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CEO Advisory

How to deal with the narcissist at work

Chances are you have encountered a narcissistic co-worker or boss at some point in your career. This is a person who constantly shifts attention back to themselves, discounts your ideas to present their own, or is continually name-dropping or bragging about their credentials to impress people.

Toxic and dysfunctional work environments have become so common, we often normalize these behaviors and begin to expect that’s “just how it is.” Narcissistic workplaces result from leaders who display and promote narcissistic behaviors, or who simply tolerate these behaviors among their team members.

It is important to remember that there is a difference between how narcissism shows up as a behavioral tendency versus a serious mental health diagnosis. Narcissistic traits and behaviors are projected along a continuum from confident and charismatic to arrogant, pretentious, and entitled. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) reflects the extreme of these behaviors as a psychological diagnosis.

The Mayo Clinic describes NPD as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.” At the core, however, these behaviors are hiding self-esteem issues and they reflect a vulnerability to criticism, disapproval, or failure. Ramani Durvasula, in a radio interview for the American Psychological Association, shared, “narcissism is a disorder of self-esteem. People with narcissism are often the most insecure people in the room (despite) often looking like the most confident person.”

How do you identify a narcissist in your workplace so you can defray possible problems? Narcissists: 

  • Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance or “grandiosity.” A leader who assumes nothing good or productive can happen without his/her involvement or direction. Or an employee who believes him/herself superior in skills, expertise, or ability than anyone else.
  • Take credit for others’ work. Someone who inflates their level of talent, power, or success. This person often takes credit for work and efforts that were not theirs and that they might not even have contributed to.
  • Lack empathy. A leader or employee who lacks empathy for a team members’ difficult situation, pain, or suffering. When someone experiences a disappointment or loss, the leader might mock or minimize the employee’s feelings.
  • Crave praise and recognition. A leader or employee who demands consistent praise and recognition to the point of requiring admiration or adoration by all who work with or for them.
  • Must be the center of attention. These individuals often monopolize the conversation and may even talk down to those around them to boost their position. This often comes from an internal belief that they are superior to others.
  • Sensitive to criticism. These individuals struggle to accept criticism or negative feedback.

There are aspects of self-confidence, self-promotion and assertiveness that are critical to success. Research suggests that narcissistic individuals can be successful in their occupations, they are often gifted at convincing others of the merits of their ideas, as well as skillful in promoting their talent and abilities. However, because narcissistic behavior is often a result of low self-confidence, its destructive behaviors can make it difficult for them to establish relationships in the workplace that elevate team cohesiveness and effectiveness. Ultimately, this leads to increased turnover, lower performance, and an inability to achieve goals.

What are some strategies for dealing with a narcissist in your workforce?

Strategies look different from the manager and employee lens often because of the power dynamic, but here are a few general tips. Keep in mind, these strategies are helpful for someone with narcissistic behaviors, but often unsuccessful with someone who may have a diagnosable narcissistic personality disorder.

  • Gain clarity and agreement on expectations. A narcissist will often try to change the goal. Write down the expectations and goals and share them with other stakeholders so you have support when boundaries get pushed.
  • Establish and hold firm to strong and healthy boundaries. Setting boundaries can be difficult in even the best of circumstances, but even more so with someone narcissistic. With narcissistic individuals, you might need tighter boundaries to make sure they stay within those confines.
  • Do not tolerate certain behaviors. Name-calling, angry outbursts, manipulation, dominating the conversation should never be encouraged, allowed or tolerated.
  • Minimize competitiveness in your work environment. While competition can be fun. narcissists often take it too far, so be conscious of when competition is escalating in an unhealthy way.
  • Have the conversations. Provide feedback to the individuals about their narcissistic behavior and the negative impact on others.
  • Maintain accountability. Do not allow the narcissist to play the victim, distort the truth or blame others.
  • Recognize and acknowledge contributions. When appropriate, offer credit only where credit is due. Focusing on strengths can help a narcissist improve their confidence and when self-esteem is developed, narcissistic behaviors may subside.

Narcissistic personalities can be the most difficult situation for organizations and their employees to deal with. However, by assessing the severity of the situation and taking the appropriate steps, you can deal with the narcissistic behavior, protect your employees, and ensure a successful outcome for your organization.

Written by Dr. Laurie Cure.

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Advisory - How to deal with the narcissist at work
Dr. Laurie Cure
Dr. Laurie Cure is CEO of Innovative Connections, a management consulting firm. Dr. Cure is a consultant offering strategic planning, organizational development, talent management and HR support for organizational effectiveness. She is author of the book “Leading Without Fear.”

Dr. Laurie Cure is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.