Institutional Narcissism: A look at the malignant ethos infiltrating influential organizations

Years back I watched The Corporation, a documentary which brilliantly illustrated how the diagnostic criteria of a psychopath parallels the character structure of a corporation. Based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan, the film’s psychological analysis elucidated how an ethos of malignant narcissism permeates the corporate entity on organizational and ideological levels.

As Bakan conveyed, “The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.”

Like corporations other large scale establishments such as religious institutions, the medical industry, political parties, progressive social movements and academia can evidence the psychological condition of disordered narcissism. In fact, The Communal Narcissism Inventory (CNI) (Gebauer, J. E., Sedikides, C., Verplanken, B., & Maio, G. R.) identifies those who are driven to satisfy the same selfish needs as the agentic narcissist, focused on actualizing inflated self-directed personal goals for power, success, and admiration, but in cooperative public domains.

The communal narcissist seeking to continuously validate their grandiosity and satisfy their sense of entitlement and thirst for power, appears empathically attuned and committed to collective goals. In actuality, they are excessively self-centered, possess an inflated sense of self-importance, accompanied by a lack of empathy for others and a constant need for admiration.

Communal narcissists set in motion the phenomenon of institutional narcissism, in which self-interests, self-promotion, and self-preservation, above all else are the priority. In these high powered institutions narcissism and even psychopathology is evidenced through a vast array of organizational behaviors and dynamics.

Starting with lack of accountability, organizations and institutions that are not answerable for their actions, decisions, or behaviors, engage in irresponsible or unethical behavior without facing any repercussions. This absence of accountability may involve a failure to establish appropriate systems or mechanisms to track and evaluate performance. Alternatively, there may be a deliberate lack of transparency in decision-making processes, or a disregard for ethical standards and legal obligations.

For example, we see the absence of accountability exhibited through extractivism where multi-national industries evade responsibility for the environmental damage they often carry out through violent means. Rather than address concerns, dissent is managed by deflecting blame onto opponents of capitalist industrialization and technological progress.

Likewise, extractive agendas prevail through virtue signaling and manipulative tactics, such as investing in social programs, sustainability initiatives and biodiversity protection. Lofty pledges about building climate resilience, reaching net zero emissions, and ending deforestation are touted. Similarly, to protect their reputation and avoid admitting mistakes legislation is proposed which ostensibly considers the rights of indigenous people.

These tactics are a means to gaslight communities into falsely believing that they are afforded agency with collaboratively achieving environmental solutions, so that so called ‘green initiatives’ can proffer massive profits.

Yet even though Oxfam reported, ‘a billionaire is responsible for a million times more greenhouse gas emissions than the average person’, we are expected to put faith in a green energy movement run by self righteous billionaires, corporations, and wealthy family foundations responsible for polluting investments and global extractivism.

Likewise, the exploitation of others to ensure gain is standard procedure in organizations characterized by malignant agendas. This can involve taking credit for others’ achievements, using and discarding individuals when they are no longer useful, or disregarding the needs and concerns of stakeholders. Apparently, CEO and co-founder of the Apple Empire Steve Jobs exemplified this trend.

As Jonathan Ive, the designer behind the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone, shared with biographer Walter Isaacson, “He will go through a process of looking at my ideas and say, ‘That’s no good. That’s not very good. I like that one.’ And later I will be sitting in the audience and he will be talking about it as if it was his idea.”

Alongside the tendency to usurp credit from those who manufactured code and crafted designs, Apple’s Worldwide Loyalty Team, formerly supervised by John Theriault, consisted of a group of insider informers tasked with spying for the top executives. This sort of surveillance in which leaks are hunted down by confiscating employee cell phones and laptops are euphemistically referred to as workplace transparency measures. Unfortunately these tracking procedures have become an accepted standardized routine amongst employers.

Moreover, like Apple’s factories operating in China, dire domestic and overseas labor violations are proliferating. Involuntary and underage labor and deplorable working conditions, such as 34 hour shifts, are indicative of a worldwide corporate culture of indentured servitude.

Institutional narcissism is also characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement. Such organizations believe they are superior to others, deserving of special treatment, and exempt from the rules or standards that apply to others. These attitudes were conveyed by the catholic church’s response to scandals of child sexual abuse. Cover-ups, shuffling around predatory priests to sundry parishes and conceding to court settlement payouts revealed a collective mindset of depraved, duplicitous secrecy.

