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  5. The dark side of narcissistic organisations: The silent toll on mental wellbeing

The dark side of narcissistic organisations: The silent toll on mental wellbeing

Estimated time to read:
5 mins
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5 mins

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    In today’s dynamic and complex work environments, organisational behaviour plays a crucial role in shaping the wellbeing of employees.

    In my recent article, ‘Is a little civility too hard?’ I explored how organisations can adopt five steps to a more civil workplace. But what if the workplace has a culture or behaviour that counters civility?

    One element of organisational culture that has garnered little attention over the years is narcissism.

    We often associate narcissism with an individual, but it can apply equally to an organisation, just like many other behaviours can, such as being bureaucratic or negative. These types of cultures affect employees significantly from a mental wellbeing perspective. However, narcissism is much harder to detect than autocratic, hierarchical, or risk-averse behaviours. In this article, I will explore the characteristics of narcissistic organisations, the effects on mental wellness, and how employees can cope with and address these challenges. So, grab a cuppa and let’s dive in!

    Understanding narcissistic organisational behaviour:

    In a nutshell, narcissistic organisations revolve around self-centeredness, grandiosity, and manipulation. The primary focus lies on a few individuals at the top, often neglecting the needs of others. Power is concentrated in the hands of these individuals, allowing them to exert control and influence, disregarding others’ perspectives, and wellbeing. The behaviour is permeated throughout the organisation and embedded in its practices and processes, established to control, or defend the power of a few.

    In an article in Psychology Today titled, Do You Work for a Narcissistic Organization?, author Diane E. Dreher Ph.D. explores nine signs of an unhealthy workplace. Using her nine signs, ask yourself does your workplace, association, or club demonstrate any of these behaviours?

    1. A grandiose sense of self-importance. excessive attention to PR and corporate image.
    2. Preoccupation with fantasies of executive power and success at the expense of attention to employees, volunteers, and daily operations.
    3. Management or power brokers believe the organisation is “special,” habitually associating with and playing up to celebrities and high-status people.
    4. The organisation requires excessive admiration, loyalty, and 24/7 devotion from workers, denying them balance in their personal lives. A reward is more work, another job, or time spent on another committee.
    5. The organisation acts with a sense of entitlement, expecting unquestioning employee obedience and compliance with policies and demands.
    6. The organisation is exploitative and takes advantage of its people using guilt, threats, or admonitions about “the common good.”
    7. The organisation lacks empathy. Its policies and procedure are inflexible when dealing with employee needs. It treats workers like replaceable parts.
    8. The organisation is overly envious of other organisations, driven by underlying fear of competition and financial anxiety, resulting in stagnant wages and significant cuts in operating budgets and benefits while maintaining high pay levels for upper management.
    9. The organisation demonstrates arrogant attitudes toward its people, becoming harsh and vindictive when workers propose alternative approaches or question the status quo.

    Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you may be working or volunteering for a narcissistic organisation.

    I’ve encountered narcissists many times before and my reactions have included working more, trying to please, and never feeling good enough. And each time It affected my mental health and led to burnout. I had never really associated narcissism with organisational culture, however, I have recently been able to draw some very clear conclusions from behaviours I have seen in organisations I have consulted to and volunteered for, that have had a similar impact. We have all been there at one time or another, and ask ourselves if it is worth it. However, we seem to go back for more – it’s like a bad relationship we are conditioned to need or expect.

    Working in a narcissistic organisation can profoundly affect people’s mental wellbeing. Relentless demands and exploitative practices can leave many emotionally exhausted, especially with minimal recognition. Demanding leaders and key political players who take credit for your accomplishments and work can lead to lower self-esteem. The fear and intimidation from narcissistic organisations create a high-stress environment, along with the fear of calling things out or having an alternative viewpoint certainly impacts personal stress and anxiety. It is then easy to understand how burnout occurs.

    Coping with narcissistic organisational behaviour:

    While navigating a narcissistic organisational environment can be challenging, my temptation is to say, ‘Get out of there!’ However, there are strategies you can employ to protect your mental wellness:

    Seek support: Reach out to colleagues, friends, or family members who can provide a supportive listening ear. Sharing experiences and emotions with others can help alleviate the stress and isolation of working in a narcissistic organisation.

    Establish boundaries: Set clear boundaries between work/volunteering and personal life. Disconnecting from work during non-working hours and engaging in activities that promote relaxation and self-care can help restore balance and preserve mental wellbeing.

    Develop resilience: Building resilience is essential when dealing with a narcissistic organisational environment. Cultivate a positive mindset, practice self-compassion, and develop coping mechanisms such as mindfulness or journaling to enhance emotional strength and adaptability.

    Network outside the organisation: Engage in professional networks and communities outside your organisation. Connecting with like-minded individuals who share similar experiences can provide a sense of validation and support. It may also open up opportunities for growth beyond the narcissistic organisation.

    While individual coping mechanisms are valuable, addressing the root causes of narcissistic behaviour within organisations is vital for long-term change. As communication professionals consider the following steps:

    1. Raise awareness: Educate others about the impact of narcissistic organisational behaviour on employee wellbeing and performance. Encourage open discussions and foster a culture of psychological safety where employees feel comfortable speaking up about their experiences.
    2. Advocate for change: Speak up about the issues the organisation faces, individually or collectively. Share constructive feedback with management and HR departments, emphasising the need for transparent decision-making, fairness, and a healthy work environment.
    3. Promote leadership development: Invest in programs focusing on empathy, emotional intelligence, and ethical decision-making. By nurturing these qualities in leaders, organisations can cultivate a culture that values the wellbeing and growth of its people.

    Narcissistic organisational behaviour can severely affect mental wellbeing, creating a toxic work environment. However, individuals can protect their wellbeing by understanding the impacts and employing coping strategies. Additionally, collective efforts to raise awareness and advocate for change within organisations are essential to fostering healthier work environments. Remember, your mental wellbeing matters, and it’s worth prioritising and safeguarding.

    About The Author

    Adrian Cropley
    A certified strategic communication management professional and past global chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Adrian Cropley is widely recognised as one of the world’s foremost experts in strategic communication. He is the founder of the Centre for Strategic Communication Excellence and CEO at Cropley Communication. With a career spanning over 30 years, Adrian has worked with clients all over the world on major change communication initiatives, internal communication reviews and strategies, professional development programs, and executive leadership and coaching. In 2018 Adrian was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to the community and the advancement of the communication profession in Australia. He was named an IABC Fellow in 2020.
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