Monday, January 01, 2007

How does narcissism occur in the workplace?

What links patrimonial bureaucracy and totalitarian organizations? The answer is narcissism. Narcissism includes the narcissists and their enablers (or followers). Patrimonial bureaucracy occurs when employees become personally loyal to their superiors in such a way as to always feel the need to seek their approval before acting.

Corporate narcissism is spreading with epidemic proportions throughout the business world.

Narcissists foster this type of behaviour in their subordinates, and peers if possible, who become enablers. It works well for the narcissist's self-esteem, but not so well for the business. Narcissism in the workplace results in poor judgements that turn into costly decisions, ultimately resulting in negative long-term outcomes. As patrimonial bureaucracy spreads throughout the business, it becomes a totalitarian organization.

Corporate narcissism occurs when a narcissist becomes the leader (CEO) or a member of the senior management team and gathers an adequate mix of enablers around him (or her) to support his narcissistic behavior. This leads almost inevitably to a deterioration in the organization's performance. Narcissists profess company loyalty but are only really committed to their own agendas, thus organization decisions are founded on the narcissists' own interests rather than the interests of the organization as a whole, the various stakeholders, or the environment in which the organization operates.

Narcissism relates back to greek mythology; Narcissus was a handsome young boy who fell in love with his own reflection, then died of starvation by confusing that reflection with his true self. Thus narcissists are addicted to their own image, constantly manipulating others to validate that image, and endlessly searching for attainment of an idealized self, which of course, cannot be achieved. In other words, narcissists rely on manipulating work and social relationships to support a self that cannot internally sustain a sense of well being.

But the narcissist can't succeed without enablers. If the narcissistic personality trait is to be activated, then the narcissist needs to be exposed to trait-relevant situational cues. Enablers, who do whatever the narcissist needs, sometimes working beyond healthy (and sometimes ethical) limits, supply these cues. Narcissists and enablers are attracted to each other because narcissists crave power and enablers crave security.

A narcissist can be described in terms of a bipolar self that has two poles or dimensions. In early life, one pole involves an immature grandiosity or a confident self-superiority that can develop into adult forms of ambitiousness. The other pole is associated with tendencies to idealize or admire the superiorities of others, and those tendencies can mature into an internalized system of ideals. A narcissistic personality disorder represents an arrest in the development of healthy self-esteem.

Parental nurturance, or good parenting is therefore critical in the transformation of normal narcissistic traits into mature ambitions and ideals; and parental nurturance predicts healthy self-esteem. It isn't surprising, therefore, that when you look into the parental relationships of narcissists and enablers, you find problems. Typically the narcissist has a narcissistic parent (often the mother), and enablers have had difficulties in their relationships with a parent (often the father).

If you identify someone in your workplace who you think has narcissistic characteristics, look for their enablers, those do the narcissist's bidding and seek their approval before acting.

David Thomas PhD