Let’s get one thing straight: Some aspects of narcissism can be healthy. In fact, people we wouldn’t otherwise think to call narcissists share tendencies with people who basically scream it. That can make ID’ing a narcissist accurately more difficult than you may think. But research suggests there’s at least one way to tell if you’re dealing with a narcissist, and it’s amazingly simple.
Being a narcissist doesn’t necessarily mean obsessed with yourself.
To psychologists, the term simply describes people who derive a considerable amount of their self-esteem from others’ accolades. So maybe, for instance, it isn’t so terrible to think other people should listen to what you have to say if you really do have something important to say. In that case, narcissism can lead you to broadcast your views in public (perhaps by writing articles for sites like Fast Company!). Plenty of effective politicians and business leaders have a touch of narcissism, and that probably benefits them.
Where narcissism goes astray is when someone has such a high need for others’ approval that it gets in the way of them working with people. People psychologists refer to as “vulnerable narcissists” can lash out at others when their actions and ideas are criticized. They take more credit for what the team does than they personally had a hand in. They shift the blame for bad actions from themselves to others.
In other words, narcissism is more of a spectrum than a quality you either possess or you don’t. This isn’t news. For a long time, researchers have used the narcissism personality inventory to measure people’s degree of narcissism. When it was originally developed, it included 40 questions that explored different aspects of narcissism. But field researchers found it was often hard to use such a long questionnaire in studies, so they managed to shorten it into a 16-question version.
What if it could be boiled down to just one?
That’s what researchers Sara Konrath, Brien Meier, and Brad Bushman wondered, then set out to test it. In 2014, they published a study in which they asked people to rate how much they agreed with the statement, “I am a narcissist” on a scale from 1–11. They added the note, “The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, and vain.”
Surprisingly, this one-item scale worked extremely well. It turns out that narcissists are typically aware that they’re narcissists, and many are willing to admit it–at least when answering a question in a scientific study.
To be fair, this one-question test doesn’t exactly parse the different levels of narcissism somebody may exhibit; it can’t tell you if someone’s a vulnerable narcissist or just has a few mild narcissistic qualities. Nor does it mean that you should just walk up to people and ask them how much of a narcissist they are, and expect to get highly accurate results.
But it does mean that most narcissists are aware of how much attention they need from others, and how threatened they feel by people who criticize them. And those are things you can usually ask people about pretty straightforwardly.
This isn’t actually all that surprising. When you think about it, most of the behaviors and reactions related to narcissism are pretty consciously available. People know when they’re being vain and when they’re putting their own egos ahead of others.
So if you find yourself mentoring a rising star who you think has some narcissistic qualities, it’s worth sitting down and having a conversation with them. You may want to point out–gently–that they’ll need the help of their team members as they rise through an organization.
A simple chat like this may even help preempt a bigger problems down the road. Studies suggest that narcissists often wear out their welcome with groups–usually pretty quickly–and are forced to move on. Since it doesn’t come naturally, young narcissists have to learn to spread the credit across their team and accept some blame for things that go wrong.
If you find yourself working for a narcissist, though, you may want to shield yourself a little, too. Try to find a powerful ally in the organization who can protect you from any misplaced blame flung your way. Ultimately, though, remember that the narcissists you know really are aware of their own need for attention. That means that you may be able chat one-on-one about it and show them how to work with others–yourself included–before anything gets out of hand.