It has been awhile since I have had some time to sit down to write an article and during this time I have had the chance to reflect on the different types of toxic leaders or employees within an organization. Many of our readers have asked, “What types of toxic leaders or employees are there?”
It would be so easy to say that one size fits all, but, there are many different types of toxic leaders and employees. Toxic behaviors are distinct and multi-faceted. So, I thought I would write a series of articles that focus on the different types of toxicity that we face in our work places. The first one that will be focused on deals with the narcissist. I have chosen this as my first topic since it is a difficult one to tackle.
What is a narcissist? Drawing from the story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, who perished because of extreme vanity (Lubit, 2002), researchers and scholars such as King (2007) have defined narcissism as a “personal form of admiration” or “pre-verse self-love” (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006). However, Kets de Vries (2001) provided a profound definition of a narcissist, explaining that narcissistic individuals are “troubled by their being, by a sense of deprivation, anger and emptiness.”
When looking at the narcissistic leaders or employees that one has experienced in their careers one could understand and relate to the definition from King. In my experiences, narcissists were the ones that thought they were above reproach, better than others and usually showed this to others in demonstration of material objects, competition, or flaunting. Rosenthal and Pittinsky (2006) stated that in order for narcissists to cope with their insecurities, they may become fixated on power, status and superiority.
Two Types of Narcissistic Leaders
Lubit (2002) shared that there are two types of narcissistic people. The first type is referred to as the constructive narcissist, who will use their power and status for positive influence and impact. In the work place they influence by empowering, creativity, enabling, and providing a positive vision (Humphreys, Zhao, Ingram, Gladstone & Basham, 2010). Some view this type of behavior to be positive and enlightening to others. These traits can be viewed as being extremely creative, generating strong ideas, and having a strong impact and positive impact on the organization.
Rosenthal and Pettinsky (2006) stated:
- The contrast between the harmful impact that narcissistic leaders can have on their constituents and institutions and the fact that narcissism is a key trait of some of the world’s most creative and generative leaders seems to suggest that the concepts need to be studied and refined. (p. 628)
Kets de Vries and Miller (1985) supported this statement by explaining that narcissism may in fact be a fundamental element of leadership effectiveness. Thinking back to the strong leaders and followers that I have known in my career, each of them had elements of narcissist behaviors. Their success was rooted in staying focused on positive, influencing, and being proactive. These behaviors were tempered and supported but, they never let these behaviors go to the extreme.
The Reactive Narcissist
The second type of narcissist is reactive. Reactive narcissists are extremely independent, highly distrustful, self-involved, and eventually cause destruction (Maccoby, 2003). Lubit (2004) expanded upon this statement by explaining that the narcissist is preoccupied with their own importance. They have little value, empathy, or conscience toward others. Often they will overestimate their abilities and have an exaggerated sense of self.
- Loves to take the spotlight and will take credit even when the credit belongs to others (Kets de Vries, 2001).
- Tends to be exploitative, habitually taking advantage of others, and disregarding others in order to achieve their own ends or means (Kets De Vries & Miller, 1985).
- When something goes wrong, they will blame others and will not take ownership for their behaviors. It will never be their fault, it will be the fault of others and in some cases the narcissist will take on the role of the victim.
- When taking on the role of the victim, they will then seek people who will stroke their self-esteem and look for others to rebuild them back up.
- Gravitates towards others with the same type of behaviors and traits.
Reactive narcissists appear strong in the eyes of others; however, they are quite fragile. They seek praise to build their self-esteem, are self-protected, and will turn to blind rage in the face of any perceived threats (Kets de Vries, 1999; Maccoby, 2003). Narcissists increase their self-worth by surrounding themselves with people who support their ideas or thoughts. Individuals who challenge the narcissist will either leave an organization or will try to work through the problem, often in silence. Lubit (2004) shared that of all the toxic traits demonstrated, the narcissistic personality is often the most difficult to change.
Over the course of my career I reflect back on this type of individual. We all know this individual and have dealt with them. Many times we think it is their ego that gets in their way. Many years ago, an individual started out as being a constructive narcissist. This person was a breath of fresh air and was viewed as highly creative, providing insights that were different from any other insights brought into the organization.
The problem became toxic when the individual did not receive the praise that they thought that they deserved. They then turned reactive and became extremely hostile, alienating members of the team and outside team members. It became an environment of toxicity. Everyone was at fault on the team for holding this person back and resulted in the employee lashing out. Members on the team described the experience as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde response.
People didn’t know how to react to the individual and didn’t know what to expect from day to day. Because of this behavior the team alienated the employee from the team and avoided working with this person in order to protect themselves from the disruptive behavior. In turn, the employee looked for others from outside the department to build their esteem and resulted in causing cross-team disruption.
Others did not see what the team was experiencing. As Lubit (2004) defined, the narcissistic personality and behaviors is the most difficult behavior to address. Eventually, the employee left the organization. However, it took years to fix the problem that was caused by this employee. In fact, the team was never the same.
Now It’s Your Turn
How has a narcissistic leader or employee impacted you and your organization? Please comment in the box below so we can learn from your experience.
1. Humphreys, J., Zhao, D., Ingram, K., Gladstone, J., & Basham, L. (2010). Situational narcissism and charismatic leadership: A conceptual framework. Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management, 11(2), 118-136.
2. Kets de Vries, M. & Miller, D. (1985). Narcissism and leadership: An object relations perspective. Human Relations, 38, 583-601
3. Kets de Vries, M. (1999). What’s playing at the organizational theater? Collusive relationships in management 52(6), 745-774.
4. Kets de Vries, M. (2001). Creating authentizotic organizations: Well functioning individuals in vibrant companies. Human Relations, 54(1), 101-112.
5. King, G. (2007). Narcissism and effective crisis management: A review of potential problems and pitfalls. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 15(4), 183-193.
6. Lubit, R. (2002). The long-term organizational impact of destructively narcissistic managers. Academy of Management Executive, 16(1), 127-138.
7. Lubit, R. (2004). The tyranny of toxic managers: Applying emotional intelligence to deal with difficult personalities. Ivey Business Journal Online, 4(2) 1-9
8. Maccoby, M. (2003). The productive narcissist: The promise and peril of visionary leadership. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
9. Rosenthal, S., & Pittinsky, T. (2006). Narcissistic leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 617-633.
Well done, Annette –
A good follow up article for those that may have no choice but to remain working for a narcissistic leader may be – How best to deal with the reactive narcissistic leader -
Great piece Annette!
I have worked with someone that seems to fit some of the descriptions of a narcissist. He is extremely confident, and walks around with a large smile on his face. Behind the scenes, however, he is spying on people, gathering information on them in order to paint an unflatterng picture about them. I don’t know if he goes so far as to fabricate things about others, but he presents his information in a way that is critcal and damaging, trying to “sell” his conclusions of what is going on so that what may not normally arouse any interest is painted in a very negative way. In short, he seems to be trying to elevate himself by putting down those around him, even his bosses.
He places much value in technical skills, and looks with disdain on the’soft’ managerial skills, which is probably why he is where he is.
It is interesting to reflect on my past and put this applicable label to a prior manager.
Debbie, I can relate to a couple of prior managers!!!
I have been working with a covetous narcissistic sociopath for the past four years and it is indeed draining the life out of me. I am reading “self help” books about how to deal with toxic colleagues, attend “crucial conversation” classes, all the while this coworker spews her venom. I believe even our supervisor is “afraid” of her… Yes, I am looking for other job opportunities…