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How to identify narcissists at work—and when to avoid them

Not all narcissists are the same, and understanding the differences can improve your work life.

How to identify narcissists at work—and when to avoid them
[Source images: Julien Chatelain/Unsplash; LucaDeGregorio/iStock]

You hear a lot about narcissists at work—and most of what you hear is bad. There is good reason for that. Some narcissists can be absolutely destructive to your workplace. So, it is important to be able to distinguish between people who act with confidence and those who are narcissists. It’s also helpful to be able to determine whether you’re dealing with a toxic narcissist or a more benign variety.

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Self-confident or narcissistic?

One of the big distinguishing features of narcissists is that they believe that they are special, and that information and influence should flow from them to the world rather than the reverse. As a result, narcissists will often act with great authority in situations and will typically display a lot of boldness and self-confidence.

But, not all self-confident people are narcissists. So, how do you distinguish one from the other?

A lot has to do with how much a person listens to others and incorporates other people’s ideas into their own with an acknowledgement that other people’s ideas and contributions have had an influence. Narcissists take the lion’s share of the credit for successes while passing the blame for failures on to other people (or to the situation). Narcissists will either ignore the ideas of others or co-opt them as their own.

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To find the narcissists, then, you have to look past the brash exterior and really listen to how they treat others. Many self-confident people are comfortable listening to dissent, to taking suggestions, and to spreading credit. The narcissists generally bristle at dissent, ignore suggestions, and hoard the credit.

So, what do you do?

How you want to deal with the narcissist in your midst depends on the breed of narcissist you’re dealing with. There are two broad types of narcissists. Grandiose narcissists are people who feel special, but have a strong enough sense of self that they are not deeply threatened by other people or their ideas. They don’t necessarily take other people’s views into account, but they don’t work actively to undermine other people. In fact, they often like to associate with other important people, because it reinforces their sense of how special they are. It shouldn’t be surprising that there are a lot of grandiose narcissists in visible positions like elected office, theater, and the C-suite in many organizations.

Grandiose narcissists in the workplace need to be handled with a little care, but they aren’t particularly dangerous. You’ll be most successful working with them if you acknowledge how special they are and if you get them to think that the course of action you hope they take was their idea (and allow them to take the credit for it). It helps if you also visibly take some of their suggestions so that they see the influence they are having on you.

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Vulnerable narcissists are a different matter. Vulnerable narcissists have a fragile self-concept. They use the love and accolades of others to prop up their self-esteem. As a result, vulnerable narcissists will feel threatened when other people around them criticize them. They downplay the successes of others. They are happy to be seen with other powerful people as long as nobody says that those other people are more powerful or important.

The danger with a vulnerable narcissist is that they will actively tear down people who make them feel threatened. They are also prone to fly into narcissistic rages in which they lash out at people who have criticized them or have otherwise taken the spotlight. They will also go to great lengths distance themselves from failures and will even revise the history of their role in failures to minimize the appearance that they contributed to a problem.

When you work with a vulnerable narcissist, your life can be miserable. You may be the subject of tirades in the workplace. You are unlikely to get recognized for good performance, because the narcissist will take credit for your successes. You will get shouldered with the blame for failures—even ones you may not have played a part in.

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For all of these reasons, it is best to avoid having to work with vulnerable narcissists in whatever way you can. If you’re working for a vulnerable narcissist, transfer out. If you are working with one at a parallel level, try to minimize the interactions you have with them. And if you have a potential client or customer who is a vulnerable narcissist, think twice about whether you really want their business. Even if they’re being nice to you at the moment, the time will come when their ire will be directed at you—and it won’t be pretty.

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