Most workplaces have at least one person whose self-belief far outweighs their abilities. But while they make terrible colleagues, these traits do have surprising upsides.

This story is from How to spot a narcissist, an episode of Business Daily presented by Vishala Sri-Pathma. To listen to more episodes of Business Daily from the BBC World Service, please click here. Adapted by Sarah Keating.

Almost every office has one. The person whose self-belief exceeds their abilities, who belittles their colleagues, and considers themselves so special and unique they are infuriated when others fail to recognise their talents.

We’re talking about the office narcissist.

The term stems from Greek mythology when a hunter named Narcissus fell in love with himself when he saw his own image reflected in a pool of water. Sadly, self-obsessed narcissists are no myth in the modern workplace. Identifying their behaviour early can save you a lot of stress.

Earlier in her career Karlyn Borysenko, author of Zen Your Work, found herself working for a narcissist.

“I absolutely loved her, I thought she was charismatic, I thought she was smart, I was really excited to go and work for her,” says Borysenko. “It took about three months on the job of seeing her day-to-day to realise that something was very wrong with the situation. And to come to grips with the fact that I was working for a narcissist.”

Borysenko says she found that it became a huge part of her job to flatter her boss, to make her feel good and to promote her in the organisation. “If you didn’t do those things there was a massive retribution.”

It’s more about how they are perceiving the world than it is about what you’re doing – Karlyn Borysenko

When it happens consistently over time, it can make you feel like you’re going crazy, she says. “What does this person see that I don’t see? What do they understand that I don’t understand? And you have to come to grips with the fact that it’s more about how they are perceiving the world than it is about what you’re doing.”

Borysenko wasn’t the only person in the office that felt the wrath of their boss’s narcissism. But instead of uniting in recognition of a shared situation, her workmates began to turn against each other because of the stress of feeling powerless to change the dynamic. “It became a competition to see who was going to be in her good graces,” she says.

“It all comes down to their ability to literally invent their own reality around them, regardless of objective fact or evidence or data. Everything has to go in support of maintaining their self-image.”

 Countless studies have shown narcissists can do very well in their careers – and can even sometimes be good for business

The bad news is that although narcissists are clearly unpleasant to work with, countless studies have shown they can do very well in their careers – and can even sometimes be good for business. The lack of empathy, the tunnel vision to achieve, the lies and manipulation are all prevalent qualities of people drawn to positions of power.

Dr Tim Judge is an organisational and leadership psychologist at Ohio State University. His research analyses the effects narcissists have on business.

Judge says that narcissists often have certain characteristics that make them more suited to leadership. “We know narcissists tend to be more charismatic, he says, “they are more likely to take charge of situations which sometimes is needed… and they are more willing and able to take risks when that’s required and there are situations for organisations in crisis where those qualities are desired.”

And so, to the age-old question of nature versus nurture – is narcissism something you are born with or can it develop over time?

Parental practices, income level and things that happen in the workplace also contribute to narcissism

Judge says it’s both. While there are some studies which point to innate characteristics of narcissism, there are others that show parental practices, income level and things that happen in the workplace also contribute to narcissism.

“Individuals born into high socio-economic status or high income households tend to have higher scores,” he says, “also a parental style that tends to encourage a child’s self-esteem to an excessive degree” can lead to narcissism.

Is this all sounding very familiar? Well, not surprisingly, many prominent people potentially fall under this personality type.

“I think it’s often a common characteristic of political leaders when they are in crises and change-oriented leadership,” says Judge, “it’s not hard to think of a lot of the charismatic US presidents as narcissistic,” he says, mentioning John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as potential examples.

So, what about the perception that narcissists tend to do quite well in their careers, despite not necessarily performing particularly well? Dr Judge says it comes down to the fact that they are ‘squarely agentic focused’ which means they are wholly focused on their own needs rather than the needs of others. “In terms of extra career success,” he says, “we know this agentic focus tends to be helpful, so earnings, occupational prestige and – it’s a bit strong to say this but it’s true – that’s mostly what narcissists care about.”

So, could a little bit of narcissism be a helpful boost for your career? If you need to convince investors or customers to give you money, self-belief is crucial. But at what point does that confidence tip into delusion?

It’s a risky business, says Don Moore, a professor in leadership at the Haas Business School in California.

“There are lots of circumstances in life in which it pays to be well-calibrated and faking it – or fooling yourself about how good you are – can lead to a number of predictable and unfortunate errors,” he says.

When you misattribute good fortune to ability, you’re going to think that you’re better than you actually are

Interestingly, in business, there are often circumstances when over-confident people appear to rise to the top. “When we take their claims of confidence at face value, we are the poorer for it,” warns Moore, “we will wind up adulating, promoting and voting for over-confident jerks who cannot actually deliver on what they say they can do.”

“To get promoted to a job of leadership you have to be good and you have to be lucky,” Moore says, “there will always be the temptation to misattribute one’s good fortune to one’s ability and when you do that, you’re going to think that you’re better than you actually are.”

But despite this, there is still some merit to the motto “fake it till you make it.”

“Don’t fall victim to the imposter syndrome,” says Moore, referring to a mindset in which you believe you are inadequate and not up to a particular job or task. “Imposter syndrome is a real issue,” he says, “and underconfidence happens in predictable circumstances… on hard tasks where we’re more aware of our own shortcomings, so taking a little bit of courage and overcoming that imposter syndrome, believing in yourself enough to gain mastery of the task is pretty good advice.”

Indeed, we could actually learn a valuable lesson in self-belief from narcissists.  

Karlyn Borysenko points to the ability of narcissists to create the reality they want as sometimes being the catalyst to getting them to where they want to go.

“That’s is because they are acting as though that reality is true and oftentimes that’s what propels them to their level of success,” she says.  

“We see this with Donald Trump in the United States. Absolutely he believed he could be president and so he became president. And that would not have happened if he didn’t believe it.”


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