Narcissism is increasingly being observed among management and political elites. Recognising how it underpins policy making and how it becomes increasingly prevalent in socially destructive ways is key to re-engaging citizens with the political process, writes Marianna Fotaki.
Derived from the ancient Greek myth of a beautiful youth Narcissus, who died through falling in love with his own image, the term narcissism – coined by Sigmund Freud – has travelled widely in the past one hundred years, shaping popular culture, business and public policy.
Psychoanalytic ideas present an important framework for understanding the rise of the culture of narcissism in work, management and organisational settings. Narcissism, is applied to individuals who are incapable of empathy, unable to relate to and totally unaware of other people’s needs, or even their existence. Under growing uncertainty and the ruthless striving for innovation that characterises late capitalism, it is increasingly observed in business leadership. In 2000 Michael Maccoby argued narcissists are good news for companies, because they have passion and dare to break new ground.
But even productive narcissists are often dangerous as they are divorced from the consequences of their judgements and actions, whenever these do not affect them directly. They will strive at any cost to avoid painful realisations of failure that could tarnish their own image and will only listen to information they seek to hear, failing to learn from others. Popular portrayals of corporate figures as ‘psychopaths’ who unscrupulously and skilfully manoeuvre their way to the highest rungs of the social ladder are presented as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity. However, this is a misconception obscuring the pervasiveness of narcissism and mechanisms that enable it.
Susan Long has persuasively argued that whole societies may be caught in a state of pathological perversion whenever instrumentality overrides relationality – that is, whenever narcissism becomes dominant, other people (or the whole groups of other people) are seen not as others, like oneself, but as objects to be used. For instance, when markets are seen as anonymous ‘virtual’ structures, employees may be seen and treated as exploitable commodities. Such behaviours are pathologically perverse in that people disavow their knowledge of the situations they create through narcissistic processes.
Public policies have been subject to these pathological perversions. Separating risk from responsibility in the financial sector was not merely about creating perverse incentives enabling people to engage in greed through financial bubbles that were bound to burst, but about disengaging policy makers from the all too predictable consequences of such policies.
Another example is the dramatic shift in public policy that has occurred in Europe where instead of ensuring liveable wages, access to affordable health care, public education and a clean environment, there is an increasing preoccupation with how to unleash the alleged desire of citizens to enact their preferences of how public services should be provided. The justification is that citizens want to choose between different providers to ensure that they get the best quality. However, at least in health care services, this is not borne out by the evidence. In reality, the logic of consumerist choice valorises individualism and narcissistic self-gratification by undermining the institutions created to promote public interest. The re-modelling of the public organisations as ‘efficient’ (read flexible and dispensable) business units, the widespread privatisation of the Commons and the diminution of the value of the public good are just a few of the means by which this have been achieved.
We see the effects of these changes in the NHS: imposing a market ethos on health care staff, and a focus on indicators and targets, has led to the distortion of care. Studies have shown the long term reality of the suffering, dependence and vulnerability of mentally ill patients is disavowed, and the complexities of managing those in psychological distress are systematically evaded. It is replaced by work intensification and demands on the overworked front line staff to show more compassion. Equally, the needs of patients for relational aspects of care are ignored as they do not fit with the conveyer-belt model of services provided in 10-minute slots by GPs in England.
The institutionalisation and systemic sanctioning of such practices involving instrumentality, disregard for sociality and relational ties, and pathological splitting from one’s own actions – all originating in individual narcissistic processes – constitute a state of pathological perversion on a societal level. The increasing narcissism among management and political elites is also enabled by the public at large, who may be projecting on to them their own desire for power while splitting off ambivalent feelings emerging from this desire. The progressive marketisation of public services illustrates both the insensitivity of policy makers to the impact of their policies on those who are less able to benefit from them (i.e. the less affluent and less-well educated citizens) but also in appealing to the narcissism of voters. Thus the issue of how much choice is possible and what are the inevitable trade-offs involved (between choice and equity or quality and efficiency in public health systems) is sidestepped by politicians and their constituencies.
A narcissistic denial of reality deflects the citizens’ attention from a much needed social critique. Understanding how narcissism underpins policy making, and how it becomes increasingly prevalent in socially destructive ways of managing employees and manipulating the public, is therefore a necessary first step towards re-engaging with the political process.
Professor Marianna Fotaki will be part of a discussion at the LSE Literary Festival celebrating 100 years of Freud’s On Narcissim. The event is on February 27th and details can be found here.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Marianna Fotaki is professor of business ethics at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, holds a visiting professorship in Manchester Business School. She is a graduate of medicine, public health, and obtained a PhD in public policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Before joining academia Marianna has worked as EU resident adviser to the governments in transition and as a medical doctor for Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins Du Monde for eight years.
