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Part I: Narcissistic Managers

Part I: Narcissistic Managers

Copernicus Was Wrong: I’m the Center of the Universe

A central personality trait of many toxic managers is destructive narcissism. It is the core problem in grandiose managers, control freaks, paranoid managers, sociopaths, ruthless managers, bullies, and the most problematic, rigid managers. Destructive narcissism releases managers from normal moral constraints and concerns for fairness, and allows them to treat others as objects rather than as human beings with rights. It enables people to manipulate, bully, scapegoat, and exploit others without concern for the impact of their actions on the victim.

Definition of Narcissism

The term narcissism comes from the Greek myth of a beautiful youth, Narcissus, who callously spurned the affection of others and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He stayed by the water in a futile attempt to possess the reflection, and pined away.

Key characteristics of destructive narcissism include

Origins of Destructive Narcissism

Psychodynamic thinking holds that early childhood experiences have a great impact on our adult personality. Early experiences leave deep imprints on our identity, beliefs about right and wrong, tendency to become angry, reactions to events, and ways of dealing with people. According to this school of thought, narcissism arises when parents are out of touch with their children’s wishes and feelings, and perhaps even express hostility to their children. This interferes with children’s ability to learn to care for themselves and others, and undermines their development of a conscience—a sense of right and wrong. It also leaves a reservoir of anger. Some experts believe that the lack of empathy or conscience of narcissistic individuals is biologically based rather than based in experience.

Those who develop grandiose personality traits had parents who glorified some trait they had while ignoring their true feelings and wishes. They use grandiose fantasies to reinforce the fragile self-esteem that arose from their parents being out of touch with who they really were and what they actually wanted.

Healthy Self-Esteem Versus Destructive Narcissism

High levels of self-esteem are not the basis of narcissistic personality problems. Although on the surface, destructive narcissism may appear to be simply extremely high levels of self-esteem, this is not the case. Although both healthy self-esteem and destructive narcissism provide outward self-confidence, they are very different phenomena. Secure self-esteem facilitates an individual’s ability to empathize with other people, care about others, and enjoy friendship and intimacy. It also supports commitment to values and ideals. The grandiosity of destructively narcissistic individuals, however, is not due to high levels of self-esteem. Rather, their grandiosity, arrogance, and devaluation of others is an attempt to seal over and protect their fragile self-esteem. Individuals with secure self-esteem have no reason to look down on and abuse others.

Stress intensifies the differences between those with healthy self-esteem and those with destructive narcissism (see Table I-1). Under stress, people with healthy self-esteem look to others for support and comfort. Valuing others, they can receive emotional support from others. When destructively narcissistic individuals are under stress, they reinforce their self-esteem by stepping on people more than usual.

Types of Narcissistic Managers

Narcissistic managers can present in a number of ways (Table I-2). All narcissistic managers are arrogant, devalue others, and have limited conscience and empathic capacity. Important differences arise depending upon whether they have special abilities that can support grandiose fantasies; and whether they enjoy breaking the rules or hurting people. Grandiose managers, in addition to having fragile self-esteem, have some trait or ability that supports a grandiose self-image. They primarily seek to be admired and to live out their grandiose fantasies. Those with psychodynamically based narcissism have fragile self-esteem that they cover over by devaluing others. They become enraged and destructive when their self-esteem is threatened. Those with learned narcissism may behave poorly toward others out of cluelessness, but are neither vicious nor uncaring. They have not learned appropriate, considerate behavior because their power has interfered with their receiving negative feedback for inconsiderate behavior. Control freaks protect underlying fragile self-esteem by being arrogant and devaluing others. Compared to grandiose managers, they are more concerned with wielding power over people than with being admired. They often fear chaos and seek to micromanage events, since no one else is adequately capable. Paranoid managers see all events in terms of themselves and are preoccupied with fears that people want to hurt them. Unethical opportunists primarily have weak consciences and are willing to break the rules if it serves their needs. Ruthless managers have little respect for others’ rights and feel entitled to exploit others if they need to. Antisocial individuals and bullies are aggressive narcissists. They have the important addition to their pathology that they not only have little conscience or capacity for empathy, but they intensely enjoy violating the rights of others and the rules of society even when there is no concrete objective that they seek by doing so. Antisocial individuals enjoy breaking rules; bullies enjoy intimidating people. These categories are not exclusive of each other. People often have the behavior problems of more than one of them.

Table I-2. Types of Narcissistic Managers
 Primary TraitsObjective
Grandiose: PsychodynamicOutward grandiose self-image; exploits others; devalues others; enraged if self-esteem threatened; limited conscience and capacity for empathy; desperately protects underlying fragile self-esteemBe admired
Grandiose: LearnedGrandiose self-image; exploits others out of carelessness; is inconsiderate in treatment of others due to not receiving negative feedback for behavior (see Chapter 2)Be admired
Control FreakMicromanages; seeks absolute control of everything; inflated self-image and devaluation of others’ abilities; fear of chaosControl others
ParanoidPreoccupied with perceived threats; unable to trust others; may strike-out in self defenseAvoid danger
Unethical OpportunistMoral inhibitions temporarily dissolve when a good offer presents itselfThings he needs
RuthlessCalmly goes after what she wants without concern for others’ rights; lacks both a conscience and capacity for empathyObtain desires
AntisocialTakes what he wants, lies to get ahead, hurts others if they are in his way; lacks both a conscience and capacity for empathyExcitement of violating rules and abusing others
BullySeeks to dominate and intimidate others; lacks conscience and capacity for empathyIntimidating and hurting others provides excitement and a sense of power

Factors Worsening Narcissism

Narcissistic managers tend to become particularly toxic when under stress or depressed. Stress, anxiety, and depression generally make it harder for people to pay attention to others’ needs and increase the need to reinforce one’s self-esteem. Healthy people seek support from others when stressed. Narcissistic individuals seek to step on others when stressed. Narcissistic managers are likely to become aggressive when depressed or stressed. Of great importance, some narcissistic managers become markedly less toxic when their problems with anxiety and depression are treated. In fact, some cease to be narcissistic.

Cultural factors also modulate the degree of toxic behavior a narcissistic manager engages in. In a culture that supports self-centered pursuit of objectives and mistreatment of others, a manager’s tendency toward narcissistic behavior will come out. Place him in a different culture, and he will be in better control.

Part I Overview

Two types of toxic managers are discussed in Part I. Grandiose managers are the stereotypic narcissistic managers. Control freaks lack their flamboyance but replace it with a heightened need to control others. Paranoid managers, like grandiose managers and control freaks, feel that the world revolves around them. They are in touch with their vulnerability, however, and deal with it by seeing themselves as under attack from outside rather than weak inside. Grandiose managers, control freaks, and paranoid managers all have underlying fragile self-esteem (except for those with learned narcissism, discussed in Chapter 2), cover it over with arrogance, and are prone to severe anger when threatened. When grandiose managers and control freaks run into problems and become depressed, they often slide into paranoia.

  • Chapter 2—Grandiose Managers: Legends in Their Own Minds

  • Chapter 3—Control Freaks: You Will Do Absolutely Everything My Way

  • Chapter 4—Paranoid Managers: They’re Out to Get Me

Additional Material

War of the Roses provides an example of narcissistic rage.



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