Two years ago I walked out of a top C-Suite position with a global company because its culture was so toxic that it was impacting my mental health. Domineering narcissists in the boardroom had made debate impossible and I was constantly bullied into silence.
My anxiety hit the roof and I was totally burnt out. I knew that my heart had left the building several months before, and now the time had come for my body to follow it out the door.
At first I tried not to get triggered by the strong narcissistic personalities that dominated the board. However five years down the line it was clear that I was fighting a losing battle. I am no doormat, and I have even been known to get down and dirty if necessary. But I draw the line when it comes to the manipulation and screwed up mind games that narcissists love. I simply refuse to play that game, so I walked away.
The Impact of Narcissism on Corporate Culture
Narcissism manifests as an excessive sense of self-importance, a tendency to hog the limelight and a ruthless tendency to manipulate others.
Narcissists tend to be ambitious and highly confident, but they often build their success on the hard work of their coworkers, who they callously manipulate and bully.
These behaviors have a significant impact on corporate culture. When narcissists take prominent positions on a company’s board of directors, the toxicity slowly flows down the organizational hierarchy, destroying any sense of camaraderie between coworkers and creating a hostile work environment.
The Main Characteristics of a Narcissistic Leader
The following are some key characteristics of narcissistic leaders. It is important for organizations to identify these traits as early as possible, in order to avoid or at least mitigate the detrimental effects that behaviour has on corporate culture and morale.
Grandiose Behavior and Overconfidence
Narcissistic leaders tend to be overly confident in their own abilities, believing that they are capable of achieving anything that they set out to do. This perpetual overconfidence causes them to look down on others and ignore any criticism or advice given by those around them, which can result in numerous missteps as they skip from one ill-advised project to the next without ever recognizing their own limitations.
This overconfidence also tends to manifest itself in the form of taking on more responsibility than they can actually handle, or even understand. Without properly assessing what it will take to complete a given task, narcissists may take on large projects that are completely impractical due to either lack of resources or knowledge. Then when things do not work out, they point the finger at others, leaving team members demoralized as the project quickly spirals out of control due to poor planning or unrealistic expectations from above.
Sense of Entitlement
Narcissistic leaders believe they are superior to those around them and thus deserve preferential treatment. This sense of entitlement can manifest itself in numerous ways ranging from expecting special privileges or access to resources, to behaving as if rules don’t apply equally for everyone. Such behavior only serves to create further divisions within an organization, leading employees to feel undervalued and mistreated by their leader.
Manipulative and Coercive Behavior
A narcissist will stop at nothing in order to get what he or she wants. They often resort to manipulation tactics such as charm or intimidation, which can quickly foster a culture of fear within the organization and make it difficult for workers to speak up against the leader without facing repercussions. This ultimately leads to an unhealthy culture where people cannot express their honest opinions without facing negative consequences.
Lack of Empathy
Narcissistic leaders lack empathy. They do not care how their decisions will affect others, so they make decisions based solely on what’s best for them personally rather than what might be best for the company overall. This lack of consideration causes resentment among employees, who are forced into difficult situations because of the egomania of their boss.
Selfishness and Favoring Personal Interests
Narcissists are only interested in outcomes that benefit themselves, regardless of how this may hurt other people or the organization overall. They will attempt to implement policies or decisions that favor their own personal interests while neglecting those of the organization overall, such as taking decision-making power away from others and consolidating it within themselves .
Lack of Accountability
Finally, narcissistic leaders tend to lack accountability. They rarely take responsibility for any mistakes that occur on their watch, nor do they admit fault when things go wrong, which leaves employees feeling frustrated at being blamed when something goes wrong due solely to poor leadership from above.
Narcissists – the Bullies in the Boardroom
Narcissists are great at convincing everyone that they are God’s gift to the company. They ruthlessly steal the credit for work done by other people in order to fuel the mythology of their greatness.
If anyone complains about it or tries to call them out, they attack and bully them into submission. They will do whatever it takes to shut them down – denigrating them, abusing them by proxy and even lying about them to put them in a bad light.
They are also master manipulators, stopping at nothing in order to obtain what they want. Nothing else matters, even if it is not in the best interest of the company they lead. The people around them are simply tools that they use for their own ends. When they are no longer of any use they simply discard them and move on to the next victim.
What was truly shocking to me, however, was the realization that the CEO and all the other directors in the boardroom had no intention of acknowledging the problems caused by the aggressive behavior of the narcissists.
I was not able to do the same. I cannot abide bullies and I will not sit by and watch someone get eviscerated without saying anything. Time and time again I tried to push back, but in the end it was clear that I was the one who was seen as a trouble maker, and not the narcissist himself.
Narcissists need Enablers to Hijack the Boardroom
On one particular occasion the narcissist humiliated a top manager in the company. He called her a small yapping poodle and she was so embarrassed that she started crying. I waited for someone to say something, but nobody did.
So I stepped in myself and said that the language used was unacceptable. To my shock, the CEO turned to me and told me to be silent, because my intervention was making things worse. I had drawn attention to the massive pink elephant in a tutu in the room, and that was a major inconvenience for those who wanted to ignore its existence.
In the end, that is what did it for me. I totally lost respect for the CEO and the other members of the board when I realized that they kept turning a blind eye to the behavior of the narcissists in the boardroom, in a spirit of quid pro quo.
Each and every one of them in that boardroom was a spineless coward who was willing to sacrifice their employees’ dignity and mental health, allowing the narcissists to wreak havoc on company culture.
Their only interest was to take home a big, fat pay cheque. Who cares if other people’s lives were made miserable?
Toxic Cultures Destroy Companies
A toxic work culture does not only damage employees. It also harms the company itself. Obviously top management should fight toxicity out of sheer decency, but if they are not decent then they should do so out of self-interest.
Narcissists are like vampires. They suck positivity and energy and motivation out of everyone who has the misfortune to work with them. They leave in their wake a trail of shattered lives and careers. And this is where the damage to the company happens.
The top talent in the firm is not going to put up with the constant barrage of bullying and narcissistic abuse. As soon as they realise that this behaviour is not a one-off, but is actually endemic, they run out the door, straight into the welcoming arms of the competition.
Final Thoughts on My Experience of Narcissists in the Boardroom
Two years down the line I have no regrets whatsoever. I am glad that I stuck it out for five years because I believe that I did make a difference and that the culture improved during my tenure. However at the end of the day my mental health is a top priority, so leaving was the only viable way forward for me.
If you have ever been bullied or seen others being bullied at work, speak up. Saying nothing will slowly corrode your self-respect and your soul. It’s not worth it.