How to spot a narcissist at work or in business
Do you work with or know a narcissist? Find out what makes someone a narcissist, and the seven giveaway signs of one in the workplace or business world.
Most of us are familiar with the term ‘narcissist’. But we usually think of it in the context of our personal or romantic relationships.
But what happens when you encounter these people at work or in the business world? How can you tell whether someone is a narcissist? And how will that manifest in your dealings with them?
What is a narcissist?
Before we explore how narcissists act in the office and in business, and how to recognise one, we need to understand exactly what a narcissist is.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a psychological condition in which people have an idealised self-image. They have an over-inflated sense of their importance and need attention and to be admired. But behind this outward confidence they have an extremely fragile self-esteem that cannot take even the tiniest criticism.
Psychiatrists have outlined what they consider the seven ‘deadly sins’ of narcissism.
Unlike the rest of us, narcissists aren’t concerned with the needs and wishes of others – they feel no emotional connection or responsibility. So they will often act in ways we would never behave.
But if they do, don’t attempt to criticise them! They want to think of themselves (and NEED others to think of themselves) as perfect. They’re incredibly thin-skinned.
2) Magical thinking
Narcissists distort the world and events in order to see themselves as perfect. This is called ‘magical thinking‘. They’ll create an alternative truth, and cling to that rather than accept they may be flawed or wrong. They’ll also project any wrongdoings or shame onto others. So it’s always your fault, not theirs.
Narcissists are often described as ‘grandiose’, and their arrogance knows few bounds. They need to believe (and need the world to believe) that they are the best – even if their achievements or personal qualities don’t match up to their exaggerated claims.
If a narcissist does have their self-confidence knocked, they’ll restore it by putting someone else down. Like a self-esteem vampire, they’ll build up their own sense of importance by sucking away yours.
A narcissist has to feel superior, and to be envied for being so. They need to have a better job, partner, home and life than you. But more than that, everyone needs to know that they have something better, and you need to envy them for that.
So they’ll parade their material possessions and perfect life on social media, hoping to create a desirable illusion (and that is all it generally is – an illusion).
And if they sense that you may have it better than them, they’ll do all they can to destroy you, either by taking away what you have, or by minimising you or your achievements.
Narcissists believe they are special, and should therefore be treated as such, with special treatment, deference and automatic compliance. And if you don’t act appropriately awed by their brilliance and status then you’ll be attacked.
This can be by attempting to put you down or discredit you, or (if you’re really unlucky) you may trigger narcissistic rage. (We’ll explain more about that later.)
Narcissists lack empathy and therefore will happily exploit others with no regard for their feelings. They usually pick on people they see as weaker or subservient as they’re less likely to resist and call the narcissist out on their behaviour.
That said, they’re not above exploiting those who are more powerful than them. Their aim will be to use whatever power these people have, after which they’ll happily move on from, or destroy them out of envy. Or to prevent them from speaking the truth about the narcissist’s behaviour, or lack of genuine talent.
7) Poor boundaries
Narcissists see the the world as an extension of their needs. If they want something, they’ll ensure it happens. Whether that’s convenient or desirable to you or not doesn’t matter to them. You exist merely to meet the needs of a narcissist or, to them, you don’t exist at all.
This is one of the reasons why narcissists seem to plough through relationships. When they’re getting something out of you, they’ll put up with you, and maybe even charm you. But once you’re surplus to requirements, don’t be surprised if they suddenly turn cold, or even ghost you.
Narcissists are bullies
If this all sounds remarkably like bullying, that’s because it is. While not all bullies are narcissists, all narcissists will happily bully to meet their narcissistic needs.
Sometimes this is overt – think of the blustering Trump-like narcissist who responds to any perceived threat (and their skin is so thin the slightest reasonable criticism is perceived as a threat) with an attack. But sometimes narcissists are more clever, more covert, and you may not even realise that you’re being quietly demoralised and destroyed.
Speaking of Trump, this tweet by him perfectly demonstrates the arrogance of a narcissist, and the need to be considered superior to others:
How can you diagnose Narcisstic Personality Disorder?
