#askIMPACT: The Narcissist

  • Sami was one of the best interviews that Marleen had ever conducted. She was so impressed with his ability to articulate his strengths, experience, and qualities for what made him the best selection for the job. Marleen got her colleague, Arjun, to conduct a second interview and Arjun felt the same. He felt Sami might have been a bit over-confident, but didn’t think much of it given his experience and network seemed so impressive.
  • A few months after Sami started, the red flags began to appear.
  • Marleen had noticed Sami’s tendency to dominate the conversation in meetings, and had received feedback from Sami’s peers that even in casual water-cooler interactions he would constantly direct the conversation back to himself.
  • Marleen heard from Jean that Sami had attempted to present Jean’s idea for a new business development initiative as his own. When Marlene asked Sami about this, he proceeded to criticize Jean’s competence and made a derogatory comment about Jean’s capabilities. In the weeks that followed, Sami ignored Jean completely. He wouldn’t acknowledge him in meetings and excluded him from all of his work.
  • Marleen had tried several times to discuss the concerns with Sami, but each time she attempted the conversation, Sami was immediately defensive and rejected every piece of feedback she offered. Sami started to freeze her out of most conversations.
  • Then Marleen received word that Sami booked a meeting with her superior to discuss a promotion.

The Good and the Bad News when Working with a Narcissist

Marleen went to HR to get some advice. A social worker friend of hers told her that Sami sounded like a typical example of “Narcistic Personality Disorder”. Marleen looked it up. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “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. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

So how can you spot a narcissist at work? Here are some of the most tell-tale signs to watch out for:

  • Narcissists usually make great first impressions and have a very charming and charismatic personality
  • They may be great storytellers and talk engagingly about themselves, but rarely ask about or show interest in anyone else
  • They may try to take credit for others’ ideas, or position themselves at the centre (or as the leader) for a new idea even if it isn’t theirs
  • They can be quite critical of others but are dismissive of negative feedback about themselves
  • They name drop and only surround themselves with people they view as ‘top notch’; they see themselves as on par with the elite, even if they lack the experience or qualifications
  • They rarely apologize or take responsibility for mistakes
  • They can love you one day and loath you the next; they can be exceptionally vindictive if challenged or crossed

Narcissists are probably the most difficult personality to coach. Narcissists often lack the ability to genuinely empathize with others, which can make them poor team players and serious morale busters. However, few people are full-on narcissists. We almost all have some narcissistic aspects to our personalities. The good news is coaching can work when an individual is open to changing.

If you want to invest in coaching someone with narcissistic traits, or you have no other choice but to work with one because he or she is important to the business, here are some tips that may help:

Think carefully about how to give constructive feedback. While narcissists appear very confident, they cannot take feedback. Keep feedback light and in small doses. You will lose a narcissist instantly if you hand them a report with ten different edits, or list off five different things they can do differently during their next presentation. Providing feedback in the form of positive reinforcement is likely your best bet. Deliver feedback in a way that demonstrates you are ‘disappointed’ rather than ‘angry’ (i.e. “I know how good you are at this and how much potential you have; this wasn’t up to your usual standards”). Finally, ignore bad behaviour to the best of your ability. This is tough to do, but the more you starve their need for attention, the more likely you will extinguish some of the negative behaviours they exhibit to get it.

Make it in the narcissists best interest to behave. Reinforce the behaviours you want from them (kindness, empathy, collaboration) by rewarding them with attention and opportunities for status when they display those behaviours. Though their motivations for displaying these ‘good’ behaviours may or may not be authentic, at least they will be acting in a way that is more conducive to a positive team dynamic.

Be prepared – don’t be hoodwinked. It’s easy to be fooled by a narcissist so don’t take it personally if it has happened to you. Keep your eyes open around a narcissist and don’t let their charm deceive you. A really important strategy is to make sure you are connecting with a broad range of people. Avoid being overly influenced by one person, especially if you suspect that person to be a narcissist. Collect feedback and opinions from a large number of people, ask probing questions, and use multiple individuals as sounding boards as needed. This will help you ensure that you aren’t being sucked into a narcissist’s manipulation tactics.

Set boundaries for yourself. At times, it will be tough to work with a narcissist. You will feel like you are walking on eggshells at times, and you might even start to feel a lack of confidence in yourself, questioning your own motives and decisions. Narcissists can be very influential and persuasive. Keep your coping mechanisms in place. Avoid spending long periods of time with a narcissist, seek support when you can, and work with lots of others who are less taxing and who give you perspective.

Have you had success working with a narcissist? What tips have you tried? We’d like to hear from you.

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