HR Administration

Extreme Narcissism at Work: A Conversation With Psychologist Joseph Burgo

By James Tehrani

Oct. 8, 2015

Dr. Joseph Burgo's latest book, 'The Narcissist You Know,' details eight different kinds of extreme narcissists, some of whom, like the bullying and vindictive narcissists, can make lives miserable for their colleagues. (Photo credit: Burgo photo by Kathy Stanford)

Before reading clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo’s latest book, “The Narcissist You Know,” my vision of an “extreme narcissist” was Vanity Smurf looking lovingly at himself in the mirror. You know, “Oh, Vanity, you’re Smurf-tastic.” That sort of harmless thing.

Was I wrong! Extreme narcissists, which come in many different varieties, Burgo says — from the less worrisome but more annoying know-it-all narcissist to the more concerning and scary bullying and vindictive narcissists — can be very dangerous, especially in the workplace. As Burgo writes, their motives are not always obvious, but when these people come after you, they can be relentless and even turn co-workers against you.

The common theme between all types of extreme narcissists — and Burgo says they could make up as much as 10 percent of the population — is these people experienced something especially traumatic in childhood, such as “a psychotic mother or vindictive parent or gross violence between the parents.” I recently had a chance to talk to Burgo about his book and how HR and employees can deal with these types of personalities in the workplace.

An edited transcript follows.

Whatever Works: Having read your book, I have to say I don’t think FDR had it right when he said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ I think it should be ‘fear itself and extreme narcissism.’ There are some crazy examples in your book.

Joseph Burgo: It’s a pretty scary phenomenon. It appears in different ways — many different ways people might not be expecting.

WW: Tell me a little about the ‘bullying narcissist.’ You give an example in the book about ‘Marie’ who was bullied by ‘Loraine.’

Burgo: I use the bullying narcissist as my introduction to my subject because it pretty much typifies the way that extreme narcissists work. An extreme narcissist, more than just thinking a little too well of himself or herself, builds himself up at the expense of other people. The example I use in the book is of a woman who was working in a residential facility and became identified as the target of a bullying narcissist mostly because the other person, the bullying narcissist, was jealous of her. She [the bully] mobilized a team of her co-workers to kind of drive this woman out of the job because she didn’t want the competition. Something that bullying narcissists do a lot in the workplace, they will identify someone as their competition, someone they feel threatened by. Sometimes it’s for no reason that the other person can identify. It may just be who they are that’s the problem. They will target them; they will do what they can to sabotage [the other person’s] work product.

WW: There was an interesting example in your book when you talk about the ‘vindictive narcissist.’ You give the example of ‘Tyler’ and ‘Phil.’ What interested me was that ‘Tyler’ actually went to HR to explain that something was going on with ‘Phil,’ but HR pushed back and said, ‘No one else is saying this.’ How can HR handle a situation like this better?

Burgo: It’s a real problem because, as in some other examples I give in the book, narcissists are often very good at disguising their behavior to people who matter. So they hide it from their superiors. They may confine it to just one person. It’s hard to identify. Human resources might not believe it. They might view it … as a personality conflict, something that needs to be worked out between the two people. So they don’t take it seriously. I think that people in human resources aren’t quite onto this type of extreme narcissism yet. They don’t realize what a major problem it is. The other issue is that because narcissists are so ambitious, driven to prove themselves, they’re often very successful employees. You often find them in management. When management is the bully, it’s a problem for the person down below who’s trying to get some redress for the way she is being treated.

WW: You talk in the book about trying to empathize with an extreme narcissist, whether it’s a bully or what have you, but that’s pretty difficult if you have a bully coming at you. How do you handle it?

Burgo: I think feeling empathy in that situation is pretty much a superhuman chore. I think being attacked, when you’re being bullied, it’s hard to feel anything other than anger and resentment and hatred for the way you’re being treated. When I say you need to empathize, it’s just so you understand what the bully is going through and know how to handle them best. If you understand that the bully is dealing on an unconscious level with a sense of shame, then you know that you’ve got to be very careful not to do anything that’s going to stir up shame. You also need to know that they will fight to the death often. They’re relentless competitors. If you go up against them, you want to defend yourself and fight back, you’re going to escalate the battle. You have to understand that about them and know what not to do.

WW: You talk about celebrities who you believe are extreme narcissists in your book, including Donald Trump. Why do you feel that he might fall into this category?

Burgo: With the celebrities I talk about in my book, I never say that I believe they are an extreme narcissist without doing a lot of background research. So I looked into his childhood first of all, and his father was kind of a brutal competitor, brought his kids up to be ‘killers.’ Donald’s older brother Fred really couldn’t handle the pressure and drank himself to death in his 40s. There’s a consistent background here with the people that I talk about. The thing that really strikes me about Trump is that he demonstrates the three qualities I associate with extreme narcissists when they feel that their self-esteem has been challenged. They become indignant first of all. They find a way to turn it around and blame the other person or blame somebody else, and then they will treat the person who is criticizing them with contempt. That pretty much defines Donald Trump’s personality. The great example is the interchange with Megyn Kelly at the first Republican debate.

WW: So it has a lot to do with this ‘loser’ mentality. Many extreme narcissists feel they have to create a loser, is that right?

Burgo: It is, and I think that’s the most useful way for most people to understand extreme narcissism and the way they [extreme narcissists] look at the world. They view the world almost exclusively in terms of ‘winners and losers.’ They build up themselves by turning somebody else into a loser. That was the example with the bully, and you see with Trump. Again, he’s always pronouncing that he’s a winner in one way or another and quite literally calling everybody else losers. If you look at extreme narcissism that way, it’s pretty simple, pretty easy to understand.

James Tehrani is the director of content strategy at FlexJobs.

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