Workplace Narcissism Versus Compassion

Empathy Respect


Key Point: Compassion is good for the bottom line. There is a battle taking place between narcissism and compassion and it is very evident in the workplace. I view narcissism and compassion as the opposite ends of a continuum. Research clearly shows that compassion should be the obvious winner but narcissism is no slouch and seems to be gaining ground. Where are you on the continuum? Do you really know how to observe the difference?

Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an interesting article on what may be a narcissism epidemic in the Feb. 14, New York Times:

“In their book ‘Narcissism Epidemic,’ psychology professors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell show that narcissism has increased as quickly as obesity since the 1980s. Even our egos are getting fat…This is a costly problem. While full-blown narcissists often report high levels of personal satisfaction, they create havoc and misery around them. There is overwhelming evidence linking narcissism with lower honesty and raised aggression…

The 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about ‘amour-propre,’ a kind of self-love based on the opinions of others. He considered it unnatural and unhealthy, and believed that arbitrary social comparison led to people wasting their lives trying to look and sound attractive to others.

This would seem to describe our current epidemic. Indeed, in the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love not with himself, but with his reflection. In the modern version, Narcissus would fall in love with his own Instagram feed, and starve himself to death while compulsively counting his followers…”

Hmm… And fighting in the other corner…

In her wonderful new book, The Happiness Track, author Emma Seppala describes compassion as being profoundly “other focused” rather than “self-focused.” Compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help. It includes empathy AND a compelling sense of wanting to alleviate the suffering of others. As a business concept, it is somewhat foreign but exceptionally relevant and meaningful in the workplace.

Kim Cameron and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have studied the effect of compassionate practices in the workplace. Cameron defines these compassionate practices as:

A. Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.

B. Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.

C. Inspiring one another at work.

D. Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.

E. Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.

F. Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

In a research article published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Cameron explains that when organizations institute these practices, their performance levels dramatically improve: “’They achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, and productivity.’ He adds that the more compassionate the workplace, ‘the higher the performance in profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction and employee engagement.’”

Character Moves:

  1. Take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and pause to reflect a little. Ask, “Is this the person I want to be?” Do I want to score higher on the narcissistic continuum? Or?
  1. Read (at minimum) the last chapter of The Happiness Track, and note the latest science and research on compassion. Take the time to reflect. Do I want to score higher on the compassion continuum? Will you consciously strengthen your compassion muscle? Do you know how to? 

Compassion KO’s Narcissism in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: It would be a flat out lie if I said I didn’t both understand and appreciate the importance of “likes” on an Instagram or Facebook post. It’s social currency these days, and us Millennials are obsessed with it, right? Well… That shouldn’t automatically make someone narcissistic; it’s just 2016 being 2016. What happened to the value of compartmentalization? I can enjoy a “like” on social media AND be compassionate at work/in life. Here’s something interesting: “Narcissism Epidemic” author Jean M. Twenge has no easily Google-able social media presence, while her co-writer W. Keith Campbell has a measly 117 Twitter followers (not great for an author referenced in the Sunday New York Times)… Compassion author Emma Seppala has 58,300 Twitter followers and nearly 9,000 likes on Facebook. So who’s spreading their message further? Good thing compassion KO’s that one too.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis