Narcissistic Personality and Behavior at Work

Is the narcissistic personality obsessed with power and control?

Narcissism occurs in the workplace at almost every organization, usually at or near to the top.1 The narcissistic personality comprises of a defense that works incessantly to prevent others reminding the narcissist of his feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and worthlessness, which lower his self-esteem.

The Narcissistic defense is addicted to power and control, without which he feels exposed to his real feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and worthlessness.

As Dr Bruce Gregory stated, "... many people have the fantasy that if they try hard, 'do it right,' be reasonable, logical, and have goodwill and a team approach, these factors will generate a positive outcome in interpersonal or group settings. This is about as deep a fantasy as one could possibly have, as it is not based in reality. Why is this? It is... because a narcissist's survival is dependent upon having control, or the perception of control."2 When this control is challenged, he feels threatened and responds as though his very survival is at stake.

Over time, a narcissist will create an emotionally hazardous work environment for the non-narcissist. He (or she) will surround himself with codependents / enablers / followers. If he is high enough up the organization, he will appoint them. If he can't appoint them, he will make life so difficult for those who don't subscribe to his 'world view' (or tacitly accept it), that they will leave. The narcissist will eventually end up surrounded by individuals who play the pathological reciprocal role that his behavior typically induces.

A huge problem in the work environment is that the codependents completely fail to recognize the narcissist's pathological behavior. As they already subscribe to his world view, the codependent is already conditioned to accepting the narcissist's behavior, and as Dr Bruce Gregory stated, "It is a well known dynamic in most psychological circles that if one is denying or cut off from an aspect of the self, it is very difficult... to recognize this aspect in others."3

But as the narcissist's defense works incessantly to prevent others reminding him of his feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and worthlessness, which lower his self-esteem, how does he avoid situations occuring whereby his codependents cause this to happen, even inadvertently? Daniel Sankowsky described how this problem is avoided by both the narcissist and his codependents.

"... under conditions of threat (which can simply mean confronting any non-routine situation), followers and leaders alike act on the basis of certain fundamental values, such as control of the encounter and avoidance of negative feelings, and also on the basis of strategies such as concealing thoughts and feelings, advocating fixed positions, unilaterally saving face, and sending mixed messages. Each side proceeds according to these values and strategies and assumes the other is doing the same. Both sides tacitly "agree" not to discuss any of this."4

Narcissists can create emotional turmoil

If the leader (CEO) has a narcissistic personality, he (or she) will make sure that his senior management team is comprised of codependents. If the leader (CEO) is a codependent, and there is a narcissist in his senior management team, then the codependent will do the bidding of the narcissist (remember, he already subscribes to the narcissist's world view). The best bet for an effective leader (CEO) is a non narcissist who has the strength of character to deal with narcissists.

But non narcissists in the workplace who are committed to being fair and nice to others may further compound the problem. They are naturally unwilling or unprepared to hold the narcissist accountable for his behavior. Confrontation is not part of their personality, so their failure to confront the narcissist only serves to reinforce the narcissist's belief in his dominance, thereby strengthening his position.

An emotionally hazardous work environment is a workplace lead by a narcissistic manager who believes in demonstrating power and control over employees, dominating others through a combination of direct threats and stealth methods. But when the narcissistic manager gets his (or her) feelings hurt, or perceives he has been slighted in any way, or is threatened that an employee's abilities might be better than his own, he will react with aggression. The time it takes for the narcissist to change from Mr Nice Guy to Mr Angry can be very short, and some of the methods he uses as means of control are abuse, narcissistic rage, splitting, projection, character assassination, and intimidation.

The stealth methods used by narcissistic leaders and managers can create emotional turmoil for those around them. Name calling, talking down to employees, sexual harassment, disinformation, using the 'silent treatment' for those who have slighted him are just some examples of the subtle controlling techniques that gradually but consistently erode a normal workplace into one that is cancerous. And just as with cancer in the body it can spread its malignancy throughout the organization.5

To understand more about the narcissist's obsession with power and control, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.

1 E.g. Maccoby, M. (2000), Narcissistic leaders: the incredible pros, the inevitable cons, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2000, p. 75".
2, 3, 5 see
4 Sankowsky, D. (1995), The Charismatic Leader as Narcissist: Understanding the Abuse of Power, Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 23, Iss 4, pp. 57-71, p. 63.