Many people can display one or more traits of narcissism, depending on the situation and what is happening in their lives at that point in time. But to be officially diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder you would need to meet five or more of the following criteria:
- Have a grandiose sense of self-importance.
- Be preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
- Believe that you are special and unique.
- Require excessive admiration.
- Have a very strong sense of entitlement.
- Be exploitative of others.
- Lack empathy.
- Be often envious of others or believe others are envious of you.
- Regularly show arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes.
Narcissism is more common in men than women, and is thought to affect around 6% of the population.
Interestingly, scientists believe they can diagnose a narcissist by asking them one simple question:
To what extent do you agree with this statement: ‘I am a narcissist’?
Different classes of narcissist
Some experts categorise narcissists in levels. These levels might be influenced by the narcissist’s emotional intelligence, upbringing and education, or other factors. Here are the three levels.
1) Lesser narcissists
Lesser narcissists are often unaware of their actions, and act instinctively in the moment – motivated by meeting a need right now, without consideration of the consequences for them of that action.
Lesser narcissists are often quite obvious in their behaviours and use threats and overt bullying in an attempt to meet their needs. As a result they’re usually much easier to spot. Donald Trump has been suggested as a typical lesser narcissist.
2) Mid-range narcissists
Mid-range narcissists have a little more restraint and sophistication than lesser narcissists, but they’re still largely at the mercy of their instincts, and are therefore more likely to occasionally reveal themselves for what they are.
Like lesser narcissists, they tend to live in the now and make choices that are intended to meet their immediate needs, without consideration of the bigger picture or future consequences.
But they are also more adept at managing their facade than lesser narcissists, often by aligning themselves with the right people and worthy causes. Meghan Markle has been noted by some as a possible mid-range narcissist.
3) Greater narcissists
It’s much harder to spot a greater narcissist because they’re far more covert. They’re cleverer at managing their facade and can be charming, and appear for the most part restrained. They’re also capable of much more sophisticated scheming, making them more dangerous.
However, they have their weak spots. Their ego means they struggle to listen to others – even when other people may have more experience or greater knowledge, and this can make them dangerous if they are in a position of power (as they like to be). Former President Obama is considered to be a greater narcissist.
There are a few giveaway signs of greater narcissists in business and politics if you are interested in trying to spot them. These include:
- Length of speeches – the longer they are, the higher the potential level of narcissism.
- The prominence of a CEO’s photo in annual reports.
- The prominence of a CEO in press releases.
- The use of first person pronouns (I, me and my) in interviews and speeches.
- The size of their signature.
How does narcissism manifest in business?
So how does narcissism show up in the business world? And how can you spot a narcissist?
As you have learned above, ‘narcissism’ doesn’t simply mean vanity. Just because someone posts endless social media shots of their perfect life, doesn’t mean they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Yes that behaviour may be considered narcissistic, but without at least five of the qualifying traits, it doesn’t mean someone is a narcissist.
To help you spot (and protect) yourself from a narcissist at work or in business, we’ve identified some common, giveaway tactics they use. But first we need to explain a common need every narcissist has that influences and helps to explain their behaviour. And that is something called ‘narcissist supply’.
Why all narcissists need ‘narcissist supply’
Just as a car needs fuel to run, and we need oxygen to breathe, a narcissist is unable to function without narcissist supply. Narcissist supply is described as “a pathological or excessive need for attention or admiration… that does not take into account the feelings, opinions or preferences of other people.”
Why do they need attention? Because unlike most people, narcissists have no in-built sense of self-worth. Instead they rely on others for self-esteem, to re-affirm their importance and feel good about themselves. And this comes in the form of attention.
This attention can be public, in the form of recognition, fame, wealth and success. It can also be manifested by having a successful partner, enviable lifestyle, or career or business success. In short, they need to be envied and seen as powerful, successful and lucky.
Attention can be gained privately, from their relationships with others, and the praise, admiration, applause and fear they generate in their relationships.
Attention can also be positive or negative. For positive attention they want to be admired, respected and envied. But they also get narcissistic supply from negative attention, using it (as we’ll see later) as fuel to garner pity and paint themselves as a victim who needs protecting and defending.
