Hacking Narcissism
Hacking Narcissism
Why your workplace seems like a dysfunctional family

Why your workplace seems like a dysfunctional family

Narcissism at work

This episode is a compilation of conversation snippets about narcissism at work.

This is a follow up to my previous piece on the Dysfunctional Family System. In this episode, I describe what defines narcissistic behaviours, the Dysfunctional Family System (DFS), the roles of each family members and how the DFS applies to workplace contexts.

The purpose of this episode is to provide a framework to understand workplace power dynamics and draw parallels to your experiences in your own family system. When you become aware of the hidden factors that underpin power dynamics and conflict at work, you can create change to break those patterns in your workplace relationships.

Podcast transcript

1. What is narcissism?

Nathalie: These behavioural traits that we call narcissism or narcissistic, really come out when we're under threat, when we need to defend ourselves. When our world is in disorder, we're feeling unstable, uncertain. We can employ different behaviour traits to control others and control situations. It's not a problem if these are happening on occasion, and you're aware that you're doing it becomes a problem, when it's the habit - It's how we need to navigate relationships and live in the world. But it's also important to recognize that all these behaviours where we're trying to control dominate, maybe be exploitive, possessive, invalidating, these are behavioural adaptations to early life adversities. These are survival traits -we're trying to survive. It's just that we're using these traits in appropriately because we're actually safe. Our lives are not under threat, and that we're using people to make sure that our survival is intact. But sometimes our survival is more important than anyone else's. It's a problem. And these patterns are these behavioural traits begin in our families. That's where we come from.

2. What are the various roles people play in their family of origin and how do the dysfunctional dynamics show up professionally and in personal situations?

Nathalie: So generally, family system theory recognizes that we're all about relationships, we're relational creatures, we're social creatures, and we don't operate in a vacuum. We are shaped and continually influenced by the people in our lives and the environments that we're in. So if we're in an environment that's quite toxic to our well being, like, think about a workplace, think about a home life, and it's hard for you to, you'd have to compete with other siblings for parents attention, for resources, for love, it's going to bring out certain traits, whereas if we're in a family, where every child is valued for their different characteristics, for their attributes, for the personality, and there isn't really favoritism, there's just a nice distribution of the love and nourishment and the resources among the family. And there's lots of other qualities in there that ensure that the children are feeling loved and nurtured and heard, understood, acknowledged, with good boundaries, some regulation within the system, that's children tend to grow up feeling secure in themselves and confident and can go off in the world, and co create those similar types of relationship dynamics.

However, if we're in family situations that are not quite like that, then this falls into the category of the dysfunctional or the narcissistic family system. So I'll break down some of the roles. I didn't come up with these roles. But I did I have noticed through my own informal research and my own deep diving into myself and my own family history, as well as noticing the dynamics that play out between people in a professional environment, got me onto this path of looking at the family system roles. So we're often replaying a parent-child, or a sibling, or a master-servant/authority figure-subservient, or a subordinate role in all our relationships as adults, until we become alert to these things playing out. And we don't want that to happen anymore, and we do something different about it.

So basically, in the family system, there's always a more dominant parent. So we can call that the narcissistic parent. And then there'll be the other if there's another parent or another authority figure around frequently, they step into the Enabler or the Ally role. So their role is to make sure that the interests and the needs of the Dominant Parent are always met. They're very protective of this system. And when I talk about these roles, we don't know that we're playing these roles, most of the time until you learn about the family system as an adult, but as children, some children tune in to the messiness of the family system, and they start to question things. But most of the time, we have no clue that we have fallen into a hierarchical structure, where the dominant parents at the top, and they dictate how things go, and what is required from each of us in order to meet their emotional needs.

In a healthy system, it's the parents who are supposed to look after the children's emotional needs. And ideally, the parents have the ability to look after their own emotional needs in healthy, restorative and sustainable ways. And they don't need the children to do that for them. So I just talked about the dominant parent, everything goes according to their rules, their values, their needs. And the whole system is dedicated to ensuring that those needs are met all the time. And so there's the ally out the other parent, so the parent that plays into this, the need so their needs don't matter as much, except when that dominant parent is out of the picture. If say they go away on holiday, or they are away for work or whatever, there's a gap, so someone has to step in and fill it so that other parent, the ally parent might step in and become that dominant parent. But what you might also have is the dominant child, also known as the golden child, they might step in and play out that parent authority role and be a bit dictatorial, again, depends on the family.

