It only takes five minutes for narcissists to reveal themselves in the office.
As you may already know, the classic definition of a narcissist has fallen out of favor in recent years. Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen an evolving view of the condition where someone is not just overly self-preoccupied. It’s also more than excessive self-interest.
There’s a little more to it these days, especially in an age when we’re all staring at our phones and constantly checking our social media feeds.
The best way to tell is not when you see self-interest but a decided and angry opposition to anything related to your interests.
Fortunately, the actual condition of narcissism is not that hard to identify.
My view is that the office narcissist is the opposite of someone who shows empathy, and the way to tell in five minutes is not just when someone shows disinterest in your life or when someone checks their phone a lot. That’s called selfishness, and it’s becoming more and more common. Narcissism is more troubling in an office because it creates toxic behavior. Here’s an example of how this works.
In a typical conversation, you might discuss a project with someone and find that a coworker is a bit self-occupied, maybe even to a worrying extent. That’s not a great way to work because in the modern office a well-functioning team has to be more about empathy and watching out for the work of others. You have to break out of the cycle of personal success and each person has to be willing to share the credit.
However, there’s a totally different level of self-interest.
In the same five minute conversations, if a coworker gets irritated or mad, or even suddenly changes the subject, it’s possible you’re dealing with a narcissist. A better definition of the term is to evaluate whether a coworker becomes irritated. Selfishness is a thought process that says “it’s all about me” but narcissism takes that a step further and says “it’s all about me and it’s definitely not about you” to the degree that narcissism creates conflict.
It’s self-interest combined with a lack of empathy with an extra dose of irritation. Self-interest takes root below the surface and may never grow beyond that; narcissism is more like a virus that is not content with mere selfishness, and it will infect and impact everyone in the office. It tends to cause people to stew and ruminate on how they are not getting enough credit and also how someone else is getting credit.
If the condition was only about not getting credit, the damage would be less severe. In an office, watch for the signs of aggression about others receiving credit or recognition during even simple conversations. The reason this only takes five minutes is that it can’t be contained. Full-blown narcissism is not easy to control or simply turn off like a light switch.
It has to become part of the conversation and it’s never, ever subtle.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.