The problem with narcissistic supply, is that it doesn’t last. A narcissist continually needs to refill their ‘tank’. It doesn’t matter what you do, how much love you give a narcissist, or how good you are at your job, they will always require more from you.
It is also why you will notice some narcissists lurch from drama to drama – often self-created or sought out. They’ll often draw a crisis out as much as possible too, sharing it on social media and writing blogs about it, and fuelling the support and outrage from their supporters.
It’s important to understand this about narcissists, because many of the behaviours you may spot at work or in business are motivated by a need for narcissist supply.
Seven behaviours narcissists use at work and in business
So, what are the giveaway behaviours of a narcissist in the workplace or in business? Here are seven that we’ve spotted that are commonly recognised.
1) Narcissists use the law to bully
Just as a narcissistic spouse will use solicitors to intimidate, bully and even destroy their ex in a divorce case (or tie their ex up in endless circles and saddle them with legal debt), narcissists are fond of using the law as a form of control, intimidation and abuse.
If a narcissist feels their reputation is being attacked, or in danger or being attacked, they’ll often resort to threatening legal action.
It doesn’t matter whether they actually follow through with the legal action or either whether what has happened even breaks any laws. Merely threatening it does two important things for the narcissist:
- It bullies their opponent (usually their victim) into silence, and prevents them from telling the truth and exposing the narcissist.
- It cements their victim status in the scenario and gathers pity and support (narcissistic supply) from their unwitting followers.
Why is this so important? Remember, the narcissist must be perceived at all times as great. They require attention, adulation and status. They also want to be right.
No one likes to be wrong, or publicly (or even privately) exposed as behaving badly. But for most of us, it’s a difficult situation that we’ll manage as best we can and recover from – and even apologise if we believe we’re in the wrong.
But to a thin-skinned narcissist, public exposure as the fraud they really are is devastating. And to avoid it, they don’t care who they hurt.
Here are some of the ways narcissists use lawsuits to achieve their professional aims, albeit it in an underhand way:
- They use lawsuits (or threats of them) to intimidate an opponent in a battle or negotiation to submit to the narcissist’s demands.
- They’ll counteract a legitimate potential lawsuit with their own claims. By getting in first and projecting the victim’s claims back on them, it’s harder for the victim to later bring a valid suit against the narcissist.
- They use frivolous lawsuits to slow down a legitimate legal process and drain the financial and emotional resources of their victim.
If you do find yourself facing a narcissist across a courtroom, you should expect dirty tricks. Because, unlike the majority of the population, a narcissist won’t be bound by things like the truth or perjury. They’ll happily lie, conceal evidence and use any underhand tactics to ensure a court case goes their way.
We recently heard of a situation where a reader unintentionally incurred a narcissist’s wrath. She’d bought an expensive online training product from a charming, well-known figure who had personally guaranteed she was ‘perfect’ for it.
Once this person got access to the product, however, they realised they had been miss-sold – it was far too basic for their needs. But when they politely let the charming, well-known figure know they weren’t getting any benefit from it, they received a stinging threat of legal action, and were publicly named, shamed and defamed to this figure’s large online community.
The reaction was utterly disproportionate, and this person felt destroyed. It robbed her of her confidence and she abandoned her business dream as a result. The narcissist, on the other hand, prevented exposure by bullying and discrediting their victim, and gained narcissistic supply by claiming they were the victim to their audience.
2) Narcissists need you to envy their success
Take a scroll down Facebook or Instagram, and you’ll see plenty of posts trying to position people at their best. Their best angle, their best friends, their best life.
But, while social media is known for breeding narcissistic behaviour, narcissists take it to a whole new level. For them, it’s not just about showing off how great their life is – they NEED you to envy it.
In business, this can appear in the form of:
- Posts about their wonderful partner and amazing family life.
- Images of their dream home, which they’re ‘so lucky’ to have.
- Working from sun-drenched beaches or by infinity pools.
- Photos of their (high status) amazing business buddies.
- Business strategy retreats to exotic destinations.
- Grand claims of income and material possessions bought with it.
The not-so-subtle subtext is “look what an amazing life I have – don’t YOU wish you were me?” Of course, it will never be overtly positioned as such. It may even come with a humble brag post, like: “I never thought little old me would be in the presence of these great ladies!” Or: “Who would have thought the girl who wore hand me down clothes would one day be buying Gucci?”
