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Working Knowledge: How to Tell the Difference Between a Narcissist and Sociopath

Ever wonder if you are dealing with a narcissist or sociopath at work?

When it comes to dealing with difficult personalities in the workplace, people struggle because they don’t know the difference between a narcissist and a sociopath. Both personalities show up in all sorts of workplaces, and at all levels of employment. Sociopathic personalities are not as uncommon in the work world as you might assume – functional sociopaths can manage quite well in the everyday world. Because of this, it’s very useful to know the difference between the two, so that you can use responses and strategies that work best for each specific personality problem.

Knowing some basics of how to discern the difference between the personality types is the place to start.

Keep in mind that this article is short and therefore not an exhaustive description of either personality type. If you suspect you are working with either a narcissist or sociopath, you may want to do further research in order to have a deeper grasp of the dynamics. Narcissists and sociopaths are of both genders – this article uses the convention “he/him” for ease of reading only. Just a quick note about terms: sociopath and psychopath are one and the same thing according to the psychology profession, but our culture seems to view psychopaths as criminally-oriented.

Shared Elements and Differences:

There’s good reason that narcissists and sociopaths get confused in our minds, and that is because they share some elements – sociopaths are narcissistic but narcissists are not sociopaths. Though they share some motivations and behaviors, some elements of their personalities are very, very different. Clarity about the differences is probably the most useful way for a layperson to differentiate the two types. If you are interested in more information about how the personalities are similar, see this series of blog posts that compares and contrasts narcissists, borderlines, and sociopaths.

Basic similarities of narcissists and sociopaths:

• Both have charisma or charm that they use to get people engaged.

• Both tend toward grandiosity – big ideas, big stories, big visions.

• Both take credit when things go right and point fingers when things go wrong.

• Both are self-serving.

• Both lack empathy; narcissists are unable to see things from another’s point of view and sociopaths can see how they effect others but just don’t care.

• Both exhibit a sense of entitlement.

• Both have a total lack of personal insight into their emotional selves.

• Both can skillfully re-craft the past to suit own needs.

• Both can speak of emotions, but their experiences differ from that of people with empathy.

• Neither apologize when it would be appropriate to do so, although a sociopath might offer a fake apology in order to keep things moving along.

What’s different:

A narcissist will talk about himself, a sociopath will get you to talk about you.

A narcissist will introduce topics of interest or concern to himself, a sociopath will introduce topics of interest to you.

A narcissist wants to be perceived well, a sociopath wants to be perceived in whatever way will best suit his purpose.

Both ignore social rules, but a narcissist does it out of lack of awareness, while a sociopath does it to manipulate situations for his purpose.

A narcissist is somewhat hapless and unaware of his personality predicament his behavior and his effect on others; a sociopath is likely to be aware he is different from people who experience empathy and knowingly use this difference to get his way.

A sociopath is pre-occupied with winning, while a narcissist is preoccupied with being appreciated and admired.

A sociopath is a stimulation junky seeking ways to avoid boredom, while a narcissist may or may not be oriented to high stimulus activities.

A narcissist is unaware of the aggravating effect he has on others, while a sociopath is very aware of the effect on others.

A narcissist may demean you, be a bully, or mess with your career if he perceives you as a threat, while a sociopath will knowingly try to take you down or out altogether if you get in his way. A sociopath is likely to be cunning, patient and strategic in this process. He plays a long game while a narcissist plays a shorter term game.

A narcissist doesn’t mind working hard if it leads to approval, while a sociopath manipulates to do as little work as possible for the purpose of having money without expending effort.

A narcissist will have many relationships that end badly, while a sociopath is more likely to cut and run altogether once their manipulations are revealed or thwarted.

Both are chameleon-like and adapt their stories to please their particular listeners, however a sociopath may skirt closer to the edge of believability somehow managing to get you to doubt yourself rather than the fantastic story.

A narcissist is likely to adapt better to a work situation in established organizations with clear rules and social codes while a sociopath will prefer a start up or entrepreneurial environment where the rules and social codes are not clear.

A narcissist will get frustrated that his attempts to interact with empathetic people seem to go awry; he’ll feel like a victim because his efforts don’t work. A sociopath will not feel this sort of frustration, he processes what other people would consider to have emotional import as neutral information.

Both can make poor collaborators and team members. With a narcissist it’s due to poor social/emotional skills, self-orientation, and hapless attempts to get their own needs met, while with a sociopath it’s due to manipulation to get out of work, thwart others, win out, and get what they want.

Strategies for Success:

If you discern you are working with a narcissist or sociopath, there are strategies for maintaining professionalism and taking care of yourself. If you are dealing with a narcissist, your worst problems tend to revolve around being triggered (and therefore compromising your professionalism) due to being ignored, feeling disrespected, dismissed, demeaned, or bullied. A narcissist who perceives you as a threat in some way may attempt to throw you under the bus professionally, and you may need to handle some complicated situations. You can find additional useful strategies for working with a narcissist here.

If you are dealing with a sociopath, you may find things are more complicated and threatening than if you are dealing with a narcissist. If you are in a sociopath’s sight as either a highly useful or highly problematic person then you are likely to be the target of behavior that can range from manipulative to highly destructive. You will need to take care of yourself in a well thought out strategic fashion, with an eye on self-protection (of reputation, information, finances, and physical self). Whichever personality you encounter, remember that awareness of the personality type and implementing tactful, thoughtful strategies can make your situation better.

Future posts will explore more strategies for working with these personality types.

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