A commentary on the overlooked threat of narcissism
Updated: Mar 25
How can narcissists in the workplace take different forms and what can we do to reduce the link between narcissism and aggression?
This is a guest post from William Smith - one of my PhD students who will shortly be submitting his final thesis on Narcissism and Aggression. He has spent the last three years working on a series of studies investigating different aspects of narcissism.
While typically considered a negative aspect of personality, displays of narcissism have become a strong professional asset for some. I’m sure we can all think of a variety of public figures whose entire celebrity identity is defined by their narcissistic tendencies. In the media, we may find individuals with these tendencies entertaining, and we may enjoy (or applaud) them for their unfiltered utterances. One clear example could be the cast of political figures who have risen to prominence in the last decade, whose grandiose and larger than life personalities have catapulted them into the public spotlight and occasionally carried them to prominent public offices. Increasingly, ‘selfie culture’ and celebrities past and present, keen to push their artificially enhanced photographic legend to the ends of the earth have made the ‘vanity’ component of narcissism more commonplace. But focusing on the entertaining superficial features of narcissism has meant that our popular conception of the term can become disconnected from its darker features.
So, what is narcissism? I’m going to use my own emphasis here, but rest assured that it is embedded in the research literature as well as my own original doctoral research. Narcissism can be best understood as consisting of three components; a grandiose component, a vulnerable component, and a malignant or clinical component. These forms of narcissistic qualities emerge from the same basic feature; a fragile sense of identity and self-esteem, that must be actively maintained or else risk being shattered. They commonly have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and recent research by Zitek & Schlund (2020) has shown that this entitlement can lead to a reduction in complying with rules such as covid-19 measures.
I’m going to focus on two types of narcissism: grandiose and vulnerable narcissism – and the negative impact these forms of narcissism can have in the workplace and less obvious expressions of aggression.
Grandiose narcissism is defined by the qualities we would typically associate with narcissism, as it is the most superficial, recognisable and understood component. The archetypal grandiose narcissist is extroverted, vain, confident and controlling. For the grandiose narcissist, others are merely an audience onto which they can project their inflated self-image. An archetypal grandiose narcissist maintains their positive self-image through forcefully asserting what they believe to be their positive qualities. We may find it relatively easy to spot this type of narcissist in our workplaces or social lives. As a result, we can choose to ignore or avoid them, if we want to.
Vulnerable narcissism, in contrast, is defined by an altogether different set of qualities. The vulnerable narcissist is introverted, neurotic and evasive, perhaps unnoticed by others but perceiving others as judgemental and threatening. The vulnerable narcissist, however, maintains their positive self-image by avoiding situations that might threaten their self-esteem.
This common drive to maintain a hyper-positive but fragile self-image underlies the narcissist’s 'antisocial-aggressive' behaviours. Similarly, these 'antisocial-aggressive' features come in different forms, and come at a cost: a reduced empathy or concern for others. For the narcissist, everyone else becomes an audience, actor, or prop, whose thoughts and behaviour only matter in relation to the narcissist themselves. This is antithetical to empathy. It follows that once empathy is reduced, so too is compassion, altruism, cooperation, and, as a result, the ability to compromise, and manage conflict peacefully. It does not take much imagination to see how an individual lacking in these abilities may not experience much hesitation to harming, abusing or bullying others, either directly or indirectly. To the narcissist, these behaviours are easily justified in defence of their fragile identity and self-esteem, as this justification does not have to take into account the potential harm suffered by the other. Often, keeping these 'antisocial-aggressive' features hidden is an important part of the active maintenance of the keeping the narcissist in the centre of a social interaction or group. Being seen as unempathetic or threatening does not reflect favourably on the narcissist, and therefore they disguise this. Arguably, the more flamboyant and attractive features of the narcissist can camouflage and distract from their 'antisocial-aggressive' features.
Perhaps unexpectedly, research has shown the most overt 'antisocial-aggressive' features, such as explosive or 'reactive' acts of aggression, are associated most with vulnerable rather than grandiose narcissism. Vulnerable narcissists may not be so obvious – they are usually less flamboyant and do not use conflict as a means of demonstrating their dominance, like the grandiose narcissist might. They are more prone to avoid situations where they might not come off with their fragile image intact. This does not, however, mean that when they ‘walk away’ that any angry or aggressive emotions dissipate. The danger of this type of narcissist is that when the conflict appears to be over, the narcissist can ruminate and ‘re-live’ any slight or grievance. As the archetypal vulnerable narcissist is quiet, evasive and prone to avoiding the limelight, they are also the least likely to be identified as narcissists by a casual observer, and so it is easy to lower one’s guard.
Jealously, egocentricism and neurotic self-obsession are all things we experience at times in our lives, and they stem from basic human social drives. But when they become the foundations of our self-identity, we should acknowledge the danger this poses.
The lessons here? Three main things:
1. Don’t assume a conflict is resolved, just because the person appears to go silent or leaves the situation. Some of the most serious aggressive attacks occur as revenge assaults following a period of rumination.
2. Avoid using humiliation or belittling the other individual as part of the conflict resolution. None of us would like to be at the receiving end of this type of behaviour, but it amazing how easy it is to slip into this approach and it can have dangerously triggering effects on people with higher levels of grandiose of vulnerable narcissism.
3. Acknowledge the potentially negative side of charismatic or flamboyant co-workers. They might become popular with colleagues, customers and clients but they could also be a narcissist hidden in plain sight!
William Smith firstname.lastname@example.org