Or it will come dressed up in ‘lessons I have learned’, masquerading as them generously sharing their wisdom with their followers.
It doesn’t matter what the social media platform, its only use to a narcissist is to gain narcissist supply through attention and envy (and to bully and intimate those they see as enemies… as we’ll get to later).
3) Narcissists love bomb their victims
Have you ever met someone so charming, magnetic, warm and friendly that you felt like you’d known them forever pretty much straight away… only for them to suddenly cool off later?
If so, the chances are you’ve been love bombed by a narcissist.
Narcissists understand how to charm people; what to say and do to make you love them. The trouble is that they struggle to sustain that level of charm, and eventually they’ll either no longer need you any more (the narcissist doesn’t genuinely like or love you; they’re incapable of these emotions), or they’ll feel secure that you’re safely within their control, and they’ll switch the charm off.
Another reason why they inexplicably switch off the charm is to ensure you are firmly in their power. By making you feel insecure, not knowing where you stand, you’re more likely to do what they want to try to get their positive attention back again. It’s also a big confidence-knocker for you. And someone who lacks confidence is far less likely to tackle or leave a narcissist.
In fact, the only place that charm will be evident again is if you’re out in public, and the narcissist needs to maintain their facade and ensure others think they have the perfect life. Then, they’ll reinstate that mega-watt smile and all the gestures of warmth and affection.
Or they still need you, and think they’re in danger of losing you, so will hoover you up again.
In business a narcissist will zero in on those most useful to them. A manager they want to secure a promotion or pay rise from. A colleague they need to do them a favour. Or someone high status they want to cultivate. They will of course drop the charm for all these people once they get what they want, or when these people aren’t useful to them any more.
Just as a narcissist will happily cut contact with family and friends in their private life, they’ll move on from people in their professional life who no longer serve their needs – often leaving their victims confused.
Narcissists are so convincingly charming that people believe they have a genuine connection. But any genuine emotions or loyalty are inevitably one-sided.
4) Narcissists steal attention from others
As we know from narcissistic supply, to a narcissist attention is oxygen, and they can’t stand the spotlight being shone on others – especially someone they consider competition. So if they sense there is a risk of this happening, they’ll attempt to upstage and steal others’ thunder.
Examples of this include announcing their pregnancy at someone’s wedding or engagement party, or crying about a breakup at someone else’s birthday party.
In business or the workplace, a narcissist may scupper any good news you may have, such as winning a big project or securing a promotion with an announcement of their own. Or creating a drama to divert attention.
5) Narcissists need to destabilise their victims
A narcissist often derives their power (and the narcissistic supply) off the weakness of others. So, once you are safely under their spell, or to attempt to gain power and control over you, they will do things that undermine your confidence and enjoyment.
Here’s how both might show up in the workplace or in business:
- A manager or colleague may suddenly change a deadline, leaving you struggling to deal with a now-impossible workload.
- They’ll deny conversations took place, or renege on agreements and them claim nothing was set in stone.
- They may steal your work or ideas, and either diminish your complaints by making you look unreasonable or claim you are lying.
- They’ll make disparaging comments about your work or performance, causing you and others to doubt your ability.
- They may be rude and put you down, then accuse you of being too sensitive or unable to take a joke if you complain.
- They’ll deliberately pick an argument or knock your confidence before a big meeting, speech or business trip.
So while you may once have been riding high on the attention and charm of a narcissist, now you find yourself doubting yourself and others, alienated by formerly friendly colleagues, managers and business acquaintances, and wondering if you even have anything valid worth contributing.
The truth is that you’ve just been ‘devalued’ by a narcissist. It’s all part of the idealise, devalue and discard cycle.
6) Narcissists use charities to appear good people
One of the easiest ways for a narcissist to disguise themselves as an empathetic, ‘good’ person is to involve or align themselves with charities. (Many MLMs – the ultimate narcissistic business model – either very publicly donate to charities or even create their own.)
After all, what signals virtue more than helping people, creatures or things less fortunate? Or standing up for the powerless?
