Every office has a spotlight hog. The person who boasts about accomplishments, steals credit for company successes, and interrupts others with what they believe to be more important ideas. It could be your coworker or your boss, and while this person is irritating, is he or she a narcissist?
"Most people think a narcissist is the preening braggart, reality-TV type, but narcissism isn’t all about that," says Craig Malkin, psychology lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprising Good—About Feeling Special. "We can get too focused on that stereotype that we miss the danger signs that have nothing to do with greed or vanity."
Narcissism is a spectrum of self-importance, and everyone falls somewhere on the scale between utter selflessness and total arrogance, says Malkin. A healthy amount allows us to maintain a sense of self worth, says Malkin, but someone with excessive narcissism has a personality disorder that can be toxic to the workplace.
Narcissism has a wide range of characteristics, from the obvious to the subtle. While it may seem like we’re in the midst of a narcissism epidemic, that isn’t true, says Malkin. "Studies have found that narcissist personality disorder has not increased; it’s stayed at 1% of the population," he says. "It’s just more ominous and louder in social media."
To spot a narcissist, look for the telltale signs. "Excessive bragging is obvious, but that isn’t the best indicator," says Malkin. "That only helps us recognize one type of narcissist. What all narcissists have in common is the key point that they are all afraid of people on an emotional level."
If they’re sad or lonely, for example, they don’t turn to others for help. Instead, they play emotional hot potato to combat their insecurity. "In the workplace, narcissists will avoid being vulnerable by depending on others," says Malkin. "When they feel shaky, they say and do things to make you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. They point out your incompetence."
A boss who looks over your shoulder and points out your error is a classic example, says Malkin, "They’re the ones asking, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing here?’" he says. "This will happen when the boss is worried about his own performance and how he’s viewed by higher ups. They’re uncomfortable admitting their own nervousness, and so they focus on someone else. They knock out the neighbor’s porch light to make their own shine brighter."
Narcissists look for ways to feel special in some way, either openly or quietly, says Malkin. "They have to be the most important person in the room, the most misunderstood person in the room, or the most healthful person in the room," he says.
Narcissists also avoid feeling vulnerable by fantasizing that they’re twins. "This is the person who dresses like the boss and follows the boss around," says Malkin. "Being with somebody who shares all of our same ideas and preferences—whether it’s true or pretend—provides a sense of being special. And if there is no difference, there can't be disappointment, so there’s no vulnerability."
A narcissist may also put someone else on a pedestal. "The strategy there is that if I believe I’m with someone perfect, then I never have to worry about being disappointed," says Malkin. "How can an idol let me down? Believing someone walks on water is another sign of a narcissist."
If you think your boss or coworker is a narcissist, the worst thing you can do is stroke their ego, says Malkin. "All that does is leave them feeling that they need to keep propping up their specialness," he says. "It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for the workplace."
But don’t ignore them, either. "People who are narcissists are insecure, and by disowning them, you make them feel small and less competent," says Malkin. "And don’t confront them. It doesn’t work with somebody who is narcissistic; it just puts them on the defensive."
Catch good behavior. The best way to handle narcissists in the workplace is to catch good behavior, says Malkin. "Even the most narcissistic person has moments where they show caring or concern," he says. "If they were jerks from the beginning, few of us would hang around them. Instead of lacking emotion altogether, they’re blocked and preoccupied."
When you notice your coworker or boss showing empathy or being caring, point it out. "If the coworker who doesn’t normally give you the time of day offers to bring you coffee, call attention to it," says Malkin. "It’s way more effective to pay attention to those moments and encourage them. You can say, ‘Thanks for offering coffee. I feel like you’ve got my back and I want to press harder.’"
Link good behavior to success in the workplace. "Narcissists usually want the big win, so look for moments of better behavior and point them out," says Malkin. "Research shows this method lights up the parts of the brain that are devoted to caring, communal activation, and this is what reduces narcissism."
Find the cause. If you’re on the receiving end of the emotional hot potato pass, work backwards from the moment, suggests Malkin. "Assume that the person is feeling the things they point out in you," says Malkin. "Say, ‘I guess I am feeling off. I thought things felt on track and we were on fire for this project, and today I see you’ve got all kinds of questions. Did something happen? Are you getting pressure from above?’"
By blocking the hot potato pass, you give the person a chance to admit their own doubts, says Malkin. "If they’re capable of recognizing it, then there is hope for you being able to stay in the workplace," he says. "When given a chance, most people will admit that they’re feeling on less stable ground than the day before."
Get help when a narcissist is a bully. Some narcissists are bullies, however, and Malkin says this type of relationship often needs outside help. "Research shows that the most common behaviors of bullying are outright insults, stealing credit, yelling, and ignoring someone," he says. "If you experience a bully, you can’t deal with this alone. You will need support or a plan to leave. And if you experience abuse, all bets are off. Seek systemic or legal support, and find some way to protect from bullying at work."