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Culture Change

Prima Donnas

Chris Harrison

January 29, 2024

We all know a Prima Donna. Not in the true sense of the word, as few of us number among our friends the leading female singer in an opera company. But the term has come to mean a temperamental person with an inflated sense of their own worth. It is often connected with another term -Narcissism - which is a psychological descriptor for a selfish person who craves admiration but lacks empathy with others.

Though narcissistic personality disorder affects less than 1% of the population, just one narcissist in the workplace can damage the entire office culture. Learning to understand narcissists can help you manage your team better and coexist with narcissist leaders or employees who have a knack for pushing your buttons!

There are four recognisable types of narcissism:

Grandiose narcissists. Often extroverted, aggressive and single-minded in pursuit of attention. Boast about their own achievements while downplaying the contribution of others. They tend to be master manipulators and come across as very charming.

Vulnerable narcissists. Have many of the same traits, but their introverted nature leads them to avoid attention. They can be self-absorbed, manipulative and aggressive. Even the slightest criticism plays into their hypersensitivity, triggering their hostility. Vulnerable narcissists tend to blame others for their problems.

Social narcissists. Need to be liked. Their desire to be seen as the best friend and the most supportive colleague leads them to be very outgoing. But their belief that they’re the most helpful person in the room can translate into an extraordinary sense of entitlement.

Malignant narcissists. Are extreme in their aggression. They don’t mind destroying other people’s careers. They feed on it.

I’m hoping you haven't seen any of these behaviours in yourself. But, if you have, you can take comfort in the fact that narcissists can do good in the workplace. People who believe they’re a gift to mankind are often more driven to create life-changing products or make radical changes to systems. The extroverted, charming nature of grandiose narcissists also puts them in a prime position to enlist support for innovation.

Sadly, the less helpful forms of narcissism are more common in the workplace. They take credit for the work of others. They’re the poor losers. They break rules with little or no remorse because they think they’re above reproach. This might mean taking extra-long lunches or it could lead to corruption. They like to leave the drudgery to others, avoiding their responsibility for routine tasks. Putting their name on other people’s ideas stifles collaborative innovation.

Next week, we’ll explore some ways to handle narcissists.