Narcissism in the Workplace - Good or Bad?

Last Updated Jan 15, 2010 5:44 PM EST

When there's a problem at work, do you automatically think about how it will impact you?

When you walk into a meeting, do you think that everybody's looking at you, hanging on your every word?

Do whining employees drive you crazy, and yet, you go home and complain to your spouse about them?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may be a narcissist. Even if you said, "Well, sort of," then you may have some narcissistic tendencies. We're trained to think that's a bad thing, but is it? I mean, does it really matter in the workplace? Will it stunt your career? Should you run off and see a shrink?

Hmm ... why don't you just lie down on that couch over there and tell me all about your childhood.

Narcissism is indeed one of those words that elicit widely varying responses. While some write it off as your garden variety selfishness, commonplace in today's "me" society, others, who might have an egotistical boss who's a real jerk, might want to strangle the guy.
So it comes down to a matter of degree. If it's destructive and leads to misery, then that's bad. But whose misery are we talking about, the narcissist's or his victims - employees, coworkers, or shareholders? They probably suffer long before the individual is even consciously aware of it. Oftentimes it's not even a problem until a crisis point. Then all hell breaks loose.

Which brings up a related question: is narcissism a "gateway" characteristic, a sign of more serious problems ahead? Does it inevitably lead to bad behavior? Does it make you a dysfunctional boss or a nemesis to coworkers? Does it lead to psychopathic behavior?

There are a number of different perspectives to shed light on all those questions.

  • Freud saw narcissism as an essential part of all of us from birth. That makes sense, since a baby's survival depends on getting mom and dad to take care of it. A baby is all me, me, me. But you're supposed to grow out of that, right? Some do. Others, not so much.
  • In Shame: The Underside of Narcissism, psychologist Andrew P. Morrison says that a reasonable amount of narcissism is healthy because it helps individuals balance their needs in relation to the needs of others. That also makes sense. I mean, have you ever worked with a doormat who just wants to please everyone else? Not a pretty sight -- or an effective career strategy.
  • The book Why Is It Always About You? lists coauthor Hotchkiss's Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism: Shamelessness, Magical Thinking, Arrogance, Envy, Entitlement, Exploitation, and Bad Boundaries. Sounds like most of the dysfunctional executives and workplaces I've known.
All that said, I'd summarize my findings on narcissism in the workplace as follows:
  1. Successful managers and executives probably demonstrate more narcissistic tendencies than others do, but in varying degrees. The early Steve Jobs and Oracle's Larry Ellison show it in spades. But Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, not so much.
  2. In excess, it can be tough on employees and peers, but operating results don't necessarily correlate. Should it be a red flag for boards and hiring managers? Probably, but certainly not a show-stopper. Moreover, toxic signs may not even be visible until it's too late.
  3. As for the individuals themselves, well, Thoreau said "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." That probably applies to all of us, narcissistic or not. To me, it comes down to self-awareness. If you're selfish and egotistical and you know it, you're probably in the clear.