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Is your boss a narcissist?

I’m not talking about bosses who are sometimes rude, occasionally thoughtless, and visibly ambitious. I’m talking about those bosses who have crossed the line into something a lot worse. Who — if they were ever to come under psychiatric scrutiny — would be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. So, let’s start by describing what a true narcissist looks like.

WebMD describes the disorder this way:

Narcissism is extreme self-involvement to the degree that it makes a person ignore the needs of those around them. While everyone may show occasional narcissistic behavior, true narcissists frequently disregard others or their feelings. They also do not understand the effect that their behavior has on other people.

Traits to look for in full-blown narcissists include a sense of entitlement, manipulative behavior, arrogance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.

If that sounds bad in corporate settings, it usually is. Michael Maccoby, an expert on narcissistic business leaders, said: “There’s certainly a dark side to narcissism—narcissists, Freud told us, are emotionally isolated and highly distrustful. They’re usually poor listeners and lack empathy. Perceived threats can trigger rage. Achievements can feed feelings of grandiosity.”

What happens if there’s a narcissist in the compliance chain of command?

Their paranoia and rage drive people away. Narcissists generate constant turmoil and turnover. The first to leave are often the most capable workers who can find good jobs elsewhere. The departures can weaken departments and even damage whole companies.

Narcissists live in information vacuums. Any constructive suggestions can ignite them. So those around narcissists stop offering honest feedback. In compliance, course corrections depend on honest feedback. Without it, the outcome can be compliance disasters.

They create unbalanced organizations. I once heard a narcissistic leader say, “I only want crusaders working for me.” He meant he wanted true believers willing to do anything for the sake of the narcissist’s success. Such skewed recruitment will naturally lead to distorted and dangerously narrow organizational outlooks.

Narcissists shift blame and feel victimized. When bad things happen around them, narcissists blame others — often those closest to them — for being weak, stupid, or lazy. Or they blame some remote cause like “the corrupt culture”. They also take things personally, constantly finding reasons why they’re victims of what went wrong and not the cause. In a compliance context, they’ll use the “mistakes” of others or the remote cause to excuse and justify their illegal or unethical behavior. 

They believe the end justifies the means. Their extreme sense of entitlement, arrogance, and grandiosity mean narcissists take full credit for conceiving goals and achieving positive results. They also believe their personal mission and purpose are more important than any obstacles in their path, including compliance protocols.

A few concluding thoughts.

If you’re worried you might be a true narcissist, you aren’t one. True narcissists don’t accuse themselves of anything negative. They can’t see themselves at fault. So relax. It’s not you we’re talking about here.

How to deal with true narcissists? Leave their department if you can, or leave the company. But don’t stay in their warped orbit. You might end up in legal trouble and emotionally damaged by their abuse.

Finally, take heart. We live in a world of smartphones, constant Zoom meetings, and ubiquitous social media. That means it probably won’t be long before the narcissist in your work life stars in a cringe-worthy and (fingers crossed) career-ending video.

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