Human Resources Leadership

How to spot narcissists in the workplace?

Although it’s not possible to define a complete list of narcissistic attributes, there are some common qualities which are widely noticed among narcissists. And just to be clear, working with narcissists doesn’t necessarily have only negative consequences. If you notice that someone has narcissistic features, that person can still be your great colleague, manager or friend. 

However, when you detect narcissistic behavior on your team, you should be vigilant. There are many studies which proved that narcissistic individuals in the workplace are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behavior. And that may negatively impact the whole company. Here are a couple of attributes that will let you spot narcissists in your workplace.

Aggression at work

According to a study [1], there is a positive relationship between narcissism and aggression. Penney and Spector observed that such people were more likely to use interpersonal aggression, sabotage the work of others, spread rumors and waste other people’s time and resources. 

And aggression doesn’t need to be connected to any kind of physical force. Quite often narcissists use indirect bullying tactics. That’s especially true for leaders or managers. They may withhold information that affects other people’s performance, ignore other teammates, make people work below their competence level or excessively monitor the work of others.

aggression at work

As you can imagine those kinds of unhealthy situations have negative impact on teams and even an entire organization. Such actions increase stress among employees and that ignites all sorts of unproductive behaviors. Stressed employees start to take extra sick leave, they work less effectively or leave work earlier and, in the end, they feel the need to look for another job. Counterproductive workplace costs companies a lot. You can read about the estimated cost of toxic employee here.

They boast during a job interview

Typically, narcissists perform well on their job interviews. They tend to receive higher scores from interviewers than their non-narcissistic colleagues [2]. This happens because of their narcissistic abilities. They know how to boast about their experience and skills. They are experts at creating a great first impression. And even though that impression may be short-lived and has nothing to do with long-term job performance, they still tend to win. Interviewers create their opinion primarily on the basis of first impressions during a few hour-long session.

boasting during a job interview

And it doesn’t matter how experienced an interviewer is. They all are affected by that cognitive bias. What’s worse, according to another study [3], more experienced interviewers are more likely to evaluate narcissists more favorably. That shows how complex spotting a narcissist is for us.

They rate their performance higher

Narcissistic individuals rate their own job performance higher. Typically, you can notice it when they talk about their skills and experience. They may describe themselves as heroes or at least the most competent people in their previous company. When there was any kind of a problem in a project, they were the only ones who could solve it. They simply saved the company from bankruptcy! 

But even though they rate their skills higher, it’s not related to actual job performance. I don’t mean their job performance is worse. I’m just saying that according to yet another study [4], there is no correlation between narcissistic behavior and job performance. Both narcissistic and non-narcissistic people can become top performers in companies. But during an interview a narcissist may win.

Things narcissists love

There are a few of things that you can spot around narcissists. You can divide those into both: inanimate and animate objects. They pay attention to many aspects of life which can demonstrate their status symbol. It can be a car, some kind of a gadget, jewelry or office view but also everything that’s related to social attention. Narcissists don’t enjoy working around people who don’t admire them.

They expect flattery and praise from their colleagues and subordinates. It lets them boost their egos and support their position of power in hierarchy. And that’s something that motivates them to work and further their career. I guess it’s the dopamine which is addictive to our brains. The more we get, the more we want. The compliments, of course.

Preference for hierarchical organizations

Their position in an organization plays a huge role for them. That’s why they prefer hierarchical companies which allow them to rise to the top and achieve high status. Forget about flat organizational structure. They prefer to work in companies that will allow them to climb the corporate ladder. There needs to be a visible line between a manager and a subordinate. 

That’s why when narcissists become CEOs or hold other senior management positions, they feel blessed. Finally, they have a lot of codependent people ready to support their opinions and decisions. In the end, not so many people will try to confront a CEO of a huge company. Especially if they play a less important role.


Understanding narcissistic behaviors in the workplace can help you solve conflicts between your teammates, but it can also help you protect the whole organization from severe disruptions. There is even a hypothesis [5] that the collapse of Wall Street and the financial system in 2009 could have been caused by narcissistic managers. Those who were driven by their own personal interests. They preferred to take short-term risky actions instead of long-term but safe solutions. The short-lived plans brought them instant gratification and let them shine in contrast with the safe options. Anyway, here’s an interesting book on the subject that you should read.

Keep in mind that you need to distinguish productive narcissists from unproductive narcissists. Those who are productive can help you at work thanks to their charisma and the ability to draw people towards vision. And those who are unproductive will just damage the company’s environment and culture

In my next article you will find more information on how to work with narcissists and not to let them ruin our positive attitude.


[1] Penney, L. M., & Spector, P. E. (2002). Narcissism and counterproductive work behavior: Do bigger egos mean bigger problems? International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 10(1-2), 126–134. 10.1111/1468-2389.00199.

[2] Grijalva, Emily & Harms, Peter. (2014). Narcissism: An Integrative Synthesis and Dominance Complementarity Model. Academy of Management Perspectives. 28. 108-127. 10.5465/amp.2012.0048.

[3] Brunell, Amy & Gentry, William & Campbell, W. Keith & Hoffman, Brian & Kuhnert, Karl & Demarree, Kenneth. (2008). Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader. Personality & social psychology bulletin. 34. 1663-76. 10.1177/0146167208324101.

[4] Campbell, W. Keith & Hoffman, Brian & Campbell, Stacy & Marchisio, Gaia. (2011). Narcissism in Organizational Contexts. Human Resource Management Review. 21. 268–284. 10.1016/j.hrmr.2010.10.007.

[5] Slosar, J. R. (2009). The culture of excess: How America lost self-control and why we need to redefine success. Praeger/ABC-CLIO.