Interesting structure of why some people are like they are. One area where narcissism is rife is bureaucracy, and I believe that bureaucracy is nothing more than a tool mostly for privileged middle class narcissists to use in an attempt to control others and undermine strengths others have which they don’t honour but see as faults because others are different to them.
I have never got on with bureaucrats (or narcissists) as they always see me as wrong even though they are less efficient and undermine my strengths and methods. They are the weakest link in my chain generally, so I do what I can to avoid them and will not cooperate with any of them who try to abuse their authority to control me as my argument is it is abuse (bureaucratic abuse/abuse of power).
Narcissism only began to gained its controlling power and influence thousands of years ago when small egalitarian communities everywhere gradually gave way to large hierarchically structured societies, premised on the embryonic belief in the ‘divine right of kings’. Only then did ‘leadership’, which inspired others to follow, give way to ‘authority’, which forces them to obey. And now we are so committed to hierarchical structured societies everywhere and the spurious belief in ‘authority’ that we fail to see the wood for the trees any more.
Fantastic post and wonderful comments. This is perhaps the greatest issue in Western Society in our time. Governance and regulation are key to mitigate the extreme’s of Narcissistic behavior. In professor Baron Cohen”s book titled About Empathy he aligns the Narcissistic end of the behavior spectrum as in a word evil. I tend to agree. The practical question is how do you safely, legally and effectively remove these types of people from the power gangs they have created. There is hope with blood tests for the warrior gene, and with MRI scanning which can show,as per the work of Jim Fallon the neuroscientist, who is and is not predisposed towards narcissistic and at the far end of this spectrum psychopathic behaviours. I would suggest all recruitment and selection of key roles in business, politics, the caring professions etc.begin to screen for and weed out these traits. My own experience is that narcissists cause significant damage to the health and well being of others so employers have a duty of care under UK law to address this in the interest of all non narcissistic employees. All of you aware of and working on this issue many thanks we need to keep raising the profile and pushing for change.
I am sorry I only found this 3 year old blog today. It sums up New Labour and the ‘New Democrats i.e. the Clintons perfectly. Sadly the media are part of this elite too-globalisation has worked for them. But the rest of us are up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Very well said Marianna. Fundamental problem in our society is doctors, public sector leaders, lawyers and MPs and academics are mostly intelligent, articulate people and they come with their own personality traits. Many of them have egos, anger, frustrations and some have narcissist traits. Some have absolutely no insight about their own behaviour and impact on others.
NHS is a very good example like many public sectors. What really amazes me is there are some amazing good doctors, managers and leaders but none of them challenge these personalities and they do not get feedback and if they are in leadership positions they destroy many lives! What I wonder is why other good leaders or good people keep quiet?
NHS is in crisis and simply because there is culture of focusing on targets and finance. Over the last few years many new initiatives have been introduced and now all of them have come together and we are in crisis! What amazes me is why so many intelligent and clever doctors and nurses have not raised any objections and done anything about it? Why GPs and Royal College of GPs accepted 10 minute consultation? Why no one objected for MMC and where was BMA?
I joined Wigan as the Medical Director in 2010 and within 8 years we reduced harm to patients by 90% and we received 45 awards and for staff happiness we were bottom 20% in 2011 and today we are the third best in the country! To do this we had to remove some narcissistic personalities which included leaders, managers and some doctors! Good news is 80 to 90% staff care for patients and they need culture of staff happiness. We appointed some wonderful medical leaders based on their values and put robust governance. It is accountability and governance which is the missing link of our NHS and our current political leadership. Leaders with authority but no accountability is the most dangerous leadership system in the world! We got to change it and we got to implement robust governance to all leaders
Well said. Narcissistic behaviour amongst the elite is the logical and natural consequence of decades of unprincipled consumerism and capitalism. It is 20 years since Blair built on Thatcher’s legacy and initiated the transformation of government and public service in the UK into a business corporation. Since then we have allowed all endeavour for the ‘common good’ to be framed, prioritised, initiated and stood down by reference to the mantras of ‘better, faster, cheaper’ and ‘more for less’ and (that most duplicitous of values) ‘choice’, which between them form the one enduring navigation beacon for every modern capitalist entity. Do we want a health service that is more ‘efficient’ or one that is truly driven to deliver the best outcomes for patients, in a society which is heaping greater and greater self-inflicted wounds on that service? The elites tell us we should demand both. But if a choice must be made, it is that ‘efficiency’ is the non-negotiable prize, valued above all other measures of success. And that’s because the elites can afford to go elsewhere when their health and welfare is at stake. And because their friends and acolytes in the ‘commercial healthcare sector’ are queueing up to bite chunks off the NHS and make it cheaper (‘better’ and ‘faster’ usually get lost on the journey, and even ‘cheaper’ is often only achieved through accounting creativity) whilst lining their pockets and making donations (above and below the line) to their political patrons. The elites and their friends actually do have ‘choice’, whilst the rest of us have Hobson’s. And the rest of us are guilty too. We ‘support’ (or don’t oppose political parties) who offer the promise – which no party can fulfil – of a materially richer tomorrow, of bigger houses, newer cars, more technology, more ‘stuff’ and yes, more choice. All we have to do is follow the elite narcissistic lead and blame the EU, blame benefits fraud, blame outsiders, blame everyone else for our woes but ourselves. After all, it must be somebody’s fault…
