lack of creativity due
to low variety of ideas. Narcissists also are drawn to strong personalities where the
other person is not negatively effected by the narcissist's behaviors. These are people
who do not take the narcissist's words personally, and who are confident that they will
be fine no matter what the narcissist does. This situation is probably rare, but high
levels of creativity can ensue from situations where this develops.

Since narcissists are not great listeners or questioners, and do not like disagreement,
the atmosphere around a narcissist is likely to be stressed, a little to very unpredictable,
with a feeling of every person for themselves. Teams with narcissists tend to lack
cohesion, have a hard time finding their footing and staying focused and experience
communication problems. High conflict, unhappiness and turnover are not unusual
around a narcissist. In these situations, support for the people around a narcissist can
make a difference. A person who has to bear a narcissist alone can feel a bit crazy and
their emotional and physical health suffer. Having an appropriate outlet of venting anger
can help. Along with that, people benefit from being trained in the basics of narcissism,
and developing skills for interacting with a narcissist.

Each narcissist is a bit different, and those around them respond based on their own
internal makeup and past experiences. If there is a narcissist in your workplace, the
costs and benefits may need to be teased out. This process may need to take place as
people and projects realign.

In the ongoing series of blog posts, I'll talk more about how you can empower your boundaries at the workplace and realign successfully.