In the European Journal of Social Psychology, a research article authored by psychology professors from the Polish Academy of Sciences, Catholic collective narcissism, (defined by the authors as a grandiose image of the in-group that is contingent upon external recognition of its worth) was positively associated with the acceptance of pedophilia myths, such as the notion that children are partly to blame for being sexually abused by priests.

Researcher Marta Marchlewska stated, “Even though sexual relations between priests and minors have taken place inside the Catholic Church for centuries, the Catholic hierarchy was not always prone to fight against pedophilia in an official way, In contrast, they put a lot of effort into keeping the existence of such activities hidden from public view to cover up the scandal and protect the positive image of their in-group.”

Indeed, the Church has an extensive history of covering up and concealing criminal conduct. Along with a heinous history of pedophilia, the Church aligned with Hitler and Mussolini, implemented the Inquisition and Crusades, the Magdalene laundries, the witch-hunts, and supported democide and slavery in the Americas, Africa, and Australia. Yet, the upholding of grandiose ideas of spiritual infallibility and superior virtue managed to deflect accountability. The steady decline in Catholicism perhaps suggests that the Church’s failings have finally outweighed their ostensible virtues.

Another indicator of institutional narcissism is the absence of empathy or concern for the well-being of others. Such organizations prioritize their own goals and objectives and disregard the impact of their decisions on employees, customers, or the larger community.

For instance, it is obvious to most American people that the political system and the neoliberal capitalist economy is deeply corrupt and flawed. Extensive homelessness, substandard education and an avaricious medical industrial complex, along with colossal military spending reveals the U.S. government’s lack of concern for the needs of its people. If, as the saying goes, ‘the greatness of a civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest most vulnerable members,’ than the current gauge for systemic failure and societal breakdown is conspicuous indifference towards the working class and the disadvantaged.

As anthropology researchers (Blanton R., Feinman G.) imparted, even the most formidable societies are subject to collapse due to the moral failings of their leaders. Blanton and Feinman’s research reveals that irrespective of the power and efficiency of an empire, collapse results when leaders continuously break social contracts and rupture morals and societal ideals.

Embroiled in structural complicity we are encouraged by the powers that be to divisively blame and shame while remaining distracted from an essential unifying principle; we are all slaves to a narcissistic system characterized by corporate greed and perverse levels of power.

Lastly, the cult of personality typifies institutional narcissism. This scenario involves the utilization of mass media and propaganda techniques to champion charismatic leaders, politicians, or celebrities who display narcissistic traits. By fostering a culture which reinforces their grandiosity and encourages unwavering adoration and unquestioning loyalty, critical thinking is obscured and perception is shaped to comply with the agendas of iconic figureheads.

Case in point is the power of celebrity, which enabled the heinous actions of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and BBC star and philanthropist Jimmy Saville. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth and Pope John Paul II, friends with the Royal family and the Thatcher’s, Saville was a prolific pedophile, sexual predator and necrophiliac. Yet in the public eye he conformed to an image of benevolence and virtue.

Likewise, the fetishizing of the British Royal Family obscures a nefarious history of unabashed support of Hitler and the Nazi regime, as well as extensive colonial tyranny in India and capitalizing from the African slave trade.

In closing, I am led towards the teachings of Psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski, who studied institutional and government systems comprised of high ranking officials presenting with psychopathic traits. Having attributed human ignorance and weakness to the propagation of macro-social evil he warned,

“Politics is no exception, and, by its very nature, would tend to attract more of the pathological “dominator types” than other fields. That is only logical, and we began to realize that it was not only logical, it was horrifyingly accurate; horrifying because pathology among people in power can have disastrous effects on all of the people under the control of such pathological individuals.”

Łobaczewski’s words remind us that institutional narcissism thrives when it goes unchallenged and becomes normalized. Our denial is complicit. It undermines trust, weakens moral absolutism, and hinders progress and development.

Similarly, English historian and author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon prompts us to consider how the fall of the Roman Empire was related to sundry factors such as increased taxation, insatiable hedonism, an unsustainable accumulation of weaponry, the decay of religion and the breakdown of the family.

Above all, we are challenged to consider the horrifying repercussions of institutional manipulation, exploitation, and mistreatment and a society bereft of the emotional and ethical values and foundational institutions that comprise our human existence. We can only hope that by recognizing these signs of institutional narcissism that effective collective resistance can ensue.


Thank you, Sheri – we always appreciate your articles!


Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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