Office Politics and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

We all encounter “difficult” people in the workplace, and Karen was no exception. But there are subtle, yet significant, differences in the way Karen behaves towards other employees that places her outside of being just a difficult person to deal with. Karen is a full-blown narcissist.

Karen works in a male-dominated field and so it was comparatively easy to attribute her behaviour to the fact that she’d had to fight hard to get to the position she was in. However, her relationships with co-workers, both on her level and below her, was one of constant manipulation and back-stabbing. On the one hand, Karen has the gift of charm – a common narcissistic trait – and has a frequent habit of speaking to people in a conspiratorial manner. This gives the impression that she is telling her “victim” something important and perhaps confidential, and also the impression that they have a close working relationship. This is one of the methods she has employed to “lure” staff who were further down the pecking order to disperse information out to other employees without having to do it herself, thus keeping herself “clean”. If ever any employee suggested that any information came from Karen, she would use her superior position to deny any allegations and, being highly persuasive and in a superior position, she was always believed.

The company for whom she works has a high turnover, due in no small part to Karen. On one occasion, she was given as part of her supervisory role a confidential report written by an employee. The employee waited some time for feedback on this report from her superior, only to find that Karen had published the report in a work-related journal under her own name. The employee concerned was naturally furious and took steps to reclaim her original research as it had been plagiarised by Karen. However, Karen used the argument that the report was “owned” by the company and successfully quashed the complaint whilst taking all the credit for the work herself. While this sort of behaviour is not a criterion of narcissism per se, her next act placed her within the spectrum of possible NPD development. Karen demoted the employee who dared to challenge her, and five years on, that employee has not been able to reclaim her former position, even though she has now gained higher qualifications. As long as Karen remains in the company, this employee will not progress in her career as would be expected. Instead Karen makes sure that she is punished by stopping every application for advancement because this employee dared to challenge Karen’s perceived supreme power.

On other occasions, Karen has had phone conversations with staff members on a one-to-one basis, only to switch mid-conversation to conference-call, without telling the other party. Therefore the person concerned has no way of knowing that confidential work information is actually being dispersed to other unknown employees without the caller’s knowledge. Karen has also used this technique to lure unsuspecting employees into making personal statements about the work performance of persons of interest to Karen – usually people who threaten her – and then using that information to bring down her perceived enemies.

Karen ultimately answers to the government and she plays the same game with government officials. Despite more qualified workers making recommendations to the government, Karen heads these suggestions off at the pass, and either uses them as her own recommendations thus gaining further status, or blocks them before presentation to the government for her own personal reasons. The latter is always to further her own career.

Karen also tells people there are retrenchments in the pipeline, but discusses it in such a general way that the employees concerned have no idea they are about to be retrenched. In fact, she uses her “charm” to convince them that it doesn’t involve them because of the conspiratorial way in which she delivers the information. This gives the unsuspecting employee the idea that she couldn’t be talking about them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On one occasion, Karen made a decision to retrench a person who worked in an area outside of her own expertise, something which usually did not concern Karen but her narcissism had increased to such a level that she felt she could make decisions for other senior staff members, as well as her own. This was one example where Karen’s narcissistic personality disorder became apparent to others. It was not noted by others as NPD per se, since most people are not aware of this disorder. However, her behaviour was such that it registered as outside the norm and her reputation as the office bully was reinforced. The problem is, she is far more dangerous than any garden variety office bully – she has an undiagnosed mental disorder.

Unfortunately for Karen, her decision to retrench a worker, without fully understanding the negative consequences to the company, backfired. The worker was reinstated immediately by another senior staff member. Relationships were already strained between these two, but the reinstatement fired up Karen’s narcissistic fury and she was described by fellow workers as “incandescent with rage”.

But there was nothing she could do about the decision. Instead, she subtly took steps to undermine the retrenched worker. It wasn’t that she personally disliked the worker. The worker meant nothing to her. It was that, like a small child, Karen couldn’t deal with the shame she felt about being undermined and that shame needed to be converted to rage in order to maintain an ego state where she felt in control. This meant that in order to “win” she proceeded to make several attempts to get the worker retrenched again, all of which failed. This magnified her rage: She blocked off supply sources to the worker from other staff members who created materials essential to the worker’s job; lied that specialised printers were out of order and therefore important diagrams could not be produced; and constantly pestered the worker to send and re-send data just to assert her authority.

The worker, who was receiving counselling on how to deal with the situation, experienced stress and frustration. Many other employees had left the company because of Karen, but this one did not wish to be hounded out of his job by this woman.

The solution was firstly to spend time with the therapist in understanding exactly what motivates a narcissist.

Secondly, it is pointless to argue, intimidate or threaten a narcissist who is your employer. This will only have the effect of presenting yourself as an even better target. When the situation is quite toxic, it is best to discuss an exit plan with your therapist, as without an exit plan the stress can become unbearable.

Having a plan doesn’t mean you are definitely going to leave your place of employment, but it does give you choices. Feeling trapped in a job where a narcissist is running the show is a toxic place to be. Personal interaction skills need to be learned so as to not intimidate the narcissist, but also not to be doormatted by them either. This is a fine line that is best learned through therapy and then applied to the current situation. Skills learned in therapy can also be applied to other people in your life with narcissistic traits that you may come across either socially or in other workplaces.

Learning how to deal with a narcissist is a life skill. Sometimes, particularly in close personal relationships, it is best to extract yourself from the situation because narcissists only know how to use and abuse others. They cannot empathise or genuinely care, no matter how sugar coated their words may be at times. Sometimes, the person who seems to be the nicest in the office when you start can turn out to be the most harmful. Narcissists look for prey, they feed on and destroy those they perceive as weaker and they fear (i.e. get angry with) those who genuinely can hold their own against a narcissist.

The important thing to remember is that narcissists are very unhappy people, especially those who derive sadistic pleasure from crushing innocent workers to get at another worker who has defied them. They may look powerful, but they have so little internal substance that they are compelled to be ruthless to attain a goal that in the end brings them no lasting happiness, because they must keep on doing it endlessly to maintain any sense of power and control in their lives.

Despite their apparent aura of success, they are on a hamster wheel of there own.

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