Do you work with a narcissist or a sociopath?

  • Spotting traits of personality disorders in colleagues and managers can help you make better choices and stay mentally healthy
  • Narcissists usually believe to be superior to others but have a fragile ego, are selfish and lack empathy
  • Sociopaths are usually emotionally unstable, manipulative and lack remorse
  • Test the reality of what others say about you, work on your self-esteem, set your boundaries and seek peer or professional support if you are struggling with a colleague who is difficult to work with
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It is a tough world out there. In workplaces where competition, tight deadlines and high expectations are common-place, the end often justifies the means. In difficult situations, we rely on the existence of a common moral compass, believing that we can solve issues through communication, compromise and team work. However, what if you are working with a person who lacks the very basic social skills and empathy that make collaboration possible? How can you spot such people early enough and what can you do to prevent feeling de-valued and anxious around them?

As is usual when it comes to mental health, a good plan starts with a greater awareness. Here I outline common traits of narcissism and sociopathy, two personality disorders that are rooted in childhood trauma [1, 2] and that can make adults difficult to work with. I then offer some strategies that can help you co-exist with people who exhibit these traits.

Traits of a narcissist

Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by lack of empathy and by a belief in being superior to others [1]. It is often very difficult to please and work with a narcissist, as ultimately, nobody is good enough for them.

Narcissism is understood as a spectrum, with some people exhibiting more narcissistic traits than others [3]. Some common behaviour traits to look out for are:
  • Grandiosity [2]: Exaggerates own achievements and minimizes achievements of others. Firmly believes that he / she is superior to others. Blames others for his / her mistakes.
  • Selfishness [1]: Does not consider needs of others. Is unable to take care of others when it is inconvenient.
  • Lack of empathy [3]: Does not consider feelings of others and may even suggest that their feelings are not real or not justified. May say hurtful things readily, either to punish others or to protect himself / herself.
  • Self-preoccupation [1]: Is unable to understand situations in a context that does not significantly include himself / herself. May become paranoid or self-loathing, for example, suspecting that you drank the last coffee in the pot to hurt him / her.
  • Extremely fragile ego [2, 4]: Does not respond well to being criticized, even when it is done skillfully and with good intention in mind. Is overly defensive and can even become aggressive when his / her ego and sense of superiority is under threat.
  • Over-controlling tendencies [1]: Micromanages everyone and does not take opinions and expertise of others into account. Is very difficult to collaborate with.
  • Love-bombing [4]: Uses excessive flattery, gifts and self-disclosure of positive feelings in order to gain control over others.

Personality disorders at work

Traits of a sociopath

Sociopathy, or Antisocial Personality Disorder, has some common traits with narcissism but is a separate disorder [5]. Sociopaths, in addition to lacking empathy, also lack a moral sense [1, 6] and tend to be exploitative [4]. While narcissists may project blame on others in order to avoid an internal sense of shame, sociopaths do not feel shame as they have a weakened conscience.

Some common behaviour traits to look out for are:
  • Chronic lying [1, 5]: Distorts reality or makes up facts to fit their own (selfish) agenda and to manipulate others.
  • Emotional instability [6]: Is unpredictable and prone to outbursts in situations that others handle with a conversation. Can appear very affectionate and suddenly switch to being aggressive, usually when another person says or does something that the sociopath doesn't like.
  • Tendency towards vengeance [5]: Seeks to emotionally, mentally or physically harm those who disappointed or disagreed with him / her.
  • Ignorance of social norms and laws [5]: Disregards commonly-established rules when they do not fit his / her agenda.

What should I do?

What if you discovered that someone who you work with has some or all of these traits? Your first instinct may be to leave your job because of how difficult it is to work with this person. However, changing your job can be difficult and draining, while it doesn't solve the problem of potentially encountering a narcissist or a sociopath in your new workplace.

Remember that knowledge is your power. Now that you are more aware of the fact that your colleague's behaviour is antisocial, you can plan and make informed decisions. Some things that you can try to do are:
  • Reality-test. Critically evaluate the messages that you are getting from the person about yourself. What would you tell a good friend if they were in a similar situation? Is your colleague or manager being fair and accurate in their understanding of the situation and of you?
  • Work on building up your self-esteem. Keep reminding yourself that it's possible your colleague or manager has a personality disorder, and that his or her behaviour therefore does not necessarily reflect the reality of your own performance. It certainly does not reflect your worth as a human being.
  • Practice self-soothing. It can be extremely emotionally draining to work with someone who has these personality disorder traits. Unless you are ready to leave your job, you will need to recharge your energy and find a sense of calm. Experiment with activities that make you feel good and help you stay in touch with your emotions, such as taking long baths, having a walk in the nature, meeting friends, or anything else.
  • Strengthen your boundaries. Be prepared to say No if a situation does not feel right to you. Value yourself for who you are. For example, love-bombing is often used by narcissists to make the other person feel very good about themselves. However, this good feeling is contingent on the narcissist's constant approval, which makes it a trap solely designed to exhort control over you and ultimately make you do things that you are not comfortable with, like staying late at work every day to cope with unrealistic deadlines.
  • Talk to your colleagues for support. If it is appropriate, discuss with others how the behaviour of this person affects you. It may be that it affects them negatively as well. Validate each other's emotions and be there for each other when times get tough.
  • Consider your own past. If a significant figure in your past, such as your parent, also exhibited personality disorder traits, chances are that you are particularly vulnerable. If this is the case, consider reading self-help books about being an adult child of a parent with a personality disorder. You can also do some mental health therapy work to become more resilient and more self-validating.
  • Protect yourself: If you find yourself in a conflict with a sociopath or a narcissist, try not to engage in meaningless arguments. Remember that sociopaths, and to some extent narcissists, have the tendency to manipulate others and to bend facts. Prevent them from doing so by documenting what you do and, if it's possible, having others validate the results of your work.

No matter how resilient you are, navigating any relationship with a narcissist or a sociopath can be challenging. Stay mindful of the behaviour of others, as well as of your own well-being. Reach out for help if you need to.
As a counsellor whose first career was in software development, I help tech professionals deal with challenging workplaces. Learn more if you need support.

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