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The quiet threat of 'covert' narcissists in the workplace
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Narcissists aren’t all overt and grandiose. There’s a stealthier, friendlier kind who are harder to spot – but just as dangerous.
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The braggy colleague, the boss who hogs credit for the team's work, the connection who constantly shows off work achievements on social media – we all know a narcissist when we see one.

Or do we? Not all narcissists are egoists clamouring for the spotlight, it turns out. There's also a stealthier, friendlier version: the covert narcissist.

These individuals have the same basic drive as more overt narcissists, craving attention and recognition. But covert narcissists go about securing this attention in a quieter, more unassuming way: a covert narcissist may appear friendly, even as they ruthlessly sabotage others for their own self-interest. This kind of person can be dangerous in the workplace, as colleagues may have a harder time sniffing out their damaging behaviours.

Luckily, experts say there are hallmark traits to look for, so you can recognise a covert narcissist and understand how best to interact with them – if you must.

‘Good guys’ who pose a threat

When we think of traditional narcissists, we may envisage someone who thinks they're the centre of the universe, to the annoyance and detriment of others around them.

In the workplace, narcissists can be poisonous: they manipulate colleagues to get their way, make reckless choices that don't consider others' viewpoints and can be solely focused on elevating themselves over their teammates. Their disregard for others is one of the reasons they can climb the corporate ladder so quickly.

But narcissists of the covert variety – also called 'vulnerable' narcissists – are a little different. They have that same core need to feed their own ego at all costs, but they can be more sensitive in their methods. While overt narcissists may care less about rocking the boat to demand the attention they crave, covert narcissists are "not comfortable presenting in that larger-than-life way", says Julie L Hall, author of The Narcissist in Your Life, who's written about covert narcissism in particular.

They "tend to want to be seen as 'the good guy': basically, easy-going, fun, likable, generous, they may be helpful – that kind of thing", says Hall. But the downside is that they are calculating; their behaviour is characterised by an "ongoing passive-aggressiveness". Think backhanded compliments, veiled barbs, insults disguised as humour, subtle digs or gossiping behind people's backs.

Covert narcissists may affect us in a more invisible way because we are not as prepared to deal with them - Chanki Moon

They may quietly and strategically fish for acknowledgement or compliments. Perhaps they conspicuously give someone a gift in front of others, checking others are witnessing this act of generosity. They might "triangulate" conversations – steering them by bringing in an additional person to pit people against each other or stoke conflict. At work, they might cosy up to you and a colleague, only to badmouth each of you to the other, pitting you against each other so that the covert narcissist can look like the model employee in comparison.

Driving this behaviour is an internalised sense of shame, says Hall, so they overcompensate by trying to make themselves seem superior. Indeed, covert narcissists, unlike grandiose, overt ones, often have low self-esteem and insecurities, as opposed to having an inflated sense of self.

At the moment, there is still a lot we don't know about covert narcissists in the workplace; most research to date has focused on the grandiose, overt narcissistic personality, says Chanki Moon, lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. That's what motivated Moon, along with Catarina Morais, researcher in education and psychology at Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Portugal, to look at how covert narcissism affects workplace incivility.

In a study published in March, they found covert narcissists were more likely to claim they’d experienced workplace incivility themselves, despite their own behaviour (the digs and back-biting) likely being uncivil to others. Moon and Morais found that, due to low self-esteem, along with a worse understanding of workplace norms like fairness and respect, workers who measured high in covertly narcissistic traits were more likely to say they experienced rudeness, disrespect or discourtesy from others at work.

Playing the victim in this way is "super common – almost a given" for covert narcissists, says Hall. "They typically have a victim narrative, which allows them to pivot out of any situation, out of any responsibility. It's always someone else's fault, someone has been unfair to them."

Covert narcissists are subtler than overt ones, relying on their ability to cosy up to you, only to try to exploit or manipulate you in the end (Credit: Getty Images)

Covert narcissists are subtler than overt ones, relying on their ability to cosy up to you, only to try to exploit or manipulate you in the end (Credit: Getty Images)

Hall says while overt narcissists are more obvious and aggressive, bullying others or hogging the spotlight, covert narcissists can be sweet and ingratiating, manipulating their victims over long periods before they realise what's going on.

"Covert narcissists may affect us in a more invisible way because we are not as prepared to deal with them," says Moon, adding that more research is needed to investigate this more deeply. "You may be able to guard against the actions of an overt narcissist because their narcissistic behaviours are more visible…. Covert narcissism is less easily identified and harder to spot."

‘Fundamentally dangerous’

What’s the best way to deal with a covert narcissist?

If you're trying to figure out if someone is a covert narcissist, consider this: how do they react when something good happens to you? Maybe it's a promotion, getting praise from a boss or even just telling them you're having a good day. "Are they happy for you? Are they really happy for you? That's a really good way to detect narcissism," says Hall.

If you get the sense that it's fake or they're tucking something about the situation away in their mental filing cabinet, stop talking to them. Establishing boundaries is critical with any kind of narcissist, and since covert ones tend to do a better job at keeping up a likable or inoffensive appearance, it's better to err on the side of caution.

If you have one in your workplace, it’s important not to disclose anything that could be used to undermine you: narcissists defend themselves by subtly attacking others. “Don't share personal information, because they're always mining information about others so they can get a leg up on them, so they can find other people's vulnerabilities and exploit those things,” says Hall.

As for the convert narcissists themselves, Moon and Morais suggest that emotional intelligence training can help them build self-esteem, the lack of which causes their toxic behaviours. Moon says their study shows that "boosting self-esteem is key" to potentially helping covert narcissists experience less incivility at work and possibly change their harmful habits; studies have shown emotional intelligence and self-esteem have a correlational relationship, so if one improves, the other may, as well.

But while you wait for that to happen, keep your guard up.

"They're always hiding and armouring themselves – you can have empathy for it and pity for it, because it's its own form of tragedy in a human being. But at the same time, doing that is not safe," says Hall. "They are antagonistic, and fundamentally dangerous."