Most of us show up at work with a benevolent worldview, believing that accomplishments are an outgrowth of hard work and expecting our colleagues to comply with the universal moral codes of kindness, cooperation, integrity, and truth-telling. To place a label on someone’s back, may feel like an act of degradation.
Though at times, labeling offers us a helpful roadmap for interacting with individuals who consistently exhibit characteristics that call for a new toolbox. The bully narcissists in the office, or at your family gatherings, are one such group.
Though bullies come in a variety of forms, the narcissist offers unique challenges. Workplace bullying is defined as the persistent and deliberate attempt to degrade an employee through manipulation, gossip, sabotage, exclusion, and ostracisation with the ultimate goal to push the target out. Narcissism falls within the DSM-5’s Cluster B disorders, alongside borderline, antisocial, and histrionic personality disorders, all marked by unpredictable and volatile emotionality.
The NPI, or Narcissistic Personality Inventory, is the most prevalent tool for assessing subclinical narcissism, consisting of a series of 40 questions originally designed by Raskin and Hall in 1979. Though the bully narcissist you encounter in the office is unlikely to have a clinical diagnosis, it is wise to be wary.
Narcissists, according to Kacel, Ennis, and Pereira’s, rarely seek counseling, and when they do are difficult to treat. Therefore, recognizing the warning signs is essential if potential victims are to avoid stepping into thought holes, a concept described in Dana Morningstar’s book Out of the Fog.
Thought holes are cognitive distortions that may lead targets to act against their best self-interest and safety. Bully narcissists are experts at twisting people’s reality, circumventing blame, and engaging in manipulative discourse. These behaviors require co-workers to use a new bag of tricks to survive.
According to Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, narcissists tend to possess a grandiose sense of self, feel entitled to special treatment, and are prone to emotional outbursts. To feed their intense insecurities, narcissists require constant outside validation of their self-worth, while at the same time failing to empathize with the perspective and pain of others.
For this reason, narcissists often struggle to maintain long-term relationships; though their grandstanding may afford them early popularity, over time, their entitlement, demands, and propensity to rage wear others out. Narcissists struggle to see their own faults and often engage in child-like temper tantrums when disappointed or called out for poor behavior.
Alarmingly, Twenge, Konrath, Foster, Campbell, and Bushman’s cross-temporal meta-analysis show evidence that narcissism is on the rise, making it all the more vital to recognize the bully narcissist’s tactics of projecting, gaslighting, raging, and launching smear campaigns. Such maneuvers make it almost impossible for colleagues to rely on typical prosocial interaction strategies such as reciprocal listening, cooperation, and trust.
Below is a cheat sheet for what to look out for followed by suggestions for countering potentially harmful advice given by well-meaning family, friends, and colleagues.
The Bully Narcissist’s Top Tools For Engagement
Projecting is the act of placing one’s struggles and characteristics onto another in an effort to overt ownership and analysis. For example, an aggressive bully narcissist may accuse his target of being combative when the target politely requests the bully to speak respectfully and refrain from insults.
Gaslighting is an attempt to make a target question his view of reality and dismiss his gut feelings. For example, a bully narcissist may deny yesterday’s tirade laced with profanity and concluding with her ripping up the final proposal before stomping out of the room. When later questioned about her behavior, she will insist it was simple civil discourse, leaving the target to question his sense of reality.
When targets begin to feel the need to record conversations with a particular colleague, there is a good chance their subconscious is detecting gaslighting.
Bully narcissists have a propensity for childlike temper-tantrums, spewing obscenities, and tossing out accusations when they are disappointed, irritated, or called out for bad behavior. All individuals have moments of intense frustrations, but when raging becomes a common occurrence, it is wise to step away.