Around the world we are seeing rises in two diametrically opposed attitudes: on the one hand collaboration and integration across difference, and on the other, entitlement, social dominance and narcissism. If your workplace has individuals exhibiting social dominance or narcissism, you are likely frustrated at their lack of consideration for others, or even frightened for your safety. This post explains the characteristics of individuals demonstrating these attitudes, how to tell the difference between the two types, and what you can do to mitigate the situation from a managerial perspective.

Social dominance and narcissism

Socially dominant individuals see the world as a place that is highly hierarchical, where the person with the most power and capacity to take things from others is the most deserving of having that power. High social dominance orientation in individuals shows a tendency to see oneself as belonging to a group that deserves more and better opportunities and privileges than those in disadvantaged groups. People with this orientation have high degrees of racist, misogynist and violent beliefs. They also have low, or non-existent empathy for others and believe in a non-egalitarian world where certain groups have much more than others. Given the opportunity, individuals with a high social dominance orientation would choose to damage or hurt others they see as less deserving over gaining some personal advantage for themselves.

Narcissists, on the other hand, have a grandiose idea of their own self-importance and believe they deserve to have the best because they are in a position of natural privilege, intelligence and talent. They are also low on empathy and other social skills although they can act charmingly to gain admiration and praise from others, even appearing to be socially competent, when in fact their behaviour is a manipulative ploy to get others to tell them how great they are. Narcissists crave approval from others and will strike out aggressively if they do not receive it.

And here is a key difference between the two: socially dominant individuals feel justified in humiliating and inflicting pain on others. They oppress and subjugate people they perceive of as being weak and inferior to them. Whether they gain approval or disapproval for their attitudes and actions makes no difference to them. Narcissists, in contrast, care very much how they are perceived by others, even if they feel entitled to treat others as less than themselves.

Both narcissists and socially dominant individuals get angry, aggressive and violent when they don’t receive the inflated privileges they believe they should be receiving. Narcissists focus more on their own needs and cravings for approval by others, whereas socially dominant individuals focus on oppressing and subjugating those they believe to be inferior.

For example, a socially dominant individual might curse at and kick a homeless man, believing himself to be justified in this behaviour due to his “natural” position of social superiority. A narcissist would either not to want to be seen near a homeless man (out of fear of having his/her own image tarnished) or would make a very grandiose performance out of giving a sum of money to the homeless man (to gain appreciation and praise from an audience).

Where things get confusing is when we see a display of both characteristics. As an example, socially dominant individuals who are also narcissists might force someone they have harmed to thank them for teaching a valuable life lesson.

Developing empathy in the workplace and constraining the effects of social dominance and narcissism

The key to undoing the effects of narcissism and social dominance is the development of empathy, but this is not an easy task. There have been relatively few studies that were even minimally successful in training adult narcissistic personalities to improve their pro-social attitudes.

Experiences of deep personal suffering, such as getting cancer or the loss of a close family member can encourage the development of empathy in narcissistic personalities, however the opposite may also be true because the typical narcissistic reaction to pain is to strike out against the perceived source of damage to the inflated sense of self.

For children, efforts to build a climate where empathy develop naturally have been well-documented. One example, the “Roots of Empathy” educational program, develops empathy through care for babies and animals. When children perceive vulnerable people and animals as needing their help and love, children bond emotionally with the vulnerable baby or animal, while developing altruistic skills. Drama exercises where children and youth act out different endings to interpersonal conflicts and then discuss the possible outcomes to their actions have also shown themselves to be helpful in encouraging empathy.

But all is not lost for adults in the workplace! Since empathy requires bonding with others and is developed in a context where feelings are discussed and where people are overtly encouraged to show kindness and integrity, narcissistic individuals have shown themselves to be more likely to at least copy helpful and kind behaviours. Those companies with a high degree of ethical and inclusive behaviour, tend to attract less narcissistic employees and are more successful in mitigating their behaviours through the ethical climate provided by a healthy company culture.

Company messaging is also a contributor towards setting behaviour standards. One example was seen on a poster in multiple places where employees were likely to consider it. The poster used the acronym “THINK ” and the tag line “Before you speak, ask yourself, is what you are planning to say… “

  • T – timely?
  • H – helpful?
  • I – inspiring or insightful?
  • N – necessary?
  • K – kind?

If this message is reinforced in company meetings, interactions and events, it becomes not only a standard to achieve, but a boundary setter for people who might act otherwise.

