Mirror, mirror on the digital wall! (Part I) Narcissism, personal branding, and delusions of grandeur

Ai generated photo of a man texting — in the backgrounds are two representations of the man as a wolf
I post therefore I matter (photo credits Antonio Sadaric and midjourney) — visual inspired by the video game, The Wolf Among Us

In this 2-part series, we explain how understanding narcissistic tendencies and how they present at work can help us catch ourselves falling prey to them — both literally, in the form of bosses and colleagues, and personally, in the way that we can easily lose ourselves in our personal branding exercise. See here for Part II: Mirror, mirror on the digital wall! Narcissism and personal branding: Who is the fairest freelancer of them all?

Google “narcissists at work” gets over 25 million hits. Dr. Ramani, a clinical psychologist and one of the leading narcissism experts, has over 1 million followers on her YouTube channel. The estimated lifetime prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) varies widely but may be up to 6.2% of the general US population.

However, highly functional people may demonstrate less intensive pathological behaviors and may emphasize their own importance, grandiosity, and sense of entitlement at a great human cost to relationships and team effectiveness.

Narcissistic behavior has become more prevalent in our workplaces and society with the rise of social media. The rules of the game have become tougher and persons who score high on narcissistic behavior will stop at nothing to be seen as better and more capable. Sometimes overtly but mostly covertly.

Many of us are experiencing its negative consequences and also turning to social media to look for help. Workers demand a more human-centric and empathetic workplace. They are leaving abusive bosses and workplaces.

Being able to detect and understand narcissistic behavior, and especially how to protect oneself, are the new must-have workplace skills.

Often awareness comes too late. Supervisors and boards, but also reports, may be oblivious until the damage is done. They are either under the spell or under the effect of a cognitive sleeping pill — sedated until the brutal awakening. We think that we can see through such behavior immediately and take consequent actions — but often we don't and get exploited.

Yet just as we educate ourselves about and protect ourselves from the nefarious impacts of narcissistic tendencies at work, we exhibit them more ourselves. Social media allows us to put up our billboards online and curate our image and personal brand at global scale. We promote our lifestyles on Instagram and TikTok, thoughts on Twitter, professional prowess on LinkedIn, and entertainment skills on Twitch and YouTube.

Curation of this “virtual reality” can cause us to become obsessed with our own image and falsely believe that we are more special than we really are. Focused on creating a perfect image and online presence, we are engaged in our own campaign for attention, love, respect, and influence.

With so much information and people online, a strong personal brand helps us stand out from the competition and attract new customers. Job and financial insecurity lead us to seek validation through social media. We hope that by projecting an image of success, we will be able to convince others (and themselves) that we are actually successful. The same holds for companies who are using us as human billboards. In change management, companies need champions and representation of human brands as effective and influential channels of communication.

For freelancers and individuals in the gig economy (more than 40% of Americans), selling ourselves online and on platforms is a literal must. We are the product in the open talent marketplace.

Social media and personal branding have provided an unprecedented opportunity for persons with narcissist tendencies to flourish — and for others without these tendencies to be seduced by our digital mirror. We become more concerned about how others perceive us than thinking and living for ourselves and those closest to us.

There seems to be a thin line between differentiating ourselves on social media based on our strengths and overdoing it. The “digital persuasives” use social media and other digital platforms to promote themselves and their personal brand with narcissistic methods. In other words, these individuals rely on manipulation and impression management to achieve their self-serving goals, which often leads to discord and conflict.

And while being able to present ourselves in an attention-grabbing way is something we could all benefit from, individuals with narcissistic tendencies may use their personal brand to gain power and influence, often at the expense of their colleagues and co-workers — or others whose ideas and talents might be more worthy.

What narcissists do well

At their core, narcissists want power in all of its forms; relationships, money, status, etc. It isn’t enough to have a lot; narcissists want more. They need to feel special. It is not a surprise that they are over-indexed in upper management and in finance, law, medicine, and politics. Narcissists are excellent at detecting what people want to hear, and they know how to promote themselves and their skills, which can be very beneficial for a company. They will always put their best foot forward and make sure that they are seen in a positive light.

