In a clinical setting, a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is fairly easy to pick out. They are excessively preoccupied with their own adequacy, constantly involved in struggles for power and prestige, and vain to the extreme of their namesake from Greek mythology. They project overblown self-confidence and self-esteem when in fact they are fragile in both regards. They promote their own self-worth and superiority by attacking that in others. They lack modesty about themselves and empathy for others. Short of being clinically diagnosed with this disorder, one can still find narcissists "in the wild." In fact, they are particularly astute at wiggling their way into your organization. And here's how they do it:
Step 1 - Impression Management. Narcissists have an almost magical ability to present themselves favorably to strangers. Their skills have been honed for years in an obsessed struggle for power and esteem. They know exactly what you want to hear, feel and see in a candidate. They will show you extraversion, social boldness, solid decision making abilities and a proactive stance to addressing problems. They focus you on their track record of innovation, creativity and accomplishments, and they skillfully mask their shortcomings. So directed are they that the skilled interviewer may get a "too good to be true" feel about the interview with the narcissist. Their self-descriptions may sound like you are reading from a textbook and their stories of work experiences may resonate like tales of epic heroism. Yet, without some measures of personality, correctly diagnosing a narcissist in an interview is close to impossible.
Step 2 - Exploiting Power Differentials. And now it gets worse. You make the decision to hire them and then the dark underbelly of this personality flaw enters into the relationship. Narcissists will attempt to exploit, manipulate and deceive those that are around them. They make those who do not worship them feel bad about themselves. At times, it may seem like the narcissist would rather work on destroying relationships than on getting any work done in your organization.
Here are a few ways to spot a narcissist in the wilds of your organization:
If you criticize narcissists, they will likely act as if their feelings are hurt and they're humiliated, or they'll become extremely angry and lash out (never in between).
If you ask about developmental opportunities when talking to a narcissist, you will likely find them unable to come up with anything tangible or believable. They might say something like, "I just give too much to the organization and sacrifice my home life to do so."
If you team up with narcissists, you will find they exaggerate their own importance and talents while denigrating yours; they will systematically try to take advantage of your good will.
If you ignore narcissists, they will become jealous and demand your immediate attention and positive regard.
If you focus on others around a narcissist, you will find them redirecting you to their self-obsession and unrealistic goals while displaying a tangible disregard for the feelings of others.
Learning how to spot one once they are in your organization does not really help with how to keep them out. As a career derailer for professionals, the narcissistic executive is a particularly nasty problem. Perhaps the only reliable and scientific means of identifying and avoiding the selection of a narcissist into the ranks of your Executive Team is to conduct a thorough multi-measure Executive Assessment.
Use an Executive Assessment to explore the narcissist's lack of openness to feedback, limited emotional intelligence, and poor team orientation. In addition, research has also found narcissists to have a high need for recognition, excessive exhibitionism, social dominance and boldness or arrogance in social settings. Add to that an exploration of those areas that are lacking in the narcissist by looking for unrealistic thinking, immodesty and a disinterest in being liked by others.
If you find these patterns in a candidate you're considering for your leadership team then watch out! You might be blinded by the beauty of these fragile souls.