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How should you handle grandiose people? How can you tell if someone is grandiose, and what should you do about it?
Leaders in particular tend to be grandiose people, but they’re not the only ones. You can learn how to tell when people have higher levels of grandiosity, and how to deal with them in your life.
Read more about grandiose people and how to manage them and their toxicity.
Grandiose People & Why They’re Toxic
Everyone falls somewhere on the scale of grandiosity, and you can figure out if people have lower or higher grandiosity by studying the following behaviors:
- Response to criticism. People with high grandiosity can’t take criticism and will get angry and hysterical, or try to make the criticizer feel guilty.
- Consistency. Most powerful people let themselves relax when they’re in private. Grandiose people, however, believe that their powerful self is their real self, so they act the same in all situations.
- Credit-taking. Grandiose people take credit for everything, even if it’s not very related to their work.
- Insensitive remarks. Grandiose people assume everyone will agree with them and give them the benefit of the doubt, so they often don’t think before they speak.
- Low empathy. Grandiose people see other people as tools and don’t listen well.
- Nonverbal cues. Grandiose people gesture dramatically, talk loudly and quickly, and take up space with their bodies.
When you encounter people with low, everyday grandiosity, indulge them. Grandiosity is normal.
When you come across people with high grandiosity, avoid getting close to them. In personal relationships, they’ll demand attention but won’t reciprocate it. In professional situations, they can’t accurately assess their own skills and abilities and end up with responsibilities they can’t complete. Be skeptical of what highly grandiose people say and judge their ideas and behavior itself, not what they say about it. Don’t try to expose their grandiosity; they’ll just get angry.
People who have high grandiosity and also have talent and energy are good at winning power because they can create a confident, mythic image that attracts people.
Grandiose leaders use six theatrical devices to create this larger-than-life image by creating the impression that they’re:
1. Fated to succeed. They tell stories about their childhood in which they’re uniquely talented in some way as if they’d been given gifts at birth (sometimes these stories are made up, sometimes they’re reinterpretations of reality). They also tell stories about impressive past successes that they achieved despite considerable opposition.
To fight this technique, track down more objective versions of their stories and share them.
2. Just like the average person. Grandiose leaders try to be representative of the average person to connect with the largest audience. They visibly demonstrate that they have the same interests and tastes as the general public, even if they come from a different class. Sometimes they even criticize the elite class.
- For example, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi came from a powerful family, studied in Europe, and hadn’t spent much time in the poorer parts of India. However, she created the impression she was an average person by speaking colloquially, wearing her sari in the local fashion, eating with her fingers, and calling herself “Mother Indira.”
To avoid falling prey to this tactic, look for contradictions between the leader’s real persona and background, and the one they present.
3. A savior. When there’s a crisis, grandiose people can often gain power because their high self-confidence is reassuring. They make large, simple, vague promises that are inspiring but also impossible to hold them accountable for. Saviors also find scapegoats who they can turn the public against to unify the group. They also unify the group with slogans, colors, music, and so on. The leaders tend to create cult-like organizations.
All you can do about this tactic is to remain analytical. You’ll never be able to convince believers that their leader has any negative qualities.
4. A rule-breaker. Everyone secretly wants to dispense with rules and get power in their own way, so when a leader does this, their followers live vicariously through them. Another version of this technique is to prioritize their hunches and intuition rather than science or expert opinions. They like to think they have a magical connection to how the world works.
- For example, film director Michael Cimino appeared to his fans as someone who could break the rules of Hollywood. He managed to negotiate a film contract that gave him almost full control of the project. He made use of it—once, he waited for the perfect cloud to appear before filming—and the movie (Heaven’s Gate) was hugely expensive and five hours long.
To fight this tactic, whenever you hear someone talk about their rule-breaking abilities, realize that they don’t have any special powers.
5. A guarantor of success. This technique involves grandiose leaders spinning the past so that they can say they’ve never failed. Anytime something went wrong, they blame it on something else. Additionally, they tend to believe that their skills are transferable and they’ll succeed at anything they try, even if they don’t have experience.
- For example, Douglas MacArthur, a U.S. Army general, claimed that he’d never lost a battle. According to him, all his losses could be explained by excuses or betrayals.
To avoid falling for this trick, look for failures in a leader’s past, and then share what you find.
6. Invincible. Grandiose leaders by nature take risks—they have to, to hold attention—and much of the time, they manage to make things turn out all right. They also like the feeling of risk. They actually are somewhat invulnerable, up until the point where they overreach.
To deal with this tactic, dismantle the leader’s mythic image. The leader needs to have constant validation and attention, or else their confidence disappears and they can’t maintain their grandiosity. If you denounce them, they’ll probably get emotional, as will their followers, but eventually, some of their followers may realize they’ve been taken in.
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- Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
- How you behave differently when you're in a group
- Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life