Over the next few posts, following feedback from several readers and clients, I will be focusing on toxic work environments. In particular, I’ll do a deep dive into toxic personalities, bullying and narcissistic cycles of abuse.

I’m passionate about this topic, having been subjected to workplace bullying myself in the past and coaching countless clients to overcome such situations since setting up my coaching practice 13 years ago. Unfortunately, I have seen first-hand the devastation it can cause and what it takes to overcome and finally move on.

It’s important to state that I am not a psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist. However, I have researched this topic in depth over the years. I am fascinated by what makes people behave in a way that deliberately harms another with seemingly little or no conscience, with the effects on their ‘victims’ often being profound and long-lasting

Sadly, there are people with varying levels of antisocial personality disorders all around us, ranging from borderline personality disorder to narcissists, sociopaths and ultimately psychopaths, with a myriad of layers within each. However, they all share similar traits, which I’ve listed below.

If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in the firing line from one of these people, it’s hard to make sense of what’s going on; you may even start to think it’s you (at least that’s what they want you to believe) and end up blaming yourself. In extreme cases, the effects can be severe and long-lasting, affecting a ‘victim’s’ mental health, resulting in stress, anxiety, low confidence and low self-esteem.

I regularly get asked, ‘What’s the difference between a narcissist and a psychopath?’ In all honesty, not that much. However, there is one main difference. Narcissists have low self-esteem and have developed negative traits to compensate. Psychopaths do not.

Traits of a Toxic Personality 

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is a diagnostic tool widely used to rate a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. Whilst I don’t recommend trying to diagnose someone yourself, it can be helpful to understand the traits of such people:

  1. Glib and superficial charm
  2. Grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  3. Need for stimulation
  4. Pathological lying
  5. Cunning and manipulativeness
  6. Lack of remorse or guilt
  7. Shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  8. Callousness and lack of empathy
  9. Parasitic lifestyle
  10. Poor behavioural controls
  11. Sexual promiscuity
  12. Early behaviour problems
  13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
  14. Impulsivity
  15. Irresponsibility
  16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  17. Many short-term marital relationships
  18. Juvenile delinquency
  19. Revocation of conditional release
  20. Criminal versatility

Narcissistic Red Flags

Following are some of the most common red flags you may witness from a narcissist in a work-based setting:

1. They have an inflated view of themselves and their abilities

Narcissists don’t have the same view of the world as most of us; they consider themselves elite and above everybody else, so the same ‘rules’ don’t apply to them. They seem to lack basic human kindness and empathy (lack of empathy is a real giveaway). They behave in a way that makes you think they know more and are of higher ‘status’ than you, even when they aren’t!

2. They put you and others down

Narcissists take great enjoyment in putting other people down, making them the butt of their jokes and undermining them at every opportunity. They will often employ passive-aggressive techniques. When you attempt to call out their behaviour, they will say things like, ‘I’m only joking’, ‘Don’t be so touchy’ or ‘You just don’t get my sense of humour’ – there’s a term for this, ‘gaslighting’. Despite what a narcissist would have you believe, they are typically self-conscious and have substantial self-esteem issues; they build themselves up by putting others down.

3. They will never be happy for you

A narcissist will never be happy for you and will likely only congratulate you if it makes them look bad in front of someone (they perceive to be higher status than them) if they don’t. They may even give you a back-handed compliment, i.e. they’ll say something nice followed by something mean or snide. Your success will hold a mirror up to them, making them feel jealous and inadequate.

4. They will take the credit for your achievements

As above, Narcissists will never give you praise and will have no issue accepting the credit for your achievements whenever they can get away with it. They are NOT team players; they are totally self-centred. They will even convince themselves that they deserve to have the recognition you should have got and will have no remorse or see anything wrong with their actions.

5. They will ‘Gaslight’ you

Gaslighting comes from the 1940s film of the same title, where a husband slowly tries to drive his new wife mad by playing psychological tricks on her. In a work scenario, gaslighting most commonly takes the form of ‘selective recall’ or flat out denial of facts. Narcissists want to avoid taking accountability for their actions at all costs and use gaslighting as an effective tool to deflect attention away from them and their inappropriate behaviour. Unfortunately, it will leave the victim feeling confused and unnerved and, over time, can have catastrophic effects on morale and self-esteem. In isolation, this type of behaviour may not seem like a big deal; however, it’s a huge red flag if it occurs repeatedly.

6. They lie without conscience

One of the main traits of narcissists is lying. They have absolutely no issues with it, which can be alarming for those around them. For many, as soon as the lie comes out of their mouth, it becomes their truth, and they will argue that black is white to maintain their stance. Again, it’s important to note that Narcissists will do whatever it takes to avoid accountability and have zero conscience.

7. They have zero empathy

Empathy is interesting because many narcissists can mimic it when doing so works in their favour. However, in reality, they have none. They don’t care what they do or whom they hurt; it’s of no consequence to them as long as their needs get met. Again, this can be alarming for their victims, who are often left confused about their abuser’s general lack of human emotions.

(N.B. – all of us can have elements of these behaviours in certain situations – that doesn’t make us narcissistic. However, where you see a number of these traits repeated regularly in a person, you should be wary. In addition, all genders can be narcissistic, although research suggests it is more prevalent in those whose birth gender was male).

Becoming the victim of someone with a personality disorder (whether at work or in personal relationships) can make you question everything about yourself and your place in the world. I’ve seen hugely successful people become a shadow of their former selves following narcissistic abuse.

In the next post, I’ll explain how narcissists choose their victims and the typical cycle that narcissistic abuse follows. Until then, I realise that this is a challenging topic that can hit hard for some people. If you have any comments, please leave them in the section below or email at jo@jobanks.net.

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