How to Spot a Narcissist at Work

Narcissists are real. 

The term “narcissist” has lost meaning in recent years due to overuse and an inaccurate understanding of the true definition of a “narcissist.” We overly weaponized the term, rendering it ineffective when describing narcissistic behavior. Now it’s no more than a synonym for “jerk” or “ass hole,” eliciting eye rolls.

Unfortunately, this dangerous tendency to throw around the label of “narcissist” without fully understanding the definition creates an atmosphere where genuine narcissism persists because the assertions of accusers are immediately dismissed. 

But, narcissism is real. Narcissists are real, and the toxic effect of a narcissist will wreak havoc on any organization like a malignant tumor long after the cancer has been cut out. 

So, how do you spot a narcissist at work?

First, let’s talk about what a narcissist is NOT (necessarily), so we stop throwing around the word when it’s not applicable. 

 

What is NOT (necessarily) a narcissist?

A narcissist is NOT just someone with a big ego. 

We’ve all met arrogant coworkers who talk about themselves and brag about their most recent accomplishments. While many narcissists can be self-congratulatory, their desire to share wins could stem from many different sources or intrinsic needs. Perhaps that’s how they connected with their siblings growing up, or maybe they value healthy competition. 

A narcissist is NOT just someone who is vain.

Although vanity can be an unattractive personality trait, just because someone spends a lot of money on botox or nice clothes doesn’t mean they’re a narcissist. Instead, it might mean they just like looking good, value aesthetics, or feel insecure about themselves.

A narcissist is NOT just someone who likes attention.

Do you know that person who likes to be the loudest voice in the room? The person who loves the spotlight? They might love performing. Or they don’t feel seen and appreciated, so they draw attention to themselves. 

A narcissist is NOT just someone who is directive.

I know it’s hard to work with someone who is always telling you what to do and acting like they know more than you, but this behavior does not make them a narcissist. On the contrary, this person might feel more confident and socially safer when in control, so they tend to be bossier.

 

So, how DO you spot a narcissist?

A narcissist lacks empathy.

They cannot put themselves in your shoes. In their eyes, you are replaceable. To a narcissist, your worth is equivalent to how well you serve their needs. You are a robot. Attempts to relate to you are inauthentic and only designed to keep you in the desired role.

A narcissist lacks transparency.

Transparency? What’s transparency? Narcissists avoid being seen at all costs, so they can constantly keep you guessing. You might hold THEM accountable if you know what’s happening, and they can’t risk that. They must always be either the victim or the most fantastic person in the room. There is no in-between. 

A narcissist scapegoats.

You’re always the problem. Even if the narcissist did something completely egregious that caused you to react, your reaction is still the problem. They can shout at you, but you made them do it. And if you shout back, they’re quick to point out how inappropriate your behavior is. There is no winning. You’re always walking on eggshells. No matter what you do, you’ll always be in the wrong. 

A narcissist gaslights.

You try to share your feelings with the narcissist, but suddenly you’re like a kid in the principal’s office. Not only will the narcissist dismiss your experiences, but they’ll tell you that you shouldn’t be experiencing them in the first place because you “should be grateful” for your opportunities and “don’t know how good you have it.” 

 

The best indicator is how YOU feel

Unless you’re dealing with actual Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which a mental health professional can only diagnose, narcissism exists to some degree within everyone. You can think of it as a spectrum of narcissism. We all have narcissistic tendencies that can come from a myriad of coping skills, but some people have more traits of narcissism than others. Practicing empathy and self-compassion is a great buffer to keep your own narcissistic traits in check so you don’t damage your personal or professional relationships.

Likewise, we all have different levels of tolerance for dealing with varying degrees of narcissistic behavior from others. So when you’re trying to identify whether or not your boss or coworker is a narcissist, it’s best to focus on how YOU feel when you interact with that person so you know if they’re too toxic for YOU. 

We get it. It’s challenging to determine what to do next once you identify someone’s narcissism as intolerable. So, check out our next blog, How to Deal with a Narcissist at Work, to learn practical tools to handle the narcissist in your life, and to take our quiz to find out if the narcissist is just too much for you.

 

Written by Sarah Hodges

Updated 6/27/2022

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