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The Narcissistic/ Codependent Culture at Work

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“You know it really was a bad night when your bad night was featured on the national news.” Dr. Mosten’s face looked grave and concerned. These words were said to me in parting as my mother and I stepped out of the front door of his professional rooms onto the footpath of the treelined suburban street. From habit I tried to smile and think of something lighthearted to say, but his frown made me change my mind.

Steve and I had spent the previous night evacuating neighbouring motel guests (from 2 miles down the road) to the motel where we live and work. We had been awakened by the onsite mangers of that property, owned by the same investment group as ours, after a mysterious blaze had taken hold in the function room upstairs.

Thankfully no one was injured. My visit to the doctors that morning was for my mothers sake and had been booked many weeks before.

The fire was suspicious, however, as I had 2 computers from our Motel stolen on the same night.

In the after math of the fire, the emotional intelligence skills I teach and value (now that I have regained my composure after a tough week) have alerted me to the fact that the staff culture we live and work under at the motels must undergo urgent change.

Should Senior Officials be Questioned?

The story of our motels involves too many real life people close to me for me to share it in full here, so instead of talking directly about our life and work, I will share some related ideas from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he discusses how a cultural phenomenon he dubbed “Asian cockpit culture” once wreaked havoc with airline safety in Korea.

Summarising his ideas for Fortune magazine, Gladwell said Korean Air’s problem at this time was not old planes or poor crew training. “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical,” he said.

You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S. That’s dangerous when it comes to modern airplanes,” said Gladwell, “Because such sophisticated machines are designed to be piloted by a crew that works together as a team of equals, remaining unafraid to point out mistakes or disagree with a captain.”

Quoting from a later National Geographic article on the same book . . .

To Gladwell, this may have explained why Korean Air Flight 801 crashed into a hill while on approach to an airport in Guam in 1997, killing 223 people. In addition to a series of misfortunes, including bad weather, an offline warning system, and outdated charts, the co-pilot was afraid to question the poor judgment of the pilot, wrote Gladwell—a fatal mistake.

Similarly, Gladwell assigned blame for the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 in Long Island, New York, to human error caused by cultural differences. The plane ran out of fuel while circling JFK, leading to 73 fatalities. The pilots of the Colombian airline did not assert themselves enough with air traffic control when communicating that they were running out of fuel, wrote Gladwell.

Gladwell argued that in Colombia, as in Korea, cultural norms tended to dictate that people avoid directly questioning authority—in this case, the authority of controllers who had asked the Avianca plane to keep holding.”

I would say this problem extends well beyond Asian culture and in the context of narcissism and codependence, don’t believe this situation so unimaginable in the West.

While we may not have the same cultural protocols of blind deference towards elders and authority as they do in Korea, I believe we still have a similar systemic problem here.

Narcissistic men with fragile egos too often are promoted into positions of authority. While many of us have been “groomed” as codependents growing up, to protect these men from facing their faults.

A co-pilot not having the courage to question a pilots error is a very simple example of codependence in the workplace and the dangers it can present.”

More complex is the danger, still present, when a narcissistic leader’s shortcomings such as irresponsibility (due to an inability to look at themselves honestly), playing staff off against each other, overworking and underpaying staff etc. degrade people’s work and home life.

Most of us have experienced this type of workplace, so common we often simply see it as depressing and miss the very real dangers involved.

When people lack a stable and solid social structure to operate within, tempers can flare and people make what can end up being dangerous mistakes.

Desperate people are everywhere and not everyone has a long fuse.

In a marriage this may turn into a shouting match, where in a work place unregulated anger may not be so easily vent directly.

In our real life motel drama, Steve today is no longer playing the narcissistic role. He has often said in the past that many men who are narcissistic at home are codependent at work.

This hen may have come home to roost.

The Koreans, as I will tell in a moment, did the hard yards and turned their aviation industry around. What that story does not tell, however, is the very real and overwhelming fear involved for codependents in learning to speak up, especially with a boss.

