Narcissism and narcissistic employees can be a big problem for enterprises as a whole, security and fraud teams in part, our careers, and in fact, even our lives in general. In a previous column that I wrote , I shared some tactics that narcissists often use and discussed how to protect your career if you become the target of a narcissist.
If you read that piece, or if you are familiar with narcissism, you know that while you can survive being the target of a narcissist, it is not a pleasant experience. Worse yet, it is difficult to find support and help when a narcissist has turned their ire on you. Most people simply aren’t aware of the signs of narcissism or don’t have experience with narcissists and thus don’t know how to differentiate between the public persona and the devil that operates in secret behind closed doors.
While, unfortunately, many signs of narcissism occur behind closed doors, there are some that can sometimes be observed in public. If we can raise awareness about these public-facing tells, we can help people understand the risk that narcissists present, along with how to identify them relatively quickly. We can use that knowledge to help us avoid narcissists in our personal and professional lives and to mitigate, minimize, and/or avoid collateral damage from narcissists if we cannot avoid engaging with them.
Since many of my readers are located in the US, let’s use some US statistics to help us understand the problem of narcissism better, as well as to discuss some tells that can help us raise awareness around narcissism and around how to see the signs.
Experts estimate that up to 5% of people have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Take, for example, a typical suburban street in the US with, say, 32 houses on it. According to the US census, there are, on average, 2.6 people per house in the US. That means that on a typical suburban street, there may be around 83 people. Statistically speaking, that means that around 4 of those people are likely to be narcissists. Yup, that’s right – if you live on a quiet and pretty street in suburban America, you probably have a few neighbors that are narcissists. Surprising and somewhat alarming, right?
Yet, despite narcissists being relatively common, so many people are unfamiliar with this personality disorder. Why is that? Well, for starters, narcissists are experts at deceiving their friends, family, neighbors, medical providers, mental health professionals, community leaders, co-workers, managers, and others. This generally means that narcissists can operate “undetected” for extended periods of time and most often do not get the mental health treatment that they need.
Unfortunately, this also means that the targets of narcissists and narcissistic rage often suffer in silence – no one believes them. Quite the contrary – victims of narcissists are often blamed and attacked if they attempt to shed light on what they are being subjected to. It is an extremely sad and difficult predicament.
That being said, there are some tells that are visible from the outside, however. Raising awareness is the first step to combating narcissism. Simply put, if more people learn how to see the signs of narcissism, more people will believe those who are being targeted by narcissists. People who are familiar with the personality disorder or who have learned how to see the signs are really the only ones who can help those who are suffering. Everyone else just doesn’t get it, and unfortunately, those people often end up being co-opted into unintentionally defending and enabling the narcissist.
While there are many tells of narcissism, here are a few that might be helpful:
Social media posts: It is fairly easy to tell who has narcissistic tendencies or perhaps NPD from their social media posts (or even other writings as well, such as emails) – they tend to make everything about themselves.
Lack of transparency: Perhaps we know someone who provides few details and holds onto information tightly – many narcissists believe that knowledge is power and that knowledge can and should be weaponized. For example, perhaps we have a co-worker or manager who is taking a business trip, yet provides little to no information on the exact travel dates, the itinerary, their whereabouts during the trip, and/or with whom they will be meeting.
Always the victim: Narcissists are always the victims in their stories. It is never the case that they bear any responsibility for the situations they find themselves in. It can’t be that their actions, decisions, poor treatment of, and/or abuse of another person caused that person to react negatively to them or to seek distance from them. Simply put, it is always someone else’s fault and someone else is always the villain.
Changing the story: Narcissists use lies, lies of omission, half-truths, and other tricks to paint the narrative that they need to in order to accomplish their goals. When information or evidence comes to light that counters their narrative, they either change and adjust their story, distract off-topic, and/or vilify the people attempting to expose the narcissistic behavior.
Deflection: When someone approaches or confronts a narcissist about something, the narcissist will often use a variety of evasive tactics to distract and avoid talking about the issue at hand. Narcissists do this with remarkable success – even bright, well-educated people are often oblivious to the game they have been dragged into and will follow the narcissist on a round and round journey off-topic. Narcissists will also sometimes attack the person confronting them, and that person may even become a target of the narcissist.
These are just a few of the signs of narcissism that an astute observer can pick up on. Many narcissists, particularly covert narcissists, are masters of presenting themselves to be good people externally, while ensuring there are no witnesses to the way they treat their targets behind closed doors. By raising awareness, everyone stands to benefit, except the narcissists of course. Learning how to spot the signs of narcissism and identify narcissists will help us ensure that we do not bring these people into our security and fraud teams, or our enterprises.