When you recognise this behaviour in narcissists, it’s easy to spot. One clearly narcissistic parent on our school PTA would always make at least one comment each meeting that gave her the moral high ground.
She’d raise some moral concern that no other parent or teacher had considered (usually groundless), reassuring herself that she was seen as a good person. In reality this mother had no real interest in the children, and would never help with any school events.
This alignment with good causes and moral superiority works well in careers and business too. Nothing says “I’m a good person” more than standing up for good causes, highlighting the plight of the less fortunate on stage, or supporting charities.
For this reason, a narcissist can often be found sharing their values (or hard luck story) and lecturing others on how to behave more appropriately on a stage. A narcissist will never quietly donate to charity, or offer their time for a good cause. Instead they’ll squeeze every last bit of publicity and attention out of it.
But like the mum on my school PTA, the narcissist doesn’t really care about the less fortunate, nor the charities. They’re just useful sources of narcissist supply.
7) Narcissists deflect any criticism or accusations of bad behaviour
Narcissists are also fond of using charities and good causes to deflect any accusations of poor behaviour on their part.
A common strategy we’ve seen is to use a pity play/virtue signalling combination to control attention and build their self-esteem. So, if a narcissist is caught behaving badly (for example by stealing ideas or claiming credit for the work of others), or fears potential criticism or exposure, they’ll try to control the narrative by painting themselves as the victim – and the real victim or critic as the perpetrator.
Commonly they’ll claim they’re being bullied, and even align themselves with causes that fit with this. Or they’ll suddenly remind people that they suffer from a chronic illness, are struggling with poor mental health, or have a child with special needs – anything that makes them appear like a sympathetic victim in need of support, and making their true victim look like a heartless aggressor.
Aside the the pity/victim play, here are some of the ways a narcissist will try to deflect attention if they fear exposure or criticism – often played out publicly on social media:
- Mud-slinging – they’ll muddy the waters so much with tit for tat accusations that people will get confused and their initial crime gets lost in the mire.
- Bullying – they enlist the help of powerful allies to back them up and intimidate and discredit the wronged party, maybe even making the victim look like the one in the wrong.
- Isolation – they’ll isolate the potential truth-teller by spreading rumours and lies about them, and turning allies against them.
- Discrediting – they’ll start a campaign to discredit the truth teller so their word counts for nothing.
- Intimidation – depending on the class of narcissism, the narcissist may even intimidate their victim into silence, either with clear, overt warnings, or threats of legal action.
And the ONE biggest giveaway of a narcissist
If you’re looking for an easy, common element that unites narcissists then there’s one simple red flag to watch out for: they’re often surrounded by drama.
So if you work with a colleague, or come across someone in business who is always falling out with people, or who seems to lurch from one emotional crises or professional drama to another, there is a chance they’re a narcissist. And these dramas are unconsciously self-created to give them narcissistic supply.
These people will often post about someone betraying them or saying unfair things about them. And they’ll fan the flames by responding to replies and encouraging other people to join in. They might ask them to defend them, or will incite emotions to inflame the drama.
So if you notice someone frequently having fall outs or being betrayed or ‘bullied’, then treat them with caution – even if you personally find them charming. It could be that you’re just a pawn in a narcissist’s power play to get attention. And one day YOU could become their victim.
Have you come across a narcissist at work or in business?
Of course these are just some of the giveaway behaviours of a narcissist at work or in business; there are many more you may have come across. Perhaps you’ve even had the misfortune of personally encountering a narcissistic, and unwillingly been a source of their narcissist supply.
If you suspect you may be in the orbit of a narcissist right now, the best advice we can give is to try to quietly extract yourself, without giving the narcissist fuel for supply.
There’s nothing to be gained in publicly confronting a narcissist – they’ll only respond in one of the ways we’ve just listed. And don’t bother trying to appeal to their better nature; they don’t have one!
You also can’t ‘cure’ a narcissist. Professional treatment can help narcissist to relate to others in healthier ways, but the narcissist must first recognise they need help and be motivated to pursue it.
The best strategy if you encounter a narcissist is to have as little contact as possible. And let them seek out their sources of narcissist supply elsewhere.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema