“Ms. Keromosemito, in your opinion, is Mr. M. a narcissist?” Mr. O., the managing director of a mechanical engineering company, asked me the other day. Together we were preparing a conflict facilitation with Mr. M., his works council chairman. I had already met Mr. M. personally, but had not found him to be conspicuous. “What makes you say that?” I asked. “He’s totally full of himself!” replied Mr. O. Is he reeeeeally?

People are often described to me as difficult, choleric, or lacking in empathy. For some time now, however, narcissism seems to have become something of a favorite diagnosis in (German) companies. I am, of course, familiar with the concept of narcissistic personality disorder. However, since I cleverly bypassed clinical psychology in my degree course, I have no experience in diagnosing this disorder. I prefer to leave that to my colleagues who have the relevant training.


Diagnostics = The good ones go into the pot…

Talking about (management) diagnostics in general… For more than 20 years I assessed people in Assessment Centers and Audits to determine whether or not they are suitable for the top management level. A central question in this context is whether someone has the “right” personality traits for this, or to put it another way: What is someone like and what will they be like in the future? We look for stable, success-relevant behaviors. In order to find out about these, requirement profiles are developed and interviews, case studies, tests, questionnaires, etc. are implemented. Many companies put a lot of effort into this and often work very professionally. In the end, therefore, the results are usually very clear: suitable or not suitable!

However, if the goal is to change human behavior, such as in coaching sessions, diagnostics are not always helpful. The information whether the person sitting in front of me is considered a high-potential leader in his or her company or just a mere mortal is irrelevant for my work. In fact, to think that someone has a narcissistic personality can even be counterproductive. I tend to be skeptical or even suspicious of narcissists – not a good basis for coaching. And you can’t change personalities anyway, right?


Coaching = identifying and changing states

For my coaching sessions I now disregard the concept of personality. Instead, I look at the states people are in when they act.

  • What makes me angry or impatient?
  • When does anxiety or anger set in?
  • How would I most like to act when I am in this state?
  • What do I do instead in a real-life situation?
  • And last but not least: how do I get out of this state again?

If others perceive us as arrogant, boastful, or even narcissistic, we often find ourselves in a state of hubris, of presumption. We behave as if we are somehow superior. Frequently, fear or insecurity lies beneath this behavior. And just like no one is fear-driven 24 hours a day, no one behaves narcissistically all the time either. Hubris sleeps at night and at seven in the morning all is still well with the world, even for the narcissist in us. If you do find yourself taking off during the day, no problem: every state is transient! You can read more about these states and how to get out of them through mindfulness in “Du bist nicht, was du denkst” [You are not what you think] by Georg Lolos.


A jerk wearing a signet ring

Back to the alleged narcissist Mr. M. After the first sip of coffee he drank in my office, he declared that a Swiss luxury brand was his favorite among all coffee machines. Much better than the Italian brands! He told me that he had treated himself to one of them for his last birthday. Life was too short for bad coffee, he claimed. While telling me, he ran his fingers through his perfectly styled hair, and I noticed the signet ring on his left hand. Mr. M. told me about his family history, which he had researched back to the 14th century, as I later learned. I felt a little nauseous and thought “what a jerk.” I wasn’t too sure whether this was down to Mr. M. or because of Mr. O.’s narcissism briefing. Somehow Mr. M. very much reminded me of Mr. S., the sales manager of another customer. Another one of those arrogant snobs. What year was it when I did that Assessment Center with Mr. S.? 1999? While Mr. M. talked and talked, I started singing Prince in my head. “I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray, but when I woke up this mornin’ could’ve sworn it was judgment day“…I love this song! Was Prince in fact a narcissist? HANG ON: wake up, Ms. K!


Mindfulness: Man sits on chair

Now I noticed: woman sits on chair and was mentally somewhere else and certainly not in the here and now. I once again became mindful of my feet and the weight of my body on the chair. Taking a deep breath, I looked at Mr. M. Man sits on chair and tells story. Just a human being. That’s all. I restarted the session internally. Now I was really in the moment and was able to listen. In this way we found a pleasant mode of conversation.

After some time, I asked Mr. M. what his concerns were with regard to the upcoming meeting with Mr. O.

Mr. M. – “Ever since we were taken over by the French, we have been on the black list. Then on top of that, the pandemic hit. We have already introduced short hours and in the near future Mr. O. wants to shut down a production line. A lot of jobs are at stake. I bet he has had the plans in the drawer for a long time. And now he is staging a pseudo negotiation. That arrogant, self-absorbed idiot. He doesn’t give a damn about the employees or the families who are involved!” Mr. M became angry.

I wonder if Mr. M. thought that his CEO was a narcissist. Focus Lara, focus!


Fear and anger = drivers for unfavorable behavior

Me – “Should this really happen and should a lot of employees lose their jobs, what is your concern?”
Mr. M. – “That must not happen!”
Me – “I know. But what if it does?”
Mr. M. – “It is simply out of the question.”
Me – “All right, and where do you feel that in your body?”
Mr. M. closed his eyes and pointed to the place below his sternum. “Here, like a stinging sensation!”
Me – “OK. And what do you think then?”
Mr. M. – “That everyone is laughing at me.”
Me – “And how do you know this feeling?”
Mr. M.’s eyes welled up with tears: “It’s a very old feeling!”

The stinging sensation in his chest reminded Mr. M. of a situation in the schoolyard. Two teams were to be formed. The team captains took turns selecting their team members. First they secured the good ones. The later you were selected, the worse you were in the eyes of the others. Mr. M. told me that he was always a sporty boy and never the last to be chosen. But the fear of this is still in his bones today. We practiced relaxing into that fear instead of pushing it away angrily.

We learn many of our (social) fears early on, i.e., in childhood. Usually they manifest themselves as a stinging or pulling sensation somewhere in the body. When these fears are triggered, our thoughts start going round in circles. This in turn leads to behaviors that psychotherapist Jens Corssen would call “unfavorable.” We buy overpriced coffee machines or act in a particularly self-confident manner. We prance around and act like a big shot because we want to be seen or because we feel threatened. We fight against each other in the company instead of cooperating. This is always at the expense of efficiency and it’s really exhausting!


More efficiency and ease

How nice it is to get out of these states. It makes work and life so much easier. Besides, it averts total disaster in the long run. Based loosely on Byron Katie: “In the end we DON’T become what we fear the most.”

In the case of Mr. M. this approach was successful. After our appointment, he was able to have a constructive discussion with his CEO. Mr. M. and Mr. O. remembered that they both want the best for the company. While they had different ideas of how to get there in terms of detail, they were now better able to find a common path. We have never been able to determine conclusively whether or not either of them is a narcissist. But it also no longer seemed important.

Mr. O. recently asked me what I had done with Mr. M. He said that Mr. M. had really changed and that he had become so much more sociable. I was really pleased to hear that. That night I listened to Prince. So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999! I then danced and jumped around my apartment on my own – it is 2021 after all and that’s a good thing.

P.S.: If you can’t get the song out of your head after reading the article, remember this: every state is transient!