Narcissists can be charming, cunning, and master manipulators and know how to manage upwards and show their best sides to those who matter.They often play favorites and exhibit different behaviors with different persons, playing people against each other. So, your experience of a narcissistic boss may not at all be the experience of your colleague(s) who think that she/he is just driven and absolutely great. Managing up, they may demand that the organization cater to their every need, whether it is about hybrid work or other arrangements.

A big part of being successful in any field is having confidence in yourself. Narcissists feel entitled and can be extremely persuasive when it comes to getting what they want. Narcissists excel at advertising themselves. They are hired because this behavior is desirable and helps create the perception of success, which is especially relevant for leadership positions. Cover letters and resumes are ads for a human. The interview process is the final sell. This makes them ideal salespeople or negotiators. They seek adulation and hence will work hard as leaders to gain accolades.

When they do unwell

AI generated image of a dystopian person listening to a block of concrete but pretending to have a large ear
Listening under false pretense (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney)

Persons with narcissistic traits aren’t systematically mean or abusive but alternate between abuse and praise (love bombing) with persons that they are targeting for narcissistic supply. This confuses targets and makes it much more difficult to comprehend what is actually going on because bullying behaviors aren’t constant.

Narcissistic abuse is a type of emotional abuse that involves the manipulation and humiliation of employees to influence desired outcomes successfully. Abuse can occur by peers, and even clients but the most damaging abuse often comes from bosses or supervisors. Unlike prosocial leadership influence tactics, narcissistic actions can damage an employee’s mental health and self-esteem, and can often lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

When in a position of power, they can do damage. They often have trouble communicating effectively with others. They may not listen to others, or they may interrupt conversations to talk about themselves. They often refuse to cooperate and may even try to sabotage other people’s work. As a result, teams led by narcissists are often unproductive and dysfunctional. Their leadership style might be more set, and hence less effective as time passes. They can take down storied organizations.

Individuals with narcissistic tendencies often have a hard time managing their emotions, especially negative ones like frustration, anxiety, resentment, and envy. As a result, narcissistic leaders might throw tantrums, verbally abuse team members, or spread rumors about others. This can have serious consequences for the careers of others and the workplace culture. They might cause division by putting themselves first and making others feel inferior or sacrificing others for personal gain. Finally, narcissists do not hesitate to make excessive requests of others.

Most commonly reported methods include:

· Verbal abuse: Narcissists often resort to verbal abuse as another way of controlling. They may shout, call them names, or withhold compliments and positive reinforcement to maintain their status continuously. They might even threaten them or humiliate them in front of others.

· Emotional manipulation: Narcissists use emotions to get what they want. They will play on your feelings of insecurity or guilt to get you to do what they want. They can start meaningless arguments about irrelevant things just to appear more competent, smarter, or overall superior, and reasoning with them can be futile.

· Intimidation: Narcissists often use threats and intimidation tactics to control desired outcomes. They may threaten to fire people, destroy their reputation through spreading gossip, or hurt them financially if they don’t comply with their demands.

· Gaslighting: Narcissists often use gaslighting tactics to manipulate and control desired outcomes. They will make employees doubt their own sanity by denying the validity of their feelings, constantly making false accusations, manipulating conversations, and sending mixed signals. They might question your reasoning and deprive you of your voice, enforcing compliance in a meaningless conflict. They may also steal credit for your work, refuse to cooperate or collaborate with you or sabotage your projects.

Narcissistic traits can also manifest in a more covert, and perhaps more insidious form. The more covert types like to play victims and demand constant attention and validation. When their inputs don’t get the praise that they expect, they may sulk, create drama, become ill to draw empathy, and often exert their power by complicating others’ work on purpose.

Vulnerable narcissists are typically highly self-conscious, insecure, and hypersensitive to rejection and criticism. They oscillate between feeling inferior and superior, and they become easily offended, anxious, or even hostile when they do not get the praise that they think they deserve.