Groomed to Protect Fragile Men

If you have grown up with a father with a fragile ego, the elephant in the room in an N/C family (that no one is allowed to talk about) is that dad’s glorified (while distorted) image of himself is something that must be protected at all cost.

More insidious than the kind of deference paid to authority figures in Asia, in the West we are raised to protect these men’s fragile egos and fear upsetting them or making them feel bad. Caring too much about not hurting a man’s pride, however, is a game that can leave families and employees at risk.

Calling out dad or the bosses errors or weaknesses, in our society still breaks many taboos.

A Law Unto Themselves

Men in the west are also often trained to close ranks as peers against any external criticism from above, below or without. Wall St. bankers and stockbrokers come instantly to mind. Despite all of the animosity society feels towards them I have never once seen a banker or stockbroker answer the criticisms levelled against them. 

This is a very common phenomenon and I believe NPD and “group think” are very close to the same thing.

To give another example, a friend of mine who is a behavioural scientist who has viewed the hospital system has a dark view of how this can play out.

She says;

“As I see it, doctors in Australia are deliberately sleep deprived in their first years on duty. It ensures that mistakes will be made that will later prevent them from pointing a finger at anyone else.”

The Solution

The good news is that just as the Koreans improved their air safety record, there is hope to overcome the dangers of narcissism and codependence at home and at work.

Writing in Slate, Patrick Smith—a pilot himself—wrote . . .

. . . Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation’s civil aviation system,”

According to Gladwell, that overhaul process included cultural reorientation inside the cockpit, to encourage crew to speak up about any perceived dangers and to voice concerns in plain language—not overly polite, mitigated speech that could be interpreted as vague. (emphasis added)

Those efforts paid off, according to Smith, who noted that a 2008 industry assessment ranked Korean airlines as among the safest in the world.

As they should be, Koreans are immensely proud of this turnaround, and Asiana Airlines, the nation’s number two carrier, had maintained an impeccable record of both customer satisfaction and safety,” wrote Smith.

This kind of turnaround doesn’t come easily, but is as vital at work as it is at home.

It is not about men losing their authority at home and at work, instead it is about them learning that true leadership is not built on false pride and fragile self esteem. Instead it involves a process of making sure everyone in the groups needs are heard and addressed. This encourages team work and trust.

In the last unit of my online support group and master class I have recently posted the staff documents we have put together for changing the staff culture at the motels we manage. Steve will be working through the master class material with us for the next few months too, learning how to better take on the challenge of speaking up with senior management regarding the security of the properties we now manage and making sure staff complaints are heard and addressed. 

The change I started many years ago at home is now moving into our workplace.

If you would like to learn the leadership skills necessary to tackle this type of change in your home or workplace. I suggest you start with our free tutorial on the front page of this site.


This Post Has 21 Comments
  1. I now understand that I was working for narcissistic people almost all my life and I was groomed to be codependent. I am also starting to change this and change my family around. I want to encourage you to keep up the good work and feel good about it.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write, and I’m sorry to hear about your Mum. With reference to your article, so true, and only a year ago I found myself doing everything I could possibly do so that my sons first grade teacher did not shout at him. Then spent some time with my Mum, and again found myself doing everything I could so she didnt shout at anyone… conencted the dots and realised that all the while I was putting my mothers needs above my sons need, it made him even more anxious and I stopped.

    As parents now it’s hard listening to your kids feedback of when we may think the rules don’t apply to us…with those words haunting me from my mother ‘do as I say, not as I do’, but i know that you cannot give feedback if you are not willing to accept it, and you must practice what you preach. Your kids learn more from how you act than how you tell them to behave. This is so true for management, the best managers ive had at work were the ones who were never afraid to show you themselves how to do the job, and were someone you felt safe following their lead. Its not enough to have the title of manager, you have to know the dance, as Gordon Neufeld would say.

    Interestingly, ive just remembered whilst writing this that in the late 90s I worked for a large insurance company in the UK and I atteneded work shop on giving upwards feedback, to management. My manager at the time had recently had a word in my ear about making a personal phonecall during work. So after the upwards feedback workshop I told him that I found it difficult to listen to his feedback about my phone call as he spent most of the day on the phone to his wife.