From an HR perspective, Grijalva (2014) has suggestions for employers on how they can deal more effectively with narcissists at work:

  1. Provide specific behavior-based feedback
  2. Be aware of narcissists’ counterproductive work behaviour (CWB) tendencies
  3. Provide an environment conducive to ethical behavior
  4. Increase organizational monitoring

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Outside of the seminal Sidanious and Pratto (1999) research on recognition of social dominance and how it originally came to be, we did not find any practical recommended workplace mitigations for social dominance orientation. There is plenty of daily evidence in the news describing the detrimental effects of social dominance attitudes around the world, particularly regarding policing and army workplace contexts.

Although suggestions for dealing effectively with social dominance orientation in the workforce are as yet not easily located, fortunately there are many techniques for stopping bullying, a close cousin of social dominance. One of the most useful reads on this topic is, “The No Asshole Rule at Work” by Robert Sutton (the link will lead you to Sutton’s explanation on why he wrote the book). In it Sutton explains principles and strategies to prevent social dominance from gaining a foothold; outlines courses of action to build a workplace where socially dominant individuals are recognized, contained and fired if they cannot conform to organizationally healthy behaviours; and gives ideas to reclaim an organization that is terrorized by bullies. Sutton’s ideas are so useful that the book continues to be a best seller years after winning the best business book of the year award in 2007.

To conclude, here is a summary of Robert Sutton’s recommendations:

The top 10 steps for enforcing the “no asshole” rule

#1. Say the rule, write it down, and act on it

If you don’t want assholes at work, make it clear. But if you can’t or won’t follow the rule, it is better to say nothing at all – avoiding a false claim is the lesser of two evils. You don’t want to be known as a hypocrite and the leader of an organization that is filled with assholes.

#2. Assholes will hire other assholes

Keep your resident jerks out of the hiring process, or if you can’t, involve as many “civilized” people in interviews and decisions to offset this predilection of people to hire “jerks like me.”

#3. Get rid of assholes fast

Organizations usually wait too long to get rid of certified and incorrigible assholes, and once they do, the reaction is usually, “Why did we wait so long to do that?”

#4. Treat certified assholes as incompetent employees

Even if people do other things extraordinarily well but persistently demean others, they ought to be treated as incompetent.

#5. Power breeds nastiness

Beware that giving people – even seemingly nice and sensitive people – even a little power can turn them into big jerks.

#6. Embrace the power-performance paradox

Accept that your organization does have and should have a pecking order, but do everything you can to downplay and reduce unnecessary status differences among members. The result will be fewer assholes and, according to the best studies, better performance, too.

#7. Manage moments – not just practices, policies, and systems

Effective asshole management means focusing on and changing the little things that you and your people do – and big changes will follow. Reflect on what you do, watch how others respond to you and to one another, and work on tweaking what happens as you are interacting with the person in front of you right now.

#8. Model and teach constructive confrontation

Develop a culture where people know when to argue and when to stop fighting and, instead, gather more evidence, listen to other people, or stop whining and implement a decision (even if they still disagree with it). When the time is ripe to battle over ideas, follow Karl Weick’s advice: fight as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.

#9. Adopt the “one asshole” rule

Because people follow rules and norms better when there are rare or occasional examples of bad behavior, no asshole rules might be most closely followed in organizations that permit one or two token jerks to hang around. These “reverse” role models remind everyone else of the wrong behavior.

#10. The bottom line: link big policies to small decencies

Effective asshole management happens when there is a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle between the “big” things that organizations do and the little things that happen when people talk to one another and work together.

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Grijalva, Emily. (2014). Narcissism: An integrative synthesis and dominance complementarity model. Lincoln: Digital Commons, University of Nebraska. PD Harms Publication.

Sidanious, Jim; Pratto, Felicia. (1999). Social Dominance. New York: Cambrige University Press.

Social Dominance Orientation: Wikipedia.

Sutton, Robert I. (2010). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. New York: Business Plus, 2010, pgs 87-88.

Relijntjes, Albert; Vermande, Marjoliyn; Thomaes, Sander; Goossens, Frits; Olthof, Tjeert; Aleva, Liesbeth; Van der Meulen, Matty. (2016). Narcissism, Bullying, and Social Dominance in Youth: A Longitudinal Analysis.

“I strongly believe that you can’t win the marketplace unless you first win the workplace. If you don’t have a winning culture inside, it’s hard to compete in the very tough world outside.”

Douglas Conant

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