Narcissistic Leaders

narcissistIf you work long enough, you will eventually encounter a manager whose personality is so unbearable that you will assume that you will never find a productive way to work with the person.  Although there are a variety of “unbearable” boss species, one popular category is the narcissist. We have all heard the term “being narcissistic,” but living with it at work on a daily basis is another matter.  A narcissist possesses such an inflated sense of self-importance that it leads to an inability to see the viewpoint of others or receive any form of criticism.  The typical narcissist believes that he or she is a superior being to others and should be treated accordingly.  In many cases, the person will possess obsessive fantasies of success, wit, beauty, fame, brilliance, and even omnipotence.

You may know the story of Narcissus from Greek mythology, who after peering into a pool of water, fell madly in love with his own reflection. Ovid recounts the story as follows:

“Narcissus was the son of Cephissus, the river god, and the nymph Leiriope. By the time he was sixteen everyone recognized his ravishing beauty, but he scorned all lovers – of both sexes – because of his pride. The nymph Echo was hopelessly in love but she was hindered by her inability to initiate a conversation. Eventually Narcissus rejected her. She wasted away in her grief to a mere voice. A young man, similarly spurned, prayed that he would love himself unremittingly. The goddess Nemesis answered this prayer by arranging that Narcissus would stop to drink at a spring on the heights of Mount Helicon. As he looked in the water he saw his own reflection and instantly fell in love with the image. He could not embrace his reflection in the pool. Unable to tear himself away he remained until he died of starvation. But no body remained – in its place was a flower. “

Outside of the obvious personality issues that clearly inhibit relationship development, the work place provides an incubator for amplifying negative interaction.   When things are going the narcissist’s way, he or she often appears charming, charismatic, compelling, and persuasive.  In many situations, the narcissist may even be someone others aspire to be more like.  However, when events or actions run counter to expectation or desire, bullying and intimidation come into play.  Another concern relates to the stress that encapsulates the workplace when everything has to revolve around a narcissistic leader.  The combination of fear and intimidation impedes creativity, productivity, and engagement as well as increases the chance of health issues.  Finally, considerable research points to the role of the supervisors in retention of key staff.  Moreover, a “bad” supervisor is a key predictor of voluntary separation.  If we work for someone that only agrees to plans or actions that benefit them and bullies those that fail to see the leader’s omnipresence, it will not be long before we want to work somewhere else.

If you have managers that are narcissists and live in a dream world where everything must be as they like it, the cost to you, your success, and your organization can be very great.

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