Time to Stop Using the ’N’ Word at Work?

The Narcissist and the Limitation of Labels


An article arrived in my inbox today calling out narcissists in leadership positions.

Yes, I get it.

Headlines. And me too, evidently.

The Shorthand

I understand the shorthand here-that (some) people in power (sometimes) seem to value the power more than the outcome or the people. Or worse, there is malign intent and there is a negative impact on people and performance that may run a spectrum from undesirable to intolerable.

We should talk about this. About culture, about checks and balances, about hiring and firing procedures, and, of course, about our own individual agency. We should consider, together and individually, what to do to minimise it happening and to manage it when it does.


The Risk

All labels come with risk.

They come with the obvious risk that a label immediately puts up a barrier between us and the person in front of us. We see the label, we have stopped seeing the person. We have become the one not listening.

And this impacts our choices, whether we see it or not. Understandable to shortcut, to want to relieve our pain, but life throws us challenges and a clear head is likely to lead to better solutions.

Yes, that person we have labelled may be self-absorbed, may even get a certain masochistic pleasure from making themselves the most important person in the room.

If we are to tackle something, however, it seems to me that it helps to understand it. And, I wonder, if we really looked deep enough, would we see that someone’s view of the world has become so fixed that another label we could put on them would be ‘trapped’?

Which is not to excuse behavioural blind spots, places where someone does not seem to understand the consequences of what they are doing and saying, and / or has an inability or unwillingness to moderate.

It might be one thing for my teenager to judge it OK to swear loudly on a call with his buddies but if he does that in a university seminar, probably not so fine. Or at least, there will be different consequences. He knows that and he knows how to make a judgement and whether, and how to moderate.

The Diagnosis

Clients often tell me stories of people around them who seem to exhibit dysfunctional behaviour. I don’t know these people and I always take the stance of what is helpful for my client-which is usually to look at where everything we think comes from and then, practically, what they want to, and can do in any particular situation.

What often happens is that the need to do anything dissolves, or at least the need to do what first came to mind dissolves as they explore and gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on, especially given what they know about human behaviour and leadership.


…a diagnosis can be a helpful starting point.

Getting older, for me, has been accompanied by a few aches and pains, and there have been times over recent years when I’ve been desperate for a diagnosis. I want a name and an explanation. I want to understand so I can solve. Really, though, it’s the solution that is the important piece for me, and the diagnosis may be a more or less helpful milestone.

I am not my diagnosis. In fact, my diagnosis, if I make it mean more than a milestone, can become a limiter.

The Stereotype

I have a client whose manager thinks she is ‘good at detail’. Great to be good at something, but also limiting, right?

She is good at many things and ‘detail’ is not usually on the job description for a senior leadership position. I’m sure her manager means no ill-intent, and is likely blind to the label having out-lived any usefulness it ever had. It’s become, or always was, a limiter.

I had some telephone physiotherapy recently for a shoulder problem.

Don’t look at my age on your notes and make assumptions, I am ‘injured’, not ‘old’. Give me exercise that involve weights.

I told Conner, on the other end of the phone.

He laughed, but I would not be surprised if he had looked at that number and made it mean something. Again, understandable but potentially limiting.

The Nuance

What are we saying when we call someone a narcissist? That he or she acts in certain ways, yes. Are we also, innocently, putting them in that ‘too difficult to deal with’ box? Just because I can’t imagine a solution working, is that a reason not to try?

It may be, and that’s a decision in the moment, but I like to be able to see where I am making it a rule.

Here’s what looks true to me. And, I emphasise, this is what looks true to me, in this moment, writing this piece.

A ‘diagnosis’ has been helpful to me in many, many circumstances. It helps me take a breath, pause and assess where I am. It can help explain the pain I’m suffering, mental and physical. It can help me review options, seek information, and consider how to move forward, what to do, what I think I can solve and what looks intractable to me-a sure sign I need to look again!

The bottom line, for me, is that I am not my diagnosis, those I love are not their diagnoses, my client’s colleagues are not the characterisation we may put on them in our conversations.

I know for sure that how I see someone, or something, in the moment is not who they are or what the thing is, it’s a tiny flash of an image that has appeared in my mind in that moment, filtered through my experience, like catching a glimpse of a billboard as I drive by.

A label looks like a fixed thing, and none of us is fixed.

The nuance, I think, is in seeing the milestone as a point at which to take stock, and to bring more thoughtfulness to what I am making something mean, and how that meaning is empowering, or limiting my action.

The Meaning

I too label things. It’s a great sifting mechanism, and it enables me to move forward with things I want to put my attention on. I regularly skim my emails, delete or respond with a ‘thanks but no thanks’, or I skim the exercise videos on Instagram and think, yeah, I’m never gonna do that. What I really mean is, ‘it isn’t my focus right now’.

I am not, though, setting the agenda for my own life, even if I think I am. I am interacting in a world of many things, and people, especially, pull me into situations that would not have been my first choice.

I remember a conversation with a school teacher about a bullying incident when one of my boys was young. What do you want to do, she asked me.

I want not to be in your office talking about this!

Yep, good to get that off the chest, but given we are in those situations, what to do becomes a more important question.

I can’t answer that for you, just as you can’t answer that for me.

It does seem though, as if the scope of my choices is linked to the extent to which we can, in the moment, transcend our own habits of thinking, and patterns of conditioned behaviour. My experience will guide what I think, but it feels like I am reminded daily that, even when I think I know someone really well, there is an infinity of ‘more’ to know about them.

We’re always going to have a ‘first thought’, but we have the capacity for a ‘second thought’. That’s where the gold is.

I also know, with quite some certainty, that when I show up with a loving intention towards someone it usually seems to go better.

With love,


Cathy Presland

Here to help with leadership and impact. I have lots of additional writing here, including regular leadership seminars. If you’d like to explore more deeply or join a conversation check those out or contact me directly if there’s something I can support you with.

Originally published at https://cathypresland.com on April 8, 2021.

What if making an impact was part of your everyday? Stories to light up your soul. Read more and free courses: https://cathypresland.com/find-out-more

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