This blog and the comments have made me think about the development of political and elite group thinking and whether individual’s narcissism is the key driver. On balance I fear that elites develop a narrative that suits their collective vision of the world and edit out those that point of different perspectives which in part explains the lack of empathy. These elite groups recruit and perpetuate based on their own image and often gender, so the outsider stays outside. As public life becomes a profession rather than a service generally only those most privileged and monied can enter the political treadmill starting off as the unpaid intern. In living that life, they alienate themselves further from those with different backgrounds. Few ordinary people can afford to live without a regular income for years. Is this a self-selection by the clinically narcissistic or just lack of empathy or maybe anger so that others must suffer also? Empathy is expensive of emotional and mental effort and in a world where we live so maniacally, there is no incentive to exercise our humanity and lose energy for climbing up that greasy pole. Indeed to do so is a source of risk to your membership of the group. See coverage of any woman who cries. So in my experience, political groups adopt the ‘laager’ approach keeping others outside and themselves safe; this formation further dehumanises outsiders. The pace of life is such that information becomes rationed and different perspectives remain unexplored. How you break that down involves a full on reform of the political process, a vast improvement in real participatory communication and in particular the funding of political participation. It is not a level playing field if you have no spare resources personal or otherwise at your disposal. If you have those advantages at present why should you share them?
Thanks, this is a great article.
This too seems to explain how hundreds of millions of people are willing to believe any lie that supports their own narcissistic beliefs rather than accept any truth that challenges them.
For example, in order to make a point by “sticking it to the establishment” in protest of financial elites who cannot understand the hardship of their lives, millions of low income and middle class people voted for Donald Trump to be president, who himself is richer than more elitist than all of the prior people that went before and who doesn’t even have the capacity to empathize with the hardship of their lives, and whose choices for staff and policies are guaranteed to make these same voters poorer financially and sicker in health. These truths were stated over and over again, but these people don’t care, choosing instead to believe lies that fit their narcissistic beliefs regardless.
This appears to be a fundamental downside of Democracy, whereby a majority of such people can dictate the direction and demise of the whole by ignoring facts and believing only what they wish regardless of truth.
It is a fact that people seek or gravitate towards positions in society which suit their particular personality traits.Given that elites are groups with a combination of highly competitive and highly cooperative behaviour one expects the successful members of elite groups to display a-symptomatic spectra of psycho-social behaviours.In democratic nation-states, political elites reflect the general nature of the active body politics, which influences the sociopolitical mean in that part of society not politically active more than the not-politically active influence the body politic and the political-bureaucratic elite.The solution to the problem of narcissism in the elites is built into the problems thus caused in society-at-large.If the citizens of the nation-states in question accept or just tolerate narcissistic behaviour in the ruling elites, these elites will continue to be in charge as long as they are able to rule and able to hold on to power.Just now, in the West, electorates have shown increasing impatience with their ruling class.The only way out of the growing sociopolitical dis-ease is for the electorates to effect remedial action.First of all, that means the electorates themselves will have to stop being narcissistic themselves.The next step is to realise that democracy means more than just casting one’s vote every so often.People will have to become fully engaged.In democracies, the entire electorate should be the body politic.The necessary changes have to come from below the level of the mean in the political executive power gradient.Hence, the lower echelons within the current body politics in the West and the higher quartile of those who up until now have not intellectually been engaged in matters of state, the meaning and workings of democracy and the world of international high finance, economics and trade.
Good and topical article. The rise and self-aggrandisement of elites within the UK’s public institutions are, arguably, a major supporting plank for the unequal and excluding modes of current economic growth.
I and some other Fellows in the RSA Scotland have recently created the BIG network on ‘inclusive growth’. We hope to engage with others on how we can best reconstruct policies and practices in this realm.
BTW I should mention that Danny Dorling did superb ground-breaking work in ‘Why Social Inequality Still Persists’
http://www.dannydorling.org/books/injustice/ #Lab16 #lpc16 #elites #hierarchy
The way to stop this happening is surely dead simple – reconnect those in charge to the result of their failure/success. The underlying lesion is that narcissists don;t get to feel the pain they cause others – well, let’s make sure they do! Ensure that all organisational systems have infallible systems for identifying and punishing failing leaders, as opposed to allowing them to walk away, resign, get moved sideways etc.
