Narcissistic Leaders

We’re often attracted to narcissist leaders who can be charming and persuasive, full of stories of triumph, the centre of attention, impressed by their confidence and arrogance. Yet many narcissist managers are often under-performers who use distraction, obfuscation and drama to keep up the façade of their importance and hide their deficits.

As a conflict skills consultant, I get more requests for help to deal with narcissistic managers than any other set of workplace problems. Too often there is a second or even third person in the leadership tier that enables this drama.

Just why do so many underperforming managers inevitably gain yet another promotion? The reasons are complex, but significantly organisations and the people who work in higher leadership positions often lack the insight and skills to manage these controlling people.

Narcissists have some defining characteristics:

• grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement
• fantasies of unlimited success and power
• lack of empathy, believing they are entitled to exploit relationships
• envy and competition regarding others’ status, possessions, or authority

Since narcissists love being in positions of authority and assume they are superior to others, they need someone in a position below them to act out. To do this they will disrupt teams and alienate peers so that their sense of self-importance increases. Narcissist managers feel their team of staff is largely an irrelevant irritation.

They often focus lavish attention on their upline management group, forming close ties and friendships, all the better to reinforce their elite status and secure their power and prestige.

Their sense of entitlement plays out in a pattern where they:

• need to be right and to blame and criticise others
• focus on a target of blame and seem to enjoy victories that humiliate
• manipulate alternatively with charm and anger, as required by the situation to meet their needs
• lack insight into their actions and have disinterest in the consequences
• are not really interested in resolving problems, or finding solutions, despite complaints and criticism

Urgent demands, unplanned crises, unavailability for meetings, or unread emails are all part of their arsenal of authority and distractions from their deficiencies. Tantrums and harsh responses to reasonable requests from staff are useful – they ensure that people are kept in their place.

Real work issues are turned back to the narcissists’ own problems: the pressures of their responsibilities, their workload, their interests. It’s not unusual for work and personal issues to merge in a tirade of escalating emotions.

The workplace stress experienced by their staff is enormous. Exhausted by lack of a constant and confusing pattern of behaviours, staff avoid confrontation and try to appease the situation.