I recently published an article...entitled “Working With a Narcissist? Tips to Identify the Signs.” It generated a lot of good discussion, and raised many topics and questions that I hope to address. One thread of concern voiced by quite a few could be summed up, "We definitely should not approve the use of these terms generally by lay people who, in case we need to be reminded, do typically gossip and misuse such terms.” The basic gist of the combined comments argued that labels are dangerous because people use them irresponsibly, a clinical diagnosis can only be made accurately by suitably trained and qualified clinicians, the term should not be used by lay people, and we should not be talking about this at work or on LinkedIn.
These are valid and important concerns. Given that there were over 400 comments made, and that many people shared the article, the topic must have struck a chord. Narcissism is a workplace problem that needs to be discussed. Coming to grips with how to talk about it is the first step toward ensuring that people get the information, skills, and options they need.
Labels are interesting things. Without labels we would not be able to communicate. Labels (aka. words) are used to help people develop a common understanding, they are an important tool of successful communication. Without labels, it is hard to identify things. On the other hand, labels can be applied to condemn, to over-generalize, and to harm. The label narcissist, in our culture, has become a term of vilification. Accordingly, it is seen as inappropriate to use it in the workplace.
As a result, people try to address the problems of narcissism at work by calling it all sorts of other names - asshole, bully, abrasive, dictator, micro-manager, self-aggrandizing, egotist, selfish, toxic, aggressive personality. A person can be an asshole, bully or micro-manager and not be a narcissist, or any one of these terms and not be a narcissist. But these are words that have been used in the last decade as code words to skirt around “narcissist.”
There’s a problem in using code words in place of the actual words. Not everyone knows what they really mean. Inappropriate labeling keeps people ill equipped to handle the problem they face. If you were sick, would you like to know if you had a cold or a sinus infection? Probably so, because you would address each sickness with a different remedy. If our culture used 10 different words to label a cold, would you be confused about what you were sick with? Absolutely.
Narcissist has become the-word-that-cannot-be-said-at-work, and this is causing problems.
People do not understand narcissism partially because they cannot talk about it. People talk about it in vilifying and condemning ways because they do not understand it. This is a circular problem and the circle must be broken. It is possible for even lay people to develop a decent understanding of narcissism, to develop skills for handling work relationships with narcissists, and to feel less confusion and pain as a result. If the responses to my article are any indication, most people think that the only solution is to get a different job while in truth more options might exist.
It is true that narcissism is a personality disorder and that it can be only be officially diagnosed by trained clinicians. Let’s think about that cold you had earlier. If you are not a doctor, can you recognize the symptoms of a cold? Probably so. Just as a lay person can learn the basic patterns of a cold, a lay person can learn the basic patterns of the common personality disorders. Anyone who works with people would benefit from learning the basics. It may seem complicated (and in some ways it is) but it is possible to understand what you need to know to maintain professionalism. A lay person can not “diagnose” narcissism. But a lay person can learn to recognize the basic patterns, and then learn some appropriate ways to take care of oneself and maintain professionalism. It could be that a lay person may mis-identify the behaviors experienced at work, but if they experience troubling behaviors and that leads to one to take care in productive, skillful ways then isn’t that better than our current state of affairs where suffering or getting a new job seems like the only option?
If a person does not recognize that narcissism is a factor in a problematic work situation, they may not bring the proper skills to the table to handle themselves. Once aware that narcissism is a factor, a person can equip him or herself. They can research the disorder, they can develop the specific skills and personal insights that are useful with this particular personality, and they can more appropriately decide about their long-term future in their job, and make wise choices about how to handle a transition if that is their preference.
An alarming element that was discernible from the comments of readers is that people at work encounter sociopaths and don’t know it – most seem to they think they are dealing with a narcissist. Both sociopathy and narcissism are personality disorders with some overlap and similarities, but it is possible for even a lay person to get a handle on the basic differences, and respond appropriately. Just as you would apply a different solution to a cold vs. sinus infection, it helps to know the difference between a narcissist and sociopath because you probably want to handle yourself differently with the different personalities. If you are precluded from understanding that you’re dealing with either one because it is impolite to label them, and only a professional can diagnose them, then your job could be at risk.
It is true that people gossip. Even professionals gossip despite its lack of professionalism. Gossip is conversation with mal-intent; it tends to be destructive and not productive. On the other hand, it is also true that people converse to learn, to process, to help each other. Not all “talking about other people” is gossip. To eliminate the option for people to talk productively and supportively because “narcissist” is a label with negative connotations is like saying we can’t talk about workplace smoking because it has negative connotations. Our popular culture has decided to vilify narcissists, and that is a problem for everyone who works. Gossiping about a person you are concerned might be a narcissist is not recommended - it is unprofessional, unproductive and shows that you are not oriented toward problem solving. Talking with co-workers to discern more about the nature of a problem you confront can be handled in a professional manner. It is short sighted to assume that every conversation about a person in the workplace is gossip, and to label all such conversations unacceptable. Sharing personal experiences on the public forums of LinkedIn should be done with thoughtfulness, tact, and an eye on the ramifications of public disclosures.
There are a variety of reasons that narcissists are vilified - they do behave in ways many of us find difficult. One contributing factor to the universal condemnation is a lack of understanding. If people could understand the underlying dynamics of narcissism, they’d be more able to handle it and less upset when confronted with it. It’s unlikely that narcissists would become loved but it is likely that the term could lose some of it’s charge. Currently most people feel powerless and upset when they have to work with a narcissist, but given a deeper understanding, some skills, and more options that sense of powerlessness could dissipate. Along with it, the need to vilify narcissists could decline. Voldemort did lose some of his power once his name was spoken.
While there is no cure for a common cold, there are things you can do to ease the symptoms and effects of that cold. Similarly, once we allow the “word” to be spoken (at least to ourselves), there are skills you can learn and use to maintain professionalism and effectively manage your career if you happen to find yourself working with a narcissist.