Narcissism is on the rise. Research among University students in the USA has found that more and more young people think they are something special. In fact American students now score 30 per cent higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than they did in the 1980s.
Moreover, this trend has been steadily gaining momentum over a number of years. An examination of teenage scores on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory has found that in the 1950s, just 12 per cent of teenagers agreed with the narcissistic statement, “I’m an important person”. By the late 80′s this figure had jumped to 80 per cent.
This increase in people who narcissistically view themselves as important has real implications for business owners and anyone who manages other people. Because if everyone views themselves as an important person who is entitled to special treatment, eliciting the teamwork and cooperation that contemporary workplaces demand becomes a difficult, if not impossible, task
In order to address this problem, we first need to understand the traits that narcissists exhibit. The term narcissist has its origins in the story from Greek mythology of the beautiful Narcissus who falls hopelessly in love with his reflection when he stops to take a drink from a stream. Mesmerized by his reflection he spends his remaining days lying by the stream looking at his reflection and declaring his love for it.
People who qualify as narcissists in contemporary times have a similar love for themselves which is manifested in an exaggerated and unrealistic view of their importance and abilities. They are like a former boyfriend of mine who, when he was a small child, saw other people swimming and thought, “I can do that.” He then promptly jumped off the dock on which he was standing and nearly drowned.
Even more troubling than the tendency of narcissists to overestimate their abilities are their feelings of entitlement and the belief that they deserve special treatment. Narcissists consider that rules and regulations only apply to others and will frequently push their employer to provide them with extras or to bend the rules for them. On teams they will refuse to cooperate or fly into a rage when their teammates fail to recognize the brilliance of their ideas and work. They also have no compunction in appropriating other employee’s ideas and accomplishments as their own, causing further damage to team cohesion and group dynamics.
These delusions of superiority make narcissists a handful to manage In fact, one of the best approaches is to avoid them altogether by spotting them before you hire them.
There are a number of red flags that suggest that you are in the presence of a narcissist. First, they tend to exaggerate their accomplishments. They will boldly proclaim that they singlehandedly turned around their former department or designed their company’s successful marketing plan.
A second red flag is a tendency to criticize their former colleagues in order to show their own superiority. This is particularly likely to occur when you ask them why they left their former position.
A third is that narcissists are more interested in what a position will do for them rather than what they can do for you. They will push for special benefits and other indicators of higher status that don’t normally go with the position that you are offering.
But what about handling the narcissists that you may already have? This requires fortitude, ingenuity and an understanding of how to use their misplaced self-importance to your advantage.
First, make sure that you keep your distance and demand the respect your position merits. Refuse to react to any attempts to intimidate or manipulate your behaviour and try to avoid displaying anger or frustration. A narcissist feeds on these types of responses.
Second, recognize that narcissists are generally not good team players since there are few people whom they consider their equals. If you do have to put them on a team, place them on one with people whom they admire and consider high status.
Of course, you could always use the fact that narcissists love to be the centre of attention to your advantage and encourage them to become a presenter for your business. Although this will require training and practice, a narcissistic employee who can remain focused during a presentation can make for an effective and confident ambassador.
Third, stick to the rules. Narcissists are likely to push you for special favours and to ask you to bend the rules for them. Make sure you don’t cave in to their demands. Set clear guidelines and behavioral expectations to provide a narcissist with direction and focus, and ensure they are adhered to.
Fourth, protect other people from their behaviour. Narcissists often step forward to claim the glory when things go well so make sure that you know who really deserves credit. As part of this, design incentives that reward teamwork and cooperation rather than individual work.
Remember, too, that if a narcissistic employee’s behaviour upsets their colleagues, you may be vulnerable to complaints and grievances. So it’s important to document these, especially if all other tactics fail and you might have to take disciplinary action.
Finally, be aware that in our competitive self-promotional world, it’s easy for all of us to become caught up in the prevailing culture of narcissism and forget that no one succeeds alone.
As Dr Thomas Gutheil, a professor at Harvard Medical School, put it: ”Narcissism can be deadly for a person’s career. With their sense of entitlement narcissists frequently become embroiled in career damaging workplace conflicts and have problems fulfilling their potential.”
Myra White PhD teaches managing workplace performance and organisational behaviour at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of Follow the Yellow Brick Road – A Harvard Psychologist’s Guide to Becoming a Superstar.