In 1982 I took an advanced psychology course based on the book “The Culture of Narcissism” by Christopher Lasch published 40 (!) years ago. Lasch was a prophet of our times. Our society has become a full-blown manifestation of the symptoms he criticized almost two generations ago. Our Palace of Versailles is the Temple of Self, and instead of the Hall of Mirrors, we display the Gallery of Selfdom on its walls. And yet, visitors to our temple barely take notice of these beautiful self-images. The visitors have their own temple with their own gallery, and when the temples close their doors to the public, the followers of Narcissus lock the doors to finally be at one with themselves in prayerful adoration.
Narcissism and the “Selfie Culture” are Poisonous to Both Society and the Workplace
In Psychology 1.01 we learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – with physiological needs (food, shelter etc.) at the bottom, love and belonging in the middle, and self-actualization at the very top. Maslow claims that to “be all that you can be”, that is to get to the top of the pyramid, you must have fulfilled the needs at the lower layers. Love and belonging are among those needs, self-love is not. Therefore, according to Maslow, if we do not learn how to love others – and to accept the love of others – we will fail to reach our full potential.
Why this walk in the park of philosophy and psychology? Narcissism is not just a deplorable nuisance, it is a destructive force in all facets of society, including the workplace. There is a distinct difference between enlightened selfishness and narcissism. I define enlightened selfishness as the pursuit of gains for self within a system of well-defined rules for fair play. The competitive spirit is well aware of others, the narcissist is a world unto himself. As such, he knows that he is the center of the universe and that he deserves all he desires. It is an old adage that leaders can achieve much better results by using the carrot rather than the stick. For normal human beings, praise is most often the result of increased effort. Not so for the narcissist. He DESERVES to be praised.
Don’t Blame Millennials; Narcissists Come in All Shapes and Sizes
Narcissism is a mental disorder that is hardly exclusive to the millennials. It attacks individuals of all ages, genders, and races. On the intellectual end, the narcissist knows that his ideas and opinions are superior to any and all around him. His ears are closed to valuable input from others. For individuals in positions of power, this attitude failure is often a predictable result with potentially massive damage to the organization they lead.
Here is an example of intellectual narcissism I witnessed some years ago. Harmless as it was, it was a tell-tale sign of much worse to come. One day, an executive used the word “forae” as the plural for “forum” in one of her staff meetings. After a pregnant pause she looked around and lectured her staff of underlings: “…. and that is the correct plural for ‘forum.’” As somebody who studied English by the book and not by osmosis, I had to go to Webster’s. This lecture was nothing but a display of arrogance (i.e. “look at me, I know Latin!”). Webster states that the most often used plural for forum is “forums”. If, as a leader, you expose yourself to your troops in that manner, you may lose them quickly. Later on, this executive, in the narcissistic belief of her greatness, took on several super aggressive, economically questionable projects which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in write-downs.
How to Avoid Hiring a Narcissist
So, as a leader, how do you manage a team primarily made up of modern narcissists? Good luck! The carrot will not work here because the narcissist expects it anyway. The stick may yield better results in the short term, but in the end, the result is less than optimal. Fear is one of the worst drivers for decision making. If you want to have an effective team, you need to remove the narcissists and avoid hiring narcissists.
How do you probe for narcissism during an interview? Ask the candidate for three examples during his career where he was treated unfairly by management. If the candidate does not have to think long, it is a warning sign. Next ask for details concerning the worst case the candidate mentioned. Ask if the candidate has an understanding of the reasons why management acted in the way they did. And finally ask how he would have handled this situation differently if he had been the manager. If you listen carefully to the answers, the narcissist will reveal himself.
Lastly, if you have taken more than 100 selfies or posted at least 50 of those on Facebook and Instagram, contemplate Maslow. You have only one life on this earth, and it is not complete if it starts and ends with yourself.