By Laurie Cure, Ph.D.

Chances are you have encountered a narcissistic co-worker or boss at some time in your career. It’s that person who constantly shifts attention back to themselves, discounts your ideas to present their own better idea, 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/cultures 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. Those who display this disorder are the ones who present the most serious threat to an organization’s productivity and success.

The Mayo Clinic describes NPD  as “a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own 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, stated, “narcissism is a disorder of self-esteem. People with narcissism are often the most insecure people in the room (despite) often look(ing) like the most confident person”. Ultimately, this might very well be about the feeling and deep internal perception that one is never “enough”.

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 extraordinary talent and abilities. However, because the narcissistic behavior is often a result of low self-confidence, their 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. 

 

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.
  • Takes 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.
  • Lacks empathy. A leader or employee who lacks empathy for team members' difficult situation, pain, or suffering. When someone experiences a disappointment or loss, the leader might mock or minimize the employee's feelings. 
  • Craves 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 in order 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 and have difficulty (without support) making behavior changes. 

 

Leaders who engage in narcissistic behaviors struggle to develop others, often create competition and dissension on their teams, pit team members against each other as employees struggle to stay in favor, and elevate fear with their employees which decreases creativity and productivity. Additionally, they might struggle with accurately calculating risks and threats as they believe they can do anything.

 

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 be on the end of the continuum near 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 who is narcissistic. A boundary is a limit or line in the sand that you will not allow someone to cross. With narcissistic individuals, you might need tighter boundaries and you need to ensure you stay strong in adhering to them. 
  • 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 behavior and the negative impact to 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. 

 

How can you help a narcissist change his/her behavior?

Behavior change is essential for a narcissist to survive and thrive in a business environment (and for their teams to be successful). Through a professional coaching relationship, the primary goal of intervention is to increase awareness. Until a narcissistic individual understands specifically how their behavior negatively impacts others, they see little need to change. More importantly, they often need to see how their behavior negatively impacts themselves (after all- that is their focus) before they are willing to change. Innovative Connections uses three tools to increase self-awareness throughout our coaching engagements

  • Personality Assessment. The first is a personality instrument which reveals their “derailers” and leadership challenges (as well as strengths that they can capitalize on). Remember, narcissism results from a lack of confidence and self-esteem, so a large part of our strategy is to help them see their strengths. This allows them to successfully use those strengths in a healthy way and avoid the negative behaviors that are problematic. Using this tool allows us to not only increase awareness, but also offers solid strategies for change. 
  • Emotional intelligence Assessment. We know that emotional intelligence skills are proven to be critical for leadership success. We also know, from our research, that narcissistic individuals rarely exhibit high emotional intelligence. They also do not like scoring poorly on assessments, so this tool serves multiple purposes. It gets their attention, increases their awareness, and increases their sense of urgency for change. We can then use their results to build behavioral change strategies. 
  • Mixed methodology 360 Assessment. Most 360 assessments are a survey type tool that is generic to specific areas. Our tool is customized and offers a chance for feedback directly addressing the challenges the leader experiences. Through interviews and surveys with people close to the individual, we are able to get direct and honest feedback about the behavior and negative impact and share those with the individual.

Teaching emotional intelligence skills can be the greatest catalyst for development with narcissistic individuals. Skills like empathy, listening, building trust, communicating more effectively, and receiving feedback are essential for change. 

 

What if the leader/employee is unwilling to change?

Narcissistic behaviors in and of themselves are not always bad or reason for change. Leaders need to pay attention to when these types of behaviors become problematic. When the behaviors become performance problems or are having a negative impact on the team or organizational outcomes, leaders have options.

  • Set clear expectations. It is also important early on to establish the consequences for breaking or not adhering to these expectations.  
  • Communicate clearly. Establish rigid boundaries of what will and will not be tolerated and clearly communicate and hold firm to those boundaries. 
  • Hold the individual accountable
  • Coaching for improved self-awareness and development
  • Separation. In many cases, leaders and organizations need to separate from narcissistic leaders or employees. This can be tricky as narcissists often have a wealth of experience with manipulation and they are often quite charming and have convincing rationale why you should keep them on. Leaders must stay focused on the evidence that set outcomes have consistently not been met. 

 

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. 

 

If you are dealing with a narcissist in your workplace, consider reaching out for a consultation with us at 970-279-3330 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..