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Identifying The Covert Narcissist in Your Workforce

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Covert narcissists make the work environment challenging through subtle sabotage, decreased morale, and hidden power struggles. But if you actively recognize covert narcissists, you can effectively address the potential issues they create.

And you’re on the right page to learn how to do that.

This article discusses:

  • What covert narcissism is and how it stacks up against obvert narcissism
  • 15 ways to spot covert narcissism at your workplace
  • Examples
  • Solutions to solve the potential problems they can cause in your team.

What Is Covert Narcissism?

To identify a covert narcissist in your workforce, you must first understand what narcissism looks like.

The concept stems from the Greek myth of Narcissus – a young man who fell in love with his reflection. Psychology borrowed the name, making it refer to an excessive self-focus and sense of self-importance.

If you have narcissistic friends, you know they have a deep need to be admired and to draw attention to themselves. Simultaneously, they disregard others and are marked by a lack of empathy.

Still, narcissism is a spectrum.

All people may display some narcissistic traits to various degrees. However, people with genuine Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) show exaggerated manifestations of these traits. And their behaviors affect both personal and professional relationships, as well as their daily functioning.

Covert vs. Overt Narcissism

Overt narcissism, also known as grandiose narcissism, is the version you might be more familiar with.

  • In life: You can recognize overt narcissists because they’re outwardly arrogant, display a high sense of entitlement, and are boastful. They’re also domineering in group settings and lack empathy.
  • In the workplace: They might take credit for a team’s effort, take over meetings, or dismiss their subordinates’ ideas without consideration.

Covert narcissism is also known as vulnerable narcissism because it’s more insidious and harder to detect. Unlike their overt counterparts, covert narcissists may not outwardly display typical narcissistic traits.

  • In life:  They often harbor a sense of entitlement masked with insecurity and can be hypersensitive to criticism. They also seek attention and admiration more subtly, play the victim card, use passive-aggressive behaviors, or give backhanded compliments. They often harbor envy towards others and may subtly undermine or devalue those they see as a threat.
  • In the workplace: Reacting excessively to minor criticisms, showing passive resistance to demands of superiors or peers, giving compliments that also serve to belittle the recipient, or frequently asserting their superiority in indirect ways.

15 Ways to Recognize a Covert Narcissist in the Workplace

Now that you know what a covert narcissist is, it’s important to know how to sleuth them out. We’ll show you examples and potential solutions to address these issues, so keep reading below.

1. Victim Mentality

Covert narcissists often paint themselves as victims, seeking sympathy or validation.

Example: When passed over for a promotion, they claim it’s always because of external factors or conspiracies against them, never their performance.

Solution: Conduct regular performance reviews with clear feedback. Make the criteria for promotions transparent and based on measurable outcomes.

2. Passive-Aggressiveness                                       

Instead of confronting issues head-on, covert narcissists resort to indirect expressions of anger or discontent.

Example: Leaving a vaguely critical post-it note on a colleague’s desk instead of discussing the issue directly.

Solution: Host regular team check-ins or meetings where concerns can be voiced openly, discouraging passive communication channels.

3. Barbed Remarks

Their compliments or comments often come with hidden criticisms or jabs.

Example: Saying, “It’s impressive how you managed to complete the project on time, especially with your limited knowledge in the field.”

Solution: Organize sensitivity or communication workshops, teaching employees to communicate without causing unintended harm or offense.

4. Hypersensitivity to Criticism

Even mild feedback can be perceived as a direct attack by a covert narcissist.

Example: Overreacting or sulking for days after a minor suggestion during a team review.

Solution: Train managers in delivering feedback effectively. Use the “sandwich” technique—positive feedback, constructive criticism, and more positive feedback. Alternatively, implement feedback mechanisms oriented on the task, such as editors’ comments on a submitted Google doc.

5. Subtle Undermining

Covert narcissists subtly minimize their colleagues’ achievements or capabilities.

Example: Pointing out a tiny flaw in an otherwise stellar presentation a colleague made.

Solution: Encourage a culture of appreciation. Introduce a platform or method for employees to regularly recognize and appreciate each other’s efforts.

6. Grandiose Fantasies

Hidden narcissists secretively harbor unrealistic ambitions or fantasies about their own greatness.

Example: Believing they should be the CEO after just a few months in an entry-level position.

Solution: Establish mentorship programs. Senior employees can guide newer ones, setting realistic expectations about career progression.

7. Envy

Covert narcissists feel threatened by others’ achievements and may belittle or undermine those they envy.

Example: Downplaying a coworker’s successful project by attributing it to “luck” or “connections.”

Solution: Promote team-building activities to discourage unhealthy competition. Celebrate individual achievements as collective wins for the team.

8. Seeking Constant Validation

If someone is constantly fishing for compliments and getting upset if they don’t receive them, that’s another red flag.

Example: Repeatedly highlighting their contributions in a meeting until someone acknowledges them.

Solution: Implement regular recognition programs or awards. Ensure there’s a system in place for the rewards, which should be given according to specific scores or other hard data.

9. Manipulation

Covert narcissists use guilt, shame, or charm to influence others.

Example: Trying to get a coworker to take on their tasks by lamenting about their overwhelming workload.

Solution: Encourage open discussions about workload and task distribution. Use tools or software to allocate and monitor tasks transparently.

10. Lack of Genuine Interest

Covert narcissists show little interest in others’ lives unless it benefits them.

Example: Only asking about a colleague’s weekend to segue into talking about their own.

Solution: Promote team bonding events or activities. Getting to know colleagues personally can enhance genuine interest and rapport.

11. Playing the Martyr

Covert narcissists tend to portray themselves as the one who sacrifices the most for the team.

Example: Frequently emphasizing how late they stayed at the office, even if it wasn’t necessary.

Solution: Implement a work-life balance policy. Encourage employees to work efficiently within set hours rather than promoting a culture of overwork.

12. Avoidance of Responsibility

Rarely taking accountability for mistakes and often shifting blame is another major red flag to remember.

Example: Blaming a missed deadline on confusing instructions rather than their tendency to procrastinate.

Solution: Use project management tools that track responsibilities and conduct regular check-ins.

13. Isolation from Peers

Hidden narcissists may avoid their co-workers, believing no one truly understands or values them.

Example: Constantly eating alone or avoiding company events because they feel above their colleagues.

Solution: Organize team integration activities. Encourage participation through inclusive events that cater to diverse interests.

14. Silent Treatment

Using silence or withdrawal as a means to punish or control others is another mark of a covert narcissist.

Example: Not responding to a coworker’s emails or messages after a disagreement.

Solution: Create a conflict resolution protocol and provide mediation if necessary.

15. Projecting Insecurities

Covert narcissists typically accuse others of behaviors or feelings they exhibit.

Example: Claiming a team member is “obsessed with getting ahead” when they are power-hungry.

Solution: Facilitate team workshops held on self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Give your team members access to thorough mental health resources. Helping individuals recognize their insecurities can reduce projection.

Wrapping Up

After reading this article, you now know how to recognize covert narcissists in your workforce.

Although sometimes you may be tempted to oust, reprimand, or even fire them, you may want to keep valuable employees. That’s why it’s important to implement proactive solutions to the issues that covert narcissists may cause for your team.

Chances are you’ll be doing them a good, and your team will thrive in the meantime.

I'm a passionate full-time blogger. I love writing about startups, how they can access key resources, avoid legal mistakes, respond to questions from angel investors as well as the reality check for startups. Continue reading my articles for more insight.

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