    On a very personal note Kim I found you nearly 5 years ago, today having lunch with my partner and son, my partner said talking about a friend who’d beeen really ill he said , ‘you know its great I can actually feel now, I really feel for her’. Thanks Kim 🙂 xx

    1. Great to hear Stef. Feedback from kids is sure tough. Only last night as I did one last urgent edit of this piece (on my laptop at the dining table since my desktop computers are gone and it had already been published so I felt under pressure) I brushed my son off when he made a couple of bids for my attention. Later he got angry at me and said some things that really hurt my feelings. In the past that kind of situation would have escalated, but instead I understood what had happened, Steve played ref and let us each speak after my son had a time out. I sensed he was sad about a lot of stuff and eventually that did come out. This morning driving him to school we were close again and talked about how emotions are like the weather – when its blowing a gale you can’t imagine it ever being a beautiful day again – but like the weather emotions do change. I encouraged him to be cautious of not letting the storm do so much damage and to remember his anger would pass. He heard me and I look forward to finding more time for him now school holidays are here. What a change from in the past where we would have grounded him and the fight gone on and on.

  3. Kim, you correctly identify this as pervasive even in Western societies. The guidelines you have established for your business take bullying off the table and employ the benefits, or should I say synergy, of open, cooperative, goal oriented problem solving. You are correct to identify the barrier to that to be ego.
    Praying that culture can make the shift…one ego at a time. Thank you for your insights.

    1. Synergy is the perfect word Jane! I think this kind of ‘culture’ is threatening to people in ego, primarily as it makes them feel left out and unlovable. Rather than manage, they try and control the situation to make sure no one puts them down or leaves them out. Ironically it is this very behaviour that makes people not want them around.

  4. Very good insights into fragile men. I would like to see a more “modern” view, however, which also addresses the protected, fragile women, analogous to the men discussed in this article. Isn’t it evident that there is a large population of women in positions of power, who have been similarly “groomed”? When you write “Men in the west are also often trained to close ranks as peers against any external criticism from above, below or without. Wall St. bankers and stockbrokers come instantly to mind.”, are you under the impression that there are no female Wall Street bankers and stockbrokers? You might want to visit the moder Wall Street, I’m not saying the women are still largely oppressed and objectified in these traditionally male Western professions. But I will guarantee you will find many women in CxO positions of major corporations, including banking and trading, who exhibit the same dysfunctions you attribute exclusively to men. Further, you will also find an amazing number of women in relationships, who also bear those same hallmarks. How do you like my edit of this sentence? “in the West we are raised to protect these women’s fragile egos and fear upsetting them or making them feel bad. Caring too much about not hurting a womand’s pride, however, is a game that can leave families and employees at risk.”

    1. Hi Kameron, While I agree that women can certainly terrorise the world with their narcissistic behaviour, personally I do not think society protects this in roles of authority as it does men. My thoughts on this would require a whole new article and so this time I have made the issue gender specific. What I will say briefly is that narcissistic mothers are not as well loved by all as their male counterparts. I would be very interested in just how many women bankers and stockbrokers their really are – my guess is these positions of true wealth and power are still closely guarded.

  5. An incredibly timely read. Just last night, two of my teenagers spent an hour venting frustration about their Dad’s self-absorbed and self-serving behaviors. He doesn’t follow the rules of the home (ie. cleaning up after self) but tells the kids to do it for him or silently leaves it for someone else, dictates orders like a military officer to minions, allows himself to speak harshly but will not tolerate the same…
    I have been largely silent, not knowing how to address it constructively. When I address any of his behavior he makes no efforts or defends himself with excuses (sore back currently). I despise the example the kids are getting of both his behavior and mine. It’s part of my character growth plan to speak up, even when faced with opposition. Today could be the day.

  6. Thank you, Kim and Steve. This is very valuable information – bringing the n/c issues into the workplace and society as a whole.

