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Is Your Coworker a Narcissist?


Something is just off about her.  You cannot put your finger on it, but you suspect she is different.  She takes longer to get things done when she does not get her way.  She makes things more complicated than necessary and avoids difficult conversations.  It is subtle but noticeable.  On the surface, she seems confident, yet you detect an underlying fragility. 

The Mayo Clinic defines a narcissistic personality disorder as "a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their importance and a deep need for admiration. Those with narcissistic personality disorder believe that they're superior to others and have little regard for other people's feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism."

The typical narcissist is more easily spotted.  However, the passive-aggressive narcissist is challenging to identify.  According to Psychology Today, many narcissists come across as openly grandiose and outwardly intrusive. Some narcissists utilize passive-aggressive tactics as a primary way of fulfilling their selfish needs or to exact "punishment" on those who fail to cater to their whims.

These latent narcissists become secretly hostile when things do not go their way.  They devise subversive plans to make people around them miserable when they do not get what they deserve.  Following are some diagnostics to understand better the person you are dealing with at work.

The first diagnostic is secret sabotage.  These people fail to meet commitments or agreements with what seems to be justifiable reasoning.  They harm the team by interjecting information disguised as something helpful.  They deliberately act in ways that hurt team chemistry. They repeatedly poison situations with what appears to be something necessary.

Another tendency for passive-aggressive narcissists is hidden resistance.  They are rigid and tend to overcomplicate everyday challenges.  They stall progress intentionally when they feel left out of the spotlight.  Any significant issue that does not involve them gets challenged because they are not the center of attention.

Quick to blame others is another diagnostic.  They become the center of attention by casting others in a negative light.  They become large by making others appear small.  In meetings, they call out those who are absent and cannot defend themselves.  They plant seeds of suspicion regarding people as potential problems.  They might say something like, "I wonder why Mary did not address that issue."

Ghosting others is another tactic.  They ignore people or exclude them from issues and conversations.  This activity becomes intensified when they suspect resistance to their ideas or approach to a situation.  They leave dissenters off the meeting invitation or email distribution.  When confronted, they declare the behavior as an accidental omission.

Sarcasm and hostile humor are other diagnostic tools. They make hurtful remarks about others (mostly behind their back) with subtle comments or inflection.  On the surface, these comments appear harmless. Yet, upon reflection, you notice the pointed jabs as hurtful or deceitful.

Finally, these people are verbally hostile toward others.  Hurtful criticism, perpetuating gossip, or innuendo are common tactics.  They put others down to feel superior.  They use negativity as a weapon against peers by constant criticism.  Disguised as realistic feedback, they are openly critical without support or ideas for solutions.  They only see problems while others see opportunities.

It is important to remember that true narcissism is a mental disorder.  According to the Mayo Clinic, a narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school, or financial affairs. People with a narcissistic personality disorder may be generally unhappy and disappointed when they do not receive the special favors or admiration they believe they deserve. They may find their relationships unfulfilling, and others may not enjoy being around them—treatment for narcissistic personality disorder centers around talk therapy (psychotherapy).

When maintaining a working relationship with a narcissist is necessary, you can improve the situation.  Establish boundaries concerning undesired behavior.  Speak up when you need to have a difficult conversation by using positive language as a catalyst.  You can do this by curtailing criticism or gossip in their presence.  Prevent them from distracting or avoiding reality with sarcasm or humor

Avoid arguing or labeling them since they likely do not realize they are suffering from the disorder.  It is not your place to be the therapist, so avoid using names to describe undesired behavior.  They lack empathy, so honest, critical communication about the behavior will not be heard or acknowledged.  Experts remind us that people with this disorder usually do not change.  Dr. Dianne Grande says a narcissist will only change when it serves their purpose.

According to the researchers at Washington University, narcissists convince themselves of two things to deal with other people's negative perceptions.  Does this sound familiar?

  • Their critics are envious of them
  • Their critics are too stupid to recognize their value

Narcissists do not feel guilt; they feel shame.  Shame can result in a narcissistic injury.  The narcissistic injury occurs when a narcissist's elevated self-image or perception is threatened and thinks that their hidden "true self" becomes revealed. A revelation occurs when the narcissist experiences a "fall from grace."  It also happens when their hidden behaviors or motivations are displayed, or when their egotism is challenged or questioned.

There are levels of narcissism.  Instead of repairing it, attempt to play along and live with it. The answer depends on how entwined your life is with the narcissist or how deeply narcissistic the narcissist happens to be.

"It's a matter of making yourself as boring, nonreactive, and unremarkable as possible — like a gray rock…More importantly, remain as emotionally unresponsive to their pokes and prods as you can allow yourself." -Live Strong

Researchers and psychologists are studying the reasons for the current narcissism epidemic.  Perhaps there is no single cause at all.  It could be parenting styles or social media causing the rise of narcissism, but it is too early to know causation.  There is an increasing likelihood for you to work with or for a narcissist.  You are now better prepared to diagnose and manage this uncomfortable reality.