How do narcissists influence team members?
The answer to the question is surprisingly straightforward. Firstly, codependent individuals are easily influenced by the narcissist as they feel a compelling need to defend the behavior of a narcissistic colleague. Codependents do their narcissist's bidding, as they are emotionally dependent on them. But people who are not codependent are also influenced by the narcissist who uses subtle but persistent methods that succeed because of the way in which all human brains remembers things.
Our memories of past experiences are part fact and part illusion. Our brain can remember a huge amount of information, but it can't record everything we experience. It gets around this problem by storing just enough information to recall an experience that happened in the past, then fills in the gaps with imagination.1
"Memory is a reconstructive process that uses every piece of information at its disposal to build the mental images."2
So if we make up much of what we remember and we use every piece of information at our disposal, there is plenty of scope for influencing what the imagination uses to fill these gaps.
The narcissist's brain is on constant alert for opportunities for self-aggrandisement or the denigration of others.3 He (or she) is also on the lookout for opportunities to support his codependents / enablers / followers to maintain his power base. All opportunities that are presented in the course of discussion are taken to further the narcissist's influence. The following research study describes how words influence memory recall.
People were shown a film of a traffic accident. They were then asked questions about it. Among the questions there was one about the speed of the cars, and this was phrased very carefully. Half of the people were asked 'how fast the cars were going when they hit one another?', while the other half were asked 'how fast were the cars going when they smashed into one another?' All the other questions were the same.
A week later, the same people were asked to remember the film they had seen. Among other things, they were asked whether there had been any broken glass in the film. There hadn't been any, and those who had been asked about the cars hitting one another remembered that. But those who had been asked about the cars smashing into one another distinctly remembered broken glass strewn around the road, and were surprised to find that it wasn't there when they saw the film again. The words which were used when they were asked about the accident had directly influenced what they remembered - to the point of introducing details which hadn't been there originally.4
What a #@&"!#$ mess!
Narcissists also introduce details which hadn't been there originally. These details directly influence what others remember, skewed positively in favor of the narcissist and negatively against his 'enemies'.
For example, a narcissist described the damage to his car after an accident that was his fault as "Ah, it's nothing." The car required a new drivers side door, a new front wing, new headlight, other body repairs and a paint re-spray. However, a week earlier the narcissist's colleague had an accident that was not his fault. The narcissist disliked his colleague, and described the damage as, "What a #@&"!#$ mess." The damage to the car took 25 minutes to repair at the garage, the replacement of a damaged plastic fuel pipe underneath the car. The cost of repairs to the narcissist's car was more than 20 times the cost of the repair to his colleague's car.
The narcissist uses emotive language to influence the other team members, directly influencing what they remember about the narcissist himself and other individuals, using positive prompts for himself and his supporters and negative prompts for his enemies. Narcissists "...remember the past as they would have wanted it to occur, not as it actually happened."5 Over time, this technique used by the narcissist will influence in varying degrees all team members, gaining acceptance of the narcissist's distorted world view.
To understand more about how a narcissist can influence team perceptions, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.
1 Gilbert, D. (2006), Stumbling on Happiness, Harper Collins, London.
2 Gilbert, D. (2006), Stumbling on Happiness, Harper Collins, London, p. 206.
3 Holmes, J. (2001), Ideas in psychoanalysis: Narcissism, Icon Books, UK, p.57.
4 Loftus, G.R. and Loftus, E.F. (1975), Human Memory: the Processing of Information New York : Halsted Press In: Foundations of Psychology, An Introductory Text, Hayes, N (ed.) 2nd. Edition, London, Thomas Nelson.
5 Millon, T. and Davis, R. (2000), Personality Disorders in Modern Life, Wiley, New York, p. 294.