Interesting stuff Marianna. Simon Winlow and I have researched this from a sociological/criminological perspective – you might be interested https://www.amazon.co.uk/Criminal-Identities-Consumer-Culture-Exclusion/dp/184392255X and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Theorizing-Crime-Deviance-Steve-Hall/dp/1848606729/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470851082&sr=1-1&keywords=theorizing+crime+and+deviance . I think the latter work might also answer the question of elective affinity posed by Simon Stafford-Townsend above.
The Clinton/Blair triangulation theory of government in a nutshell. Though I support Remain this narcissistic approach to politics is evidenced by behaviour of Euro elites and others on the gravy train so they must bear some responsibility for the febrile atmosphere in which we find ourselves. ‘New’Labour and supporters of ‘the Project’cannot blame everything on Thatcher abd the current Tory government.
Narcisissism has commanded the attention of many scholars over the years and more recently in relation to leadership and it is not new to acknowledge these characteristics and the damage they can and do cause. What we understand a lot less is how narcissism contributes to creating; “hubris,” “hamartia,” and “anagnosis” (HH&A). These vices transpire in interactions among humans especially when presented with unfamiliar events that call for decisions or actions that extend beyond their present experiences. By being unwilling to listen (hubris), and incapable of seeing the whole and stepping outside of one’s limited perspective (hamartia), one is acting in a vacuum of ignorance (anagnosis). This lack of similar experiences from which to draw could present dismissive responses to the significance of the challenges. Moreover, they do affect the practical judgments (phronesis) that guide action. The latter is where a lot more of attention is being focused on both by scholars, Think Tanks (e.g. Respublica) and indeed where policy and practice perhaps require most urgently support, especially if we are to device modes of learning to address these vices and restore virtues as the cultivation of character that guide action and interaction among social actors.
These issues are addressed in more detail by Antonacopoulou, E.P. and Sheaffer, Z. (2014) Learning in Crisis: Rethinking the Relationship between Organizational Learning and Crisis Management. Journal of Management Inquiry, 23(1):5-21
I agree with the general thrust that an understanding of narcissism in the context of public policy & institutions is necessary, and can help us address the problems you outline.
As a psychotherapist, I would add that narcissism needs to be placed in the context of other personality processes, and understood in terms of character styles rather than personality disorders. I recommend Stephen Johnson’s Character Styles as a really accessible grounding in this area (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Character-Styles-Stephen-M-Johnson/dp/0393701719).
For example, if I consider how borderline characters might impact public institutions, I immediately think of the volatile risk-taking of stock brokers. If any character style matches the idea of “casino banking”, it is borderline character style, where risk taking with little regard for consequences becomes prevalent. Someone with a more narcissistic character style is more likely to take calculated risks.
Alternatively, a more schizotypal style involves magical thinking and an attempt to distance oneself from human relationships, which are experienced as threatening. Is there any thinking more magical than the idea that “market forces”, if given free rein, will develop a benevolent society in which wealth naturally circulates to all? And is there anything so detached from the idea of human relationship than that abstraction?
So I think an understanding of character styles in general would be good, as narcissism needs to be placed in a wider context of how personality functions.
There is also something important here about regulation. Prior to Thatcher’s deregulation of financial markets, the kind of casino banking that precipitated the 2008 crash was inhibited. When institutions have effective corporate governance and appropriate regulation, the more destructive possibilities of narcissism can be effectively mitigated.
It’s also worth considering how *everyone* has some degree of narcissism, as it is pretty much impossible to make it through childhood without suffering some kind of narcissistic wounding. So I wonder to what extent certain environments encourage a development of that narcissism, rather than the general view that narcissistic people seek out positions of power.
It’s a really interesting area, and I think there is huge potential for psychotherapy to be a force for social reform. Particularly if the idea of the relational state (http://www.ippr.org/publication/55/9888/the-relational-state-how-recognising-the-importance-of-human-relationships-could-revolutionise-the-role-of-the-state) is to be given serious consideration by a Labour Government post-2015.
Really interesting post, thank you.
I think, in the 70s, we reached the nadir of centralised, nanny knows best, overbearing, state control, this was all kicked over, by amongst others punk rock and maggie thatcher.
We are now at the opposite end of the cycle, where we are too free and have no responsibilities to tie us down and bind us to the greater good.
The current culture will be swept away as dysfunctional and weak and the children of future will read of our demise and say, ‘Wow, no surprise there then. that their way of life went down the pan’