  7. Thank you, Kim. I found this article hit home to me with what was happening in our home life when I was a child. I can see how I am still affected today in my 40’s and how it plays out in my work situations. I have a fear of speaking up and a very high regard for authority. On the odd occasion over the years, it has been misplaced. Thank you for this educational article/blog.

  8. What a timely illustration this is, of the cascading negative impacts that can occur when – for whatever reason – we are unable to speak truth to power. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  9. Man, this is good!! I can so relate to this dynamic from within my own family culture. It’s so refreshing to realise not only is it okay to bring things out in the open, but it’s vitally important to do so. Thanks, Kim. X

  10. My experience with the protection of the fragile ego was more like, protecting myself from violent anger, in other words, the narcissist would use the agreed upon “deal” — boss to worker, husband to wife , as an excuse to let out their extreme anxiety and rejection towards a person in a weaker position than they . In fact, in a way , your experience with the motel fire , where a great chaos was created, which was then taken advantage of , in order to steal computers, is kind of the norm in the world of the narcissist. For a while, that works, until it doesn’t work because they cannot create chaos without crashing the plane . I do not see the ego as fragile, I see the domination / submission , as a pre planned game , created to benefit the bankers, the male salary , the dictatorial authority , which is all basically unfair , and never ends up looking or feeling like peaceful abundance . The game , is a game , is a game .

    1. Yes I agree Jennifer that ego really isn’t fragile. A well developed false self is protecting the fragile and broken true identity inside of these people. The test is often when they retire and do not have authority any longer. Suddenly their lack of any real identity beyond the power role becomes apparent to all.

      I wish the computer and fire were as easily linked. Unfortunately both were orchestrated to hurt Steve and I personally (we had plans for the function room). Mismanagement in the past has forced us over the last 6 weeks into a clean up role were Steve has had to sack a lot of staff (at the other motel) that should never have been employed there in the first place. The last of these went the morning before the fire broke out and new live in managers had just moved in. This is why it is now so essential that despite senior managements ideas (that security is only about locks and cameras) that we fight the good fight to get better staff policies in place.

      Internals rivalries, jealousy, betrayal etc. built on unrealistic expectations and authority based on systems that are not fair are where I believe the real danger comes from at work and at home.

      This won’t bring my computers back or heal our disappointment over plans that will never materialise now, It will however help ensure the security of our home and work environment.

      So far so good.

  11. Thank you for this wise article, Kim. I have always been a frank person, if I don’t like something, I say it. Even in the workplace, I would be the one to speak up against injustice, much to the horror of my colleagues (nothing rude or untoward, I promise). People would always voice out their admiration for my braveness in such instances… yet I found myself married to a narcissistic man. Long story short, due to his addiction, we ended up in therapy and I remember how I hated the overly-polite way the therapist would challenge his behaviour; its interesting that you also point it out in your article.

    I must say, though, that I am on a journey to learn how to communicate one’s wrongdoing without shaming them or sounding self-righteous. I do believe that communication lines need to be open both ways in order to create a progressive environment, both in the home and at work. This is such a 180 from the way that I was raised and socialised, men have always be placed on a pedestal and their behaviour never challenged and I can tell you that my change in behaviour is so taboo and brings such shock and horror to my family. They just cannot believe how I am unwilling to babysit my husband’s emotions. Breaking the codependency cycle is sure liberating!

    PS: I’m sorry to hear about your mom and the incident at your business, I hope all will work out for the best in the end. Please be encouraged to keep up this great work, it is invaluable to me as one of your readers.

  12. Kim,
    This paragraph resonates with me: “It is not about men losing their authority at home and at work, instead it is about them learning that true leadership is not built on false pride and fragile self esteem. Instead it involves a process of making sure everyone in the groups needs are heard and addressed. This encourages team work and trust.”
    I am unsure how to set up the environment for team work and trust. In my situation, my husband is not listening to everyone in the group nor are individual/group needs being addressed. Confronting the false pride seems to only exacerbate the issues.
    Thank you for this timely article.

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