Digital delusions of grandeur: when narcissistic tendencies hide behind a polished personal brand

Ai-generated image of a Greek figure evocative of Narcissus drowning in the lake of his cell phone screen
Digital Narcissus (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney)

Retired corporate narcissists retell their success stories and coach future generations in the art. This can come off as superior confidence and expertise, which can be attractive, especially to hiring managers. These people use their online presence to present a highly curated and attractive image to the world, including the business world. They may use tactics such as self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and manipulation to gain attention and validation from others. Such daily stories on social media (especially LinkedIn) suggest that this behavior pays off and feeds the new generation of workplace narcissistic behavior.

Narcissists may often excel in personal branding because they can present a confident and attractive image to the world. They love attention and expect special treatment, and social media provides them with the perfect source of endless narcissistic supply. It caters to bragging, exaggerated achievements, and self-centeredness. One can easily delete or block any negative feedback or criticism or play the victim card.

Personal brands and narcissistic tendencies are similar. Both require a lot of attention and maintenance to be successful. But how can a personal brand truly represent an individual’s personality?

We use the term “human brand” to refer to the holistic representation of an individual, including their personal and professional life, reputation, and interactions with others. It is the way others perceive and interact with a person and is influenced by things like personality, values, and behavior.

A personal brand is typically focused on how an individual presents herself professionally, such as skills and accomplishments, while a human brand encompasses an individual’s entire being and includes their personal life and the nature of interactions with others.

A personal brand becomes a human brand once the individual behind the concept decides to expand the scope of promotional efforts to include personal values, beliefs, and interactions with others.

Literature suggests well-known figures who exert influence over greater groups of people (or even masses) can consider themselves human brands. These range from more prolific public figures such as politicians and athletes who enjoy monetary endorsements, to less famous artists and social media influencers. Their influential power is deployed through the mechanism of follower identification, who glorify portrayed virtues and celebrate their human brand’s grandiosity.

Narcissistic personal brands are linked to narcissistic human brands because they are built on similar values and behaviors. Narcissistic personal brands often prioritize self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, while narcissistic human brands prioritize self-importance and power.

Narcissistic tendencies play a significant role in the process of human brand formation. As narcissistic individuals become increasingly focused on their image and how others perceive them, they become even less authentic and less considerate of others. This can lead to a human brand that is perceived as arrogant, manipulative, and lacking empathy.

Narcissists may also use tactics such as manipulation and deceit to further their own goals, which can lead to a lack of trust and collaboration among team members. And this type of behavior is particularly destructive in the workplace when we consider how influential human brands are in shaping culture. They help build trust and collaboration among team members, as well as promote a sense of community and belonging. They communicate how the values and beliefs of an individual connect to organizational values, and they can inspire and influence others to act in a similar way.

Human brands are also seen as a way of fostering authenticity, where individuals are encouraged to be true to themselves and their values, rather than hiding behind a curated image. When narcissistic human brands exert influence in the workplace, they easily create a toxic work environment.

Escaping the mirror: ensure that social media does not create a feedback loop of narcissistic tendencies

If we want our personal brand to be successful we need to put in the effort. This means regularly updating your social media profiles, website, etc., and consistently promoting yourself in a positive light. It also helps to build relationships with others in your industry, as this will help increase your exposure. However, if we come across as too self-promoting or insincere, people will lose interest quickly and we will not be successful.

Creating a personal brand is about building connections with others, not simply bragging. Of course, not all who engage in social media are narcissistic. Nevertheless, social media has been shown to play a role in encouraging narcissistic tendencies in some individuals, and it can negatively impact user mental health. But only if we become aware of the traps it sets for us, we can harness its positive potential for connection.

In person and online, beware of persons who seem too good to be true. Take your time to assess someone — including yourself.

1) Are you as good, morally and professionally, as you present online?

2) If not, how does this tension affect you? What tendencies of your own personality might they be exacerbating?

3) And, how does your behavior impact others who feel compelled to keep up with your online mirror?

We will return to these questions in our second post in this series but would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please reach out to us (Antonio Sadaric, Susanna Harkonen, and Carin-Isabel Knoop).



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.