Some entrepreneurs are narcissists

What to do if the boss is a little Trump

Economy + further education: Professor Wirth, narcissists want to get up - and often manage to do so, as you write in your book "Narcissism and Power". You should be right about Donald Trump, who you attested early on as having a narcissistic personality. Isn't that just the type of successful guy we'd like to see in business?

Hans-Jürgen Wirth: In terms of their energy, their will to assert themselves and their hunger for success, such successful people are certainly very welcome in business, in politics, but also in sport. But positively rated qualities such as self-confidence, self-confidence, self-confidence can also turn into overestimating oneself, arrogance and recklessness. This is the case when narcissistically disturbed people seek power to compensate for their poor self-esteem. They seek power and success at all costs in order to live out their fantasies of size and omnipotence. Power works like a drug: self-doubts evaporate, self-confidence increases. Power therefore exerts an irresistible pull on people who have pronounced narcissistic traits.

Business + Education: Why is it so hard to stop narcissists?

Wirth: Unbridled self-centeredness, a victorious mentality, and fantasies of size are qualities that pave the way for the narcissistically disturbed personality into the control centers of power. By preferably surrounding himself with yes-men, admirers and shrewd manipulators, the narcissistically disturbed leader gains a confirmation of his self-image, but at the same time undermines his realistic self-perception and solidifies his illusory relationship to the world, which is shaped by enemy images. Inciting xenophobia and violence against scapegoats is one of the preferred domination techniques of narcissistic leaders.

Economy + further education: Nevertheless, many narcissists fail ...

Wirth: Blinded by his own greatness and omnipotence fantasies and by the admiration his followers show him, the narcissist loses contact with social reality and ultimately has to fail, even if he can celebrate great successes at times. Often, brilliant victories are followed by a sudden and unexpected crash, because the narcissistic ruler on the one hand overshoots the bow in the full sense of his omnipotence and on the other hand his paranoid worldview is always looking for and producing new enemies, on which he ultimately fails.

Economy + further education: Are narcissists happy people - at least as long as they don't trip themselves up?

Wirth: For all of us, happiness is only a relatively fleeting state. We feel particularly happy when we are recognized and loved by others. But narcissists have the problem that they try to buy and force recognition and love through money, power and showing off. However, they only conceal their fundamental dependence on the attention of their fellow human beings, without actually being able to cancel it. Because enforced or bought recognition is not authentic and feeds the narcissist's uncertainty as to whether it is really and seriously meant. The resulting doubts and self-doubts lead to narcissistic neediness and narcissistic anger, which are answered with a further increase in power behavior. The addictive character of power processes that feed on narcissistic conflicts is derived from this dynamic.

Economy + further education: Companies are not looking for gray mice for management positions, but rather alpha animals who show their employees where to go. Are the usual selection tools - assessment centers or headhunting - possible gateways for narcissists?

Wirth: Selection procedures for management positions that particularly test the candidates' resistance to stress and assertiveness can indeed lead to characteristics such as recklessness and egomania being favored. But ultimately it depends on which properties the organization prefers. In modern organizations, team spirit, empathy, an integrative leadership style and an awareness of ethical standards are also required of managers. The scandals at world-famous companies such as Siemens, VW and Deutsche Bank will hopefully also have the positive effect of realizing there that ethical guidelines must be adhered to.

Economy + further education: In which companies are you likely to find more narcissists: small and medium-sized ones that are family-run, or large, international ones with employed managers?

Wirth: It doesn't depend on the size of the company. It is easy to overlook the fact that narcissism and power are elementary components of human coexistence that play a central role in all social, cultural, political and societal relationships. Narcissists are found not only in the upper levels of politics, but also in sports clubs, family businesses and professional associations.

Economy + further education: How do I know if my boss is a narcissistic personality?

Wirth: If the boss always wants to be right, likes to hand out sharp criticism, but at the same time reacts slightly offended if you disagree or even criticize him, then the suspicion is that he has pronounced narcissistic traits.

Economy + further education: And now? How should I react if my boss turns out to be a narcissist?

Wirth: It is important not to get caught up in a narcissistic power struggle with him, that is, one should not take the boss's emotional outbursts too personally. So you shouldn't let yourself be offended and insecure by your exaggerated criticism, nor let yourself be seduced by his flattery and exaggerated praise, and certainly not get involved in a competition to see who is the better, smarter and superior. Instead, you should concentrate on the pending factual problems and put their factually appropriate processing at the center of the discussions and your own work. Because the fundamental mistake of the narcissist is that he does not work in a solution-oriented manner, but rather abuses his leadership position to compensate for his self-esteem problems. If possible, you shouldn't let yourself be clamped in for this.

Economy + further education: Is there a chance that I can "re-educate" him?

Wirth: This chance is extremely slim. On the one hand, it is not the job of an employee to re-educate the boss. There is then more of a risk of getting personally entangled. Above all, however, it is fundamentally very difficult to "re-educate" another person - even in a partnership. One should rather start with oneself, i.e. change one's own behavior and, for example, make sure that one does not get involved in the power games of the narcissistic partner.

Economy + further education: How trustworthy and with integrity are narcissists? Or to come back to Donald Trump: Do I have to expect to be constantly confronted with "alternative facts"?

Wirth: Pronounced narcissists like Trump are neither trustworthy nor with integrity. They don't trust other people, they rely on power, control and "deals". Your own actions are determined by mistrust, threats and cold calculation. That is why they cannot even imagine that collective action is based on mutual trust. Relatives are an exception. That's why Trump has made some members of his own family his closest advisers. Since trust, reliability and credibility do not play a role for narcissists, they are also not of integrity, but rather adjust reality to suit them. Unabashed lies and the shameless presentation of "alternative facts" are among the most prominent power techniques of pronounced narcissists.

Economy + further education: Please a drop of balm on the narcissistic soul: What are the good sides of these personalities?

Wirth: Narcissists are enthusiastic and ready to use - especially when it comes to their own projects. They can carry others away and create strong feelings in their followers. Above all, one should distinguish between a healthy and an exaggerated and therefore problematic narcissism. This distinction is theoretically important, even if it is often not easy to make in practice and if the transitions are fluid. So it is entirely permissible for a leader to incorporate their healthy narcissistic tendencies into their work. The healthy narcissistic desires and needs are an important stimulant for leadership. For example, it is not a problem if a manager is proud of the work and successes that they and the group they lead have achieved. Her self-esteem should increase through such successes, she should also like to show herself with her work in public and be recognized, celebrated and, if necessary, also elected. These are all expressions of a healthy narcissism, which serve the objective work and also the development of the personality of the leader and are conducive to the further development of the group identity.

Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Wirth is a psychoanalyst and psychological psychotherapist. Since 2010 he has been an adjunct professor for sociology and psychoanalytic social psychology at the University of Frankfurt am Main. Wirth is also the founder of Psychosozial-Verlag, in which his basic work "Narcissism and Power" was published in 2002.

The interview was conducted by Christoph Stehr, a freelance journalist in Hilden.

Tip for further reading:

This interview is an excerpt from the 03/2017 issue of "Economy + Further Education". In the title section of this issue you can read more about how individuals can defend themselves against narcissistic bosses in the article "The clever ones don't fight".