Dealing with Narcissists in the Workplace

Sooner or later in your career, you will run into someone whose personality is so difficult, you will despair about ever finding a way to work with that person in any productive way. One of these types of difficult people is the narcissistic personality. Narcissistic personality is characterized by an unrealistic or inflated sense of self-importance, an inability to see the viewpoint of others, and hypersensitivity to criticism.

Dealing with Narcissists

Mental health professionals have expertise in treating narcissistic personality to attempt to lessen the suffering of the person with narcissistic traits and the people affected by them. In addition, executive coaches with training in working with narcissistic personality structure can minimize the workplace damage done by people exhibiting destructive narcissism. Consulting psychologists can help organizational leaders to make better hiring decisions or to contain situations where one person’s bad behavior is putting the entire organization or team at risk.

This blog post, however, is about situations where the narcissistic person is not interested in change and the organization is not actively working on damage control. In workplace environments, there are times when you don’t have the choice to simply walk away. The narcissist may be your boss, your co-worker, your venture capitalist/investor, or someone on your board of advisors, and you may be in a situation where you need to stick it out for some period of time before you can make a graceful escape. In these situations, you need some skill in dealing with a narcissistic personality.

In the short-term and when everything is going their way, narcissists are often charming, charismatic, compelling, and persuasive. In fact, narcissism in smaller amounts may provide surface advantages to succeeding in the workplace. The problems arise when the narcissist feels challenged or threatened. If the flow of admiration from others starts to slow down or stop, if an expected promotion or start up funding fails to materialize, if the marketplace doesn’t behave as the narcissist hopes, narcissists are prone to angry outbursts and attempts to retaliate. Narcissists specialize in making everyone else’s life miserable, so how can you avoid having your career trashed by one?

Here is expert career advice for dealing with narcissists at work:

  • Be genuinely helpful. Because narcissists are preoccupied with looking good and with getting what they want, aligning yourself with their goals will buy you some time before conflict heats up. If you can make the narcissist’s life easier, work can proceed smoothly, at least for awhile.
  • Appeal to the narcissistic person’s self interest. Dr. Vicki Vandaveer of The Vandaveer Group, advises, “A leader – even a narcissistic one – is keenly interested in his/her ability to get results or have an impact. We can help polish the image…help them find more effective ways to achieve goals.”
  • Accept that you will probably not receive credit for your accomplishments. Dr. Rob Kaiser of Kaplan DeVries Inc. observes, “You can get anything done, if you don’t mind who gets the credit. (It’s always the narcissist’s idea, no matter where he picked it up).”
  • Don’t take anything personally. The narcissist doesn’t view you as a human with wants and needs but as a source of self-esteem for herself. “It is never about you,” says Dr. Kaiser.
  • Lower your expections. For example, you aren’t going to get consistent care and support from a narcissistic boss. Dr. Ben Dattner of Dattner Consulting says, “Gordon Gecko articulated the narcissistic boss’s worldview when he advised Bud Fox in Wall Street: ‘If you want a friend, get a dog.’”
  • Avoid making yourself a target. Criticizing a narcissist can result in “narcissistic rage,” where a narcissist wards off shame by retaliating against the person who caused the narcissistic injury. These reactions are extreme and out of proportion to the trigger event. Dr. John Deleray of Deleray & Associates advises, “Don’t talk about their one big flaw unless they bring it up first.” Dr. Carl Robinson of Advanced Leadership Consulting adds, “The best way to deliver advice is with a neutral voice stating the facts as your perception and interpretation of things, not as a truth. This gives the individual wiggle room, room for face saving.”
  • Line up emotional support. It is draining to clash with narcissists and interacting with a narcissistic person can leave you feeling like you did something wrong or make you question your own competence or judgment. Often this is because of an unconscious process where a narcissistic person manages to transfer their own bad feelings onto you. To stay psychologically centered, you’ll need help to reality test and to process negative emotion.
  • Prepare for the worst. You may lose a power struggle with a narcissist, so you should be prepared to find another job if a situation escalates and you find yourself fired. While still employed at a workplace made toxic by a narcissist with power, quietly network and build your professional community so that you will have job-related connections if you need them.
  • Try to muster some empathy. Even though narcissists are terrific at appearing as if they are on top of the world and as happy as they can be, it feels awful to be a narcissist because they need constant affirmation of how good they are. “You get to go home at the end of each day, but they have to live with themselves all the time,” notes Dr. Lynn Friedman.
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