So the children, there's the golden child, they're often seen as the favourite, they represent the, the idealized version of the dominant parent. So they put all their hopes and dreams of you know, recognition and success in onto that child. And they're expected to perform according to the the family's values and be that be that representative or that Ambassador evolved the greatness of that family. Then you have the opposite the scapegoat or the black sheep, black sheep, and that child is seen as the you know, the worst of the family. They have the demonized characteristics of the parent or the family within them are that's what's seen what's observe, it's not the truth. And they tend to be rebellious and find ways are trying to work out ways to be seen as the golden child and recognize that that's futile. And they get resentful, and play out all these conflicting dynamics with other members between siblings because there'll be jealousy with the Golden Child, as well as any of the other parent roles. But sometimes one of the parents, sometimes the ally aligns more with a scapegoat, whereas the dominant narcissistic parent aligns with the golden child, because the golden child is the next in line to take over the family glory, then there's also invisible child or the last child, they're the ones who are quiet, their needs are not really, it's like the middle child syndrome, they're often not always neglected, but they're not necessarily considered. They don't stand out because one is not the favourite. And they're also not the one who's getting attention through their negative behaviour. They're either happy to be behind the radar in a really hostile or high conflict family, or they do want attention, and they look for opportunities to be useful, and to be seen, which will cause conflict with the golden child, because the golden child has to stay the golden child. And there are other roles like the clown, you know, the comedian, so they're trying to defuse conflict all the time by rescuing the family, with comedy, or, you know, some sort of dramatics that is entertaining. And while that's nice to maintain peace, or try to restore peace, what it does, it prevents the family from actually productively and constructively learning how to work through conflict, they kind of stop it in its tracks. And then there's the sick child, who can be seen as the golden child. So they get a lot of attention through their illness, or they can be seen as the scapegoat. Or sometimes the invisible child. And if there's an only child in the family, they will experience or step into all the different roles. So it can be quite confusing for identity development for an only child. And these roles are fluid, just because you're a scapegoat doesn't mean you remain it.

It depends on who's present or absent within that family unit at any given moment. These roles are fluid, and you could step in and play out whatever is required in order to meet the needs of that dominant parent.


3. Can you talk a little about organisational culture?

Nathalie: It's about noticing patterns. I have a different take - I see human behaviours as predictable when you're in this in an unchanging environment. And so when someone is being narcissistic or controlling, you know, some features are, you share, they ask you your thoughts or your ideas you share. Your ideas because you want to help. And then you hear those same ideas being presented at a meeting, and without any credit to you. And so that person passes off as their own. So they used, they basically extracted your knowledge for their own benefit. And you see this done repeatedly. Or you hear complaints from other people that it's been done to then there's also microaggressions. So micro invalidation, sexism, misogyny, racism, that subtle, but you feel the impact of it. And it's not one offs, they're they're happening on a on a frequent enough occasion that makes makes you alert to it.

Opportunity apart, experiences where you're feeling controlled, or demeaned. Or you're asked to provide more of your labor without additional compensation - it's these expectations. So yes, that person can be seen as narcissistic, but at the same time, they are representatives of their system. So they're doing whatever they need to protect and justify the systemic structures. And they're just the representation of that. Because there's some status in it for them some prestige.

Narcissism is based around reputation, recognition, and always being seen in an idealized way. So if there's a threat to that reputation, and by bringing your feedback to them, and asking them to be accountable, or to, to reflect on their behaviour, and consider the impact of their behaviour, and to do something differently, if they're unable to see what you see, they will react in you, if you were the favourite like the golden child in that system, you'll become the threat or the scapegoat in that system. So there's that term going from the pet to the threat. So it's just when you are aware that you're working with somebody who might be that dominating controlling person, it's a good idea not to let them know that you see them that way, especially if they're your superior, because it would make life more unpleasant.

4. Can you transition from Scapegoat to Golden Child?

Nathalie: I just want to make sure I understand your question. So it's looking at the transition from scapegoat to golden child and how to, I guess embody more of the traits of the non narcissistic golden child while also acknowledging the impact of having been the scapegoat, which means that you were not really seen or valued as your whole true human, beautiful self. You were seen as the demonized family member and you were punished for it. So getting beat up being bullied at school being bullied in the family, that those are some of the experiences that can occur. And it is damaging, because you walk around the world feeling low self worth.

It can be confusing, because now if you're treated by the authorities as the golden child with more value, it's hard to know if you could trust that person, or trust yourself. And so part of it requires some healing, and rectifying just healing process to to look at the impact of having been seen as a set scapegoat and not loved or seen as worthy. And now that you've been elevated into that golden child, that worthy role, it's “how do I embody this role without treating others the way that I'd been treated”, who look like the scapegoat.

We can feel shame about those old roles that we played, those old versions of self. And we would judge those that we see and others who represent that. And all it is is just our shame around having played that role now that we're no longer in it. And we're in so called higher status and more glorified status. It's not to buy into that as that you're a better person now. It's just you have more safety to express those parts of yourself that weren't seen before.

