Narcissist or Survivalist: Does Complexity in the Workplace Explain Bad Behaviour?

In recent times, how often have you heard someone refer to their boss as a ‘narcissist’? Has the thought crossed your mind that your own boss or team leader is a narcissist? Could this be because narcissists are more often promoted into leadership positions, or is it a term that is being bandied about to make it easier to cope with our bosses’ mood swings and questionable behaviours?

What is a narcissist?

It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between a narcissist and someone who has narcissistic traits. To be fair, we all have narcissistic traits to some degree. Someone with narcissistic traits may at times be mildly self-centred and self-involved. However, an individual who displays narcissistic tendencies to an excessively high degree, could have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which is a diagnosable mental illness.

NPD is defined by Mayo Clinic as: ‘A mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.’ If someone is diagnosed with this disorder, they will display the same toxic personality traits in all their daily interactions, not just in the workplace. If your boss is a narcissist, you can’t do anything about it – it’s a problem only a psychologist can deal with, and that’s not in your paygrade.

Mindless behaviours

The workplace is a potential cesspit of mindless reactions and behaviours that are initiated if not self-aware. If their workplace is stressful, exhausting, highly competitive and filled with uncertainty and anxiety, employees on all levels will find themselves operating in survival mode. According to neuroscientists, this is the brain’s most irrational place to operate from, because all systems are geared toward flight of fight. The prefrontal cortex, which is our rational mind, becomes disengaged and the primitive areas of the brain control our reactions. To conserve energy in survival mode, our brain will draw on stored perceptions, biases, prejudices, and judgements, and there is little place left for critical thinking.

Now if a leader feels under threat, it is common to resort to mindless behaviours such as arrogance, authoritarianism, disrespect, inconsistency, undermining, mistrust, and unpredictability. These are likely learned behaviours that worked in the past or subconsciously observed traits that seemed to work for others. These are the traits and behaviours that come across as narcissistic.

The relationship-intelligence-assessment tool from CoreStrengths identifies how an individual’s motives change when they are triggered by potential conflict. As you progress down the conflict sequence, your focus narrows from stage 1 – where there is a focus on the other person, the problem, and the self – to stage 3, where there is only a focus on the self. Stage 3 of conflict is ugly, and it is where people say and do things that they later regret. The tool suggests that there are 13 different ways in which people can move along the sequence. The reactions vary across the sequence in terms of one’s tendency to assert, accommodate or analyse.

All of these reactions to conflict are appropriate in stage 1, less so in stage 2, but completely irrational in stage 3. So, if you were to be asserting in stage 3, you would be shouting and forcing your perspective on others. If you were analysing, you would be withdrawing completely, and if you were accommodating, you would not care about whatever happens.

It’s clear that stage 3 – complete irrationality – should not have a place in the workplace. However, because of the many potential triggers at work, there are many individuals who are permanently in stage 2 or 3 of the conflict sequence, which propels them toward mindless behaviours that have an impact on others.

Conscious leadership

In my dissertation, I defined mindless management behaviours as ‘behaviours that stem from a lack of attention, awareness, and intent, which cause harm and affect the well-being of employees and ultimately the organisation’.

The workplace is becoming more and more complex, which creates many scenarios for us to revert to survival instincts. That said, many organisations are embracing the concept of conscious leadership. At the heart of conscious leadership, is taking responsibility for yourself and how you show up in the world and treat others. It requires a commitment to being honest, self-aware, transparent and to bringing your best self to the workplace. It requires you to be curious and attentive, to appreciate diversity, and a high level of authenticity.

We need to cultivate such leaders, ones who will lead by example and who create a safe space in the workplace for employees to learn how to be self-aware, transparent, and accountable for their results. When employees feel safe, trusted, and that their ideas are considered important, innovation and creativity abound.

A new label

Before attaching a label to your boss’s behaviour toward you, become aware of the environment you are operating in. Take note of his or her reactions and what pressure they are under. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Once you’ve done that, it will be time for a crucial, honest conversation about how you’re feeling and perceiving their behaviour towards you. Remember, you are 100% responsible for the circumstances you find yourself in, either by your action or inaction. Let’s move away from a focus on the bottom line and create company cultures where our capacity as human beings are optimised. The focus should be on honest communication, non-judgement, respect, responsibility, finding win-win solutions, and ongoing experimentation and learning. Together, we can create awesome workspaces if we observe these fundamentals. This in turn will take care of the bottom line, assist in managing complexity and uncertainty, and reduce anxiety and stress.