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Community Wellbeing: Handling a narcissist in your organisation

(First published by Probono Australia) by practitioner Adam Blanch
Narcissism is the bogey man of personality. It is surrounded by myth and fear, but it is a surprisingly common part of most people’s lives. We encounter it almost daily, with approximately 1 per cent of the population suffering a diagnosable level of the disorder, so that’s something like 70 or 80 million clinical narcissists in the world.

Most people have a colleague that qualifies, and we’ve nearly all had a boss that fits the profile in our past.

Like most personality traits it exists on a spectrum ranging from a mild preoccupation with self, to a full-blown pathology that wreaks destruction on the lives of the people around it, and the person suffering from it. It would be nice to think that there is less of it in our for-purpose community, but the opportunity for public recognition and positions of power and authority without too much competition, could actually make it more attractive.

It was named by Sigmund Freud after the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away in self-reverence. Freud described it as a defence mechanism, a way of denying and compensating for a crippling lack of self-worth. This has been described by psychologist John Bradshaw as a “shame wound”, which condemns its sufferer to believe that they must be superior or they will be entirely inferior. A person suffering from narcissism confuses humility with humiliation and cannot tolerate the reality of our normal human flaws and limitations.


The Malignant Narcissist
This is your classic bully who rules over others through fear, intimidation and power. They may be either overt or covert in how they do this. An overt narcissist operates through authority and punishment. They demand obedience and compliance and routinely humiliate their subordinates and peers to keep control. Perhaps even more damaging to an organisation though, is the covert malignant narcissist. This person operates through guile and manipulation. The end goal is the same, the continuation of their power, but they maintain this by undermining others and fostering dependencies and factional conflicts. They will also tend to humiliate those around them, but they do it with more subtle put-downs and by withholding trust and recognition to make others doubt themselves. Whether overt or covert, they will set other people up to fail with unrealistic expectations and demands. At their worst they can be psychopathically ruthless and feel no empathy or regard for anyone but themselves.

The Grandiose Narcissist
This is perhaps the easiest one to spot. Grandiose narcissists are constantly seeking praise and recognition and “blow their own trumpet” to an extreme degree. They are often described with terms such as blowhards, conceited, vain and self-important. Unlike malignant narcissists, they are relatively harmless, but incredibly annoying. Their need for recognition leaves them unable to acknowledge the worth of others or to leave space in the conversation for the views of others. They often think of themselves as misunderstood and under-appreciated, and they are oblivious to the clear rejection they receive from others.

The Shy Narcissist
Sometimes also called the victim narcissist. They present to the world as being insecure, even to the point of helplessness, but they are entirely self-obsessed and oblivious to the needs of others. These people use guilt to manipulate others. They present themselves in such a way that if you fail to give them the help or recognition they demand you must be a terrible person. The shy narcissist is often to be found making accusations and negative aspersions about the character of others, but rarely to their face. This is commonly the office gossip, finding fault in everyone but themselves. Mostly they are harmless, but very irritating, unless they are not getting the sympathy they want. An offended shy narcissist (and they are usually taking offence at some imagined personal sleight or other) can be particularly petty and vicious, especially in positions of petty authority.

The Moral Narcissist
Often seen, but rarely recognised as narcissists. As the term implies, these people believe themselves to be morally superior to others. This in turn entitles them to pass judgment on other people’s character, to make demands for compliance to their behavioural code and to denigrate those who they judge to be morally deficient. These are the workplace killjoys who specialise is being offended at everything, finding fault in others and crippling free communication. Moral narcissists can cause enormous division in a workplace by fostering conflicts. They often play the role of the rescuer, righteously defending the rights and prosecuting the wrongs of others. Their self-righteousness enables them to justify almost any level of control seeking behaviour.

So what to do?
All narcissists want control and power over others, except the non-malignant grandiose narcissist who just wants people to recognise their superiority and brilliance. Their impact on a workplace is almost always negative, but they are to be found in almost all workplaces. Most narcissists are pathologically incapable of recognising their own flaws, so they rarely seek help, which makes them difficult to give correction to. Generally, narcissists are also quite articulate, which can make them slippery and immune to standard HR responses to problem people.

Containing narcissistic behaviour in the workplace is best done by tightly observed regulation and protocols around communication and workplace behaviour. They flourish in unregulated environments because they get to make the rules, particularly the social rules, and change them when they want to. They are power seekers, so screening for narcissism in the selection and promotion process is vital to limiting their impact on an organisation.

Dealing with a narcissistic as your superior is a topic for another day. First appeared in Pro Bono News Australia, where Adam has his own Column. 

The Xfactor Collective is a community of pre-vetted specialist consultants who help social change makers achieve their social mission. We have a diverse range of specialists across 300+ areas of specialisation, and this article was written by our Specialist Consultant Adam Blanch. To find out more about working with Adam, or how the Collective can help you, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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