5. How do I support organisational change and support those who are in it?

Nathalie: Because sometimes we can get too good in our role, and the person who's our superior feel threatened by it, because they need to be the shiny, bright one all the time, and there's no room for other brightness. Then they make you pay for trying to be the golden child. And if we think about why we do these things, why do we care so much for an organization that we want to support it and support others? Because we believe that's part of our role. But sometimes our desire to improve an organization when the organization isn't necessarily making the overtures to improve itself can turn us into a bit of a threat.

I'll share a little story about the narcissistic dynamic in a workplace that also applies in a family…

The person takes a strong interest in you and makes grand overtures to take you under their wing, while denigrating or invalidating others’ work, performance or ideas. That person ensures you know how special it is that they've chosen you. It also applies to people who are not very important people that act like their idea, that project, will put them and you on a world stage or on some level of increased status. Once you feel like you're up with the elites or you're doing a good job, if you perform too well so that you receive compliments for your work, they will find ways to fault you and make you the target for all their problems. They start to remove responsibilities making you feel invalidated, and inadequate and give you justifications for unplanned or spontaneous changes in your role or the agreed plan. You eventually become the scapegoat for the failed projects or disappointments and then they move on to the next protege or the next golden child in the making. Does that sound familiar?

6. Where do I start the process of learning where I'm at with my own past story, and not projecting that onto my own kids, and helping them heal?

Nathalie: Just noticing that that's the pattern in the organization already gives you an insight into how not to be in what is going to be beneficial for you. Basically, don't try to be excellent - actually strive to be the invisible child. So you can be excellent in your role, you know what you're doing, you're working within your integrity, but don't try to shine or stand out in the organization, because they already appointed or anointed the golden children. And if you haven't been anointed it's like you don't have permission from system to become it. Really embrace and harness the invisible child and that's the way you can support your colleagues to just be good at their role. But don't try to be too smart, don't share your knowledge. Do what you're paid to do, which is hard because you want to channel your passion to be creative in that place.

It's just being very realistic about what that organization is going to be able to offer you and find other outlets for your creativity and passion. But strive to be the invisible child, be excellent in your role but you don't need to shine. You know the truth about the good work that you do and hopefully that should be enough.

It’s the same within the family. If we grew up in families where we're justifying or protecting the authority, the one who's in charge of maintaining a system and the system is in great, then that's something we might be doing in our own families. So it's just a heads up, not to have shame about it. This is what we've been conditioned to do. And you can break those patterns. But in terms of wondering, how do I help my kids trust that you've done a good job as a parent and trust that they'll have the ability to go on their own healing journeys, as we each have had to do ourselves? They'll be able to do it, and you could support them in their endeavours and help them gain awareness about themselves without trying to impose a way of seeing the world on them, which is not easy.


7. What's behind relationship conflict?

Nathalie: the conflicts we have with people…I'll circle back to what I said the very beginning. We are reenacting roles over and over, and we play out roles of parent, child, sibling to sibling, or authority figure and subordinate.

So when you're in a conflict situation, it's good to ask myself, who am I in the situation? Who in my family am I in the situation? And who is that other person playing? And that gives some insight into the hidden factors running behind any sort of conflict between you and someone else. There's often a reenactment going on, not always, but often. Start there, getting aware about ourselves and the role we're stepping into or the role that the other person is expecting us to play. And that will give you a step forward into starting to unpack what might be happening there and how to manage it.

Please note:

The knowledge shared in this podcast did not come from reading books or published research articles. It's the result of observational studies, testing hypotheses and implementation of learning in practice for nearly 20 years. Please cite this piece/myself if and when you use anything you learned here in your own work and conversations. I appreciate your support in disseminating anything that has helped you gain insight about yourself and your relationships. 

Thank you for reading and supporting this work,

Nathalie Martinek, PhD

The Narcissism Hacker


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I believe that a common threat to our individual and collective thriving is an addiction to power and control. This addiction fuels and is fuelled by greed - the desire to accumulate and control resources in social, information (and attention), economic, ecological, geographical and political systems.

While activists focus on fighting macro issues, I believe that activism also needs to focus on the micro issues - the narcissistic traits that pollute relationships between you and I, and between each other, without contributing to existing injustice. It’s not as exciting as fighting the Big Baddies yet hacking, resisting and overriding our tendencies to control others that also manifest as our macro issues is my full-time job.

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Hacking Narcissism
Hacking Narcissism
Everything you want to know about power, control and the invisible forces that drive & disrupt narcissistic behaviour in human relationships.