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When Narcissism Preempts the Common Weal

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
August 7, 2023

The Greek tale of Narcissus, as retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, describes a young man who ignored romantic advances from a nymph named Echo and others.

One spurned suitor invoked Nemesis, goddess of retribution, who punishes Narcissus by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Frustrated to be the one now ignored since his reflection has no life of its own, a heartbroken Narcissus dies and transforms into a daffodil flower. Instead of acknowledging others’ love, self-absorbed Narcissus selfishly fixated on himself.

From this age-old myth, pioneers in the field of psychology including Sigmund Freud, identified a neurosis called narcissism. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s fifth edition (DSM-V), the American Psychiatric Association lists nine key symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). These include possessing a grandiose sense of self-importance; harboring fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love; believing oneself to be special; requiring excessive admiration; having a sense of entitlement; being interpersonally exploitative; lacking empathy; showing envy of others; and possessing an arrogant, haughty attitude. Only a licensed mental health practitioner can diagnose NPD, but these factors identify some common narcissistic behaviors.

Corrupt activities involve self-dealing and placing individual wants before the public interest. Unfortunately, a lot of that has happened in recent years. Just last week, prosecutors indicted a U.S. Border Patrol agent for soliciting a $5,000 bribe to falsify immigration records. In 2018, an Amtrak employee was indicted for receiving bribes valued at $20,000 in exchange for preferential treatment in awarding contracts to a vendor. Four New Jersey Amtrak employees recently faced federal charges for accepting bribes and willfully allowing healthcare providers to use their insurance policies to submit fraudulent claims.

Corrections officers, too, are not immune, including the North Carolina defendant who pled guilty to accepting monetary bribes and bringing illegal narcotics into the prison environment for inmates. In 2013, a Foreign Service Officer from the U.S. State Department pleaded guilty to accepting over $3,000,000 in bribes in exchange for hundreds of visitors’ visas in an elaborate scheme; the money was used to purchase 9 properties in Thailand. In 2022, a California Department of Motor Vehicles employee fraudulently entered passing scores for 185 commercial driver applicants’ tests in exchange for an estimated $277,500 in bribes.

In these examples, bribery incentivized fraudulent acts. Such scandals illuminate an individual work ethic solely driven by narcissism’s self-interest. Ultimately, these events malign the entire public service profession. Yet what makes some people choose a corrupt path while others stay faithful to the institutional mission?

Donald Cressey’s Fraud Triangle outlines the conditions of pressure, opportunity and rationalization as familiar ingredients in fraud’s many manifestations. Pressure, often relating to monetary obligations, creates a motive to act. Next comes a perceived opportunity to benefit by misusing one’s position. Last comes rationalization where someone will justify taking this action, even if it’s illegal.

In Albrecht et al.’s Fraud Examination, 3rd edition, the authors note, “Given the interactive nature of the elements in the fraud triangle, the decreasing levels of honesty present a scary future concerning fraud. Less honesty makes it easier to rationalize, thus requiring less perceived opportunity and/or pressure for fraud to occur.” If dishonesty can advance narcissists’ selfish interests, a constant threat shall loom. One relevant 2012 Baylor University study authored by Dr. Marjorie Cooper even concluded that narcissism diminishes ethical decision-making, especially for those entrusted to act more ethically. Public servants fall into that category.

In another study, Dr. Anna Fennimore from Florida Atlantic University explored how public service occupations attract narcissists. “Agentic narcissists” are those who overtly dominate conversations, acting superior, and seek inordinate praise. Fennimore notes that “communal narcissists” are more common in public service and “engage in self-serving behavior, while presenting themselves as compassionate and self-sacrificial” and “seek self-aggrandizement in a communal domain, emphasizing self within an interpersonal circle of others.”

What can be done? Fennimore suggests that more “ethics training and education in the workplace” can invoke a deeper awareness of an individual’s responsibilities. Understanding the required ethical limits may even dissuade self-interested personalities from remaining or even from seeking a public sector position at all. A barrier to identifying problematic employees who may harbor more selfish agendas is “in organizational climates marked by uncertainty, unplanned change and hybridization of structures across sectors.”

Supervisors can impose corrective action for policy violations, but line workers may detect early red flags, such as if a coworker seeks excessive recognition and validation for performing regular job duties. An appropriate response is to implement the so-called “gray rock” method by limiting contact only to what’s necessary and setting appropriate boundaries.

By design, narcissism is the bane of public service, greedily siphoning off resources, energy and attention otherwise reserved for advancing the core mission. Robust hiring practices, strong internal controls, effective management oversight and vigilant coworkers are proactive safeguards to buttress public service arenas against narcissism’s volatile poison.

As far as the machinations of American government are concerned, widespread antipathy continues to spread. Citizens’ faith in public administration itself surely is at stake.

Author: Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from NYU, Jason Bowns earned his Master in Public Administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Inspector General program. A certified social studies teacher, Bowns worked in many K-12 education settings and recently matriculated into a public policy doctoral program. He’s interested in juvenile justice, penology, and public sector ethics. Contact him at [email protected]

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