Culture   //   March 13, 2024

How narcissists negatively impact productivity in the workplace

Between 1% and 6% of people have narcissistic personality disorder in the U.S. 

It might not seem like much at all, but many more exhibit at least some degree of narcissistic traits, including doing anything they possibly can to get what they want. In the workplace, that might be a certain promotion or exaggerated levels of praise, all while cutting others down to make sure they get it.

WorkLife has written extensively about toxic workplaces, but experts we spoke with say that narcissism in the workplace is in a category of its own, and it’s a productivity killer. With hybrid work models requiring more people to return to the office, these unfavorable characteristics are likely to get a fresh wind.

“There’s no ‘oh just set boundaries and self care and don’t let them get to you’ because these people don’t care about boundaries and will crush you on the way up to try to get where they’re going,” said Nicholette Leanza, a psychologist at LifeStance Health. “Typical advice I have for a difficult coworker just doesn’t play out with narcissists.”

How to know if you’re working with a narcissist 

Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a constant need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. They usually have a sense of entitlement and believe they deserve the best treatment, so they see no problem with exploiting others.

“They’re hitting metrics because of their narcissism, because they’re willing to steal other people’s sales leads, because they’re willing to bend rules to make sure things get done by a certain date, because they’re willing to be abusive toward their own team to get a deadline met,” said Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist and author of “It’s Not You: Identifying and Healing from Narcissistic People.” “This isn’t exactly the stuff of dreams in the workplace.” 

“They’re hitting metrics because of their narcissism, because they’re willing to steal other people’s sales leads, because they’re willing to bend rules."
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist and author.

At work, a narcissistic colleague may take credit for other people’s work, talk down to people and do whatever it takes to gain success and power. They also might be more likely to make risky or unethical decisions, resist feedback or criticism, and prioritize their own interests over those of the organization or team they lead. 

“A tell-tale sign of narcissism is a person who has no sensitivity or awareness of others’ needs and who is completely self-absorbed,” said Dr. Tony Ferretti, a licensed psychologist. “They lack empathy and emotional intelligence and have difficulties regulating their emotions. Most narcissists overcompensate for their insecurities through arrogance, pride and inflated ego and sense of entitlement.”

Durvasula says these people also usually have an excessive need for admiration and validation, are calculated, have poor frustration tolerance and high feelings of rage.

A double-edged sword

Narcissists are drawn to positions of power. To some extent, self-centered traits such as ambition and risk-taking can be helpful in the workplace. Research has suggested narcissists are effective at rising to power. They’re usually attracted to well-paying jobs that they make it a point to excel at. 

It’s also hard to spot a narcissist during the interview process. 

“When you’re interviewing a narcissist, they have the mask on, they’re on their best behavior,” said Leanza. “You’re going to miss that they’re really a narcissist. Maybe they’re in a honeymoon phase for the first few months where they’re doing everything right, until the 90 days are done and you start seeing the cracks. Companies are missing it because these people are charismatic and will suck you in.”

Even worse, sometimes an employer doesn’t care about the downsides of a narcissist if it means they are getting the job done and improving the bottom line. In fact, the narcissist might get promoted before you do. In the worst-case scenario, it could lead to a narcissist ending up in charge of a whole company. 

“The more it gets concentrated in the upper echelons and the more unseeing people are of what these patterns are like in a workplace, this ends up being mission creep,” said Durvasula. “People won’t notice it or they’ll keep making excuses for high performers who are narcissistic. Those narcissistic people get more emboldened, they take bigger risks, and then one day we wake up and say ‘how can such a big company have gone down?’ You chose not to notice it. It can really rot an organization from the inside out.”

However, if an employer chooses to support the narcissistic individual, while everyone else in the company is feeling demoralized and exhausted by their behavior, it won’t end up serving them in the long run. In fact, those other employees might decide to “quiet quit” themselves. Narcissists lack compassion, struggle to communicate, and usually can’t maintain stable relationships. Being surrounded by this person, especially if they are your boss, might leave someone, or several people, to have no choice but to find a different workplace.

“When you’re interviewing a narcissist, they have the mask on, they’re on their best behavior.”
Nicholette Leanza, psychologist at LifeStance Health.

“Other people say I’m not going to try to excel because there’s no point,” said Durvasula. “There’s a futility people experience when they’re working in a narcissistic workplace where there’s a sense of why bother. You might be rewarding one person, and they may be continuing to do what they need to succeed, but you’re losing dozens, if not hundreds, of people who are sort of giving up en masse. Then you have attrition, and there is time and resource loss, so you may lose excellence, people who understand how the place works, expertise and engagement.”

And narcissists are not good team players either.

“They believe they’re smarter than everyone else and have unrealistic thoughts and expectations of others,” said Ferretti. “They also are more likely to blame others when things go wrong and avoid responsibility for their own issues. Narcissists also prefer to work on a team of one so delegating is very difficult for them.”

What to do about working with a narcissist?

In a lot of cases, the individual with narcissistic personality disorder probably won’t actually get fired. That’s in part because they don’t respond well to constructive criticism or negative feedback and would lose it if they were even put on a performance improvement plan. Ferretti suggests that people working with a narcissist be assertive and respond without reacting, ensuring that you are not enabling their behavior. Finding a way to make them think that your idea is their idea is also helpful.

And employers don’t usually want things to escalate. One reason for that is that narcissists are more likely to sue and account for a disproportionate amount of employment-related lawsuits. Research suggests that plaintiffs with this disorder may litigate longer and more persistently than others. Narcissists can’t fathom that they could be wrong and often become obsessed with seeking retribution and retaliation. 

“They tend to sue more because they want to get back at people and have revenge,” said Leanza. “More often than not, they’re going to try to sue for wrongful termination. They’re going to try to gaslight you that they didn’t do it, they’re the victim here. That’s the theme.”

Besides this, though, someone can’t be fired for being a narcissist. However, they can be fired for their behaviors. That’s why the experts we spoke with all said documentation is of utmost importance for anyone who is working with someone who might be a narcissist.  

And for working with this person on a daily basis, Leanza says similar tools that she’d suggest for toxic bosses or colleagues like implementing boundaries just don’t work here, unfortunately. Instead, she suggests trying to implement a “forcefield” as much as you can so that this person can’t impact your day-to-day work. Additionally, seek support systems and identify other people in your company who might also be impacted by working with this narcissist. Together, you can vent, have a reality check, un-gaslight yourselves, gather documentation together, and even consider finding new jobs if it becomes unbearable. Durvasula even recommends therapy for people who work, or worked, directly with a narcissist. 

“They’ll steal your idea and pitch it like it’s their own and if you go and confront them, they’re going to say, ‘what are you talking about?, I came up with that,’” said Leanza. “That can feel very personal. They don’t play by the same rules. Don’t take that personally. It’s not about you, this is them. This is what they do. Try to develop a bit of a forcefield and let it bounce off you as you’re trying to navigate the work environment.”