How to Deal With the Narcissist at Work

Dec 8, 2014
6 Min Read

The term “narcissism” is often misused, but if you’ve got a bona fide narcissist at work you may face constant obstacles as those with this personality disorder can be annoying – and break down an organization’s efficiency and productivity.

When you think of narcissists, names like Kim Kardashian and Lance Armstrong may come to mind with their constant focus on themselves and need for admiration.

But that’s the celebrity world, and it’s not so common for the average person to have such an inflated sense of self-importance (since most of us get that knocked out of us in our 20s).

Despite that, narcissism is a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially when you’re dealing with an annoying personality at work. But is that jerk at work really a narcissist?

The Mayo Clinic defines narcissism as a mental disorder “in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration.” Those with the disorder believe that “they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings,” the clinic states. “But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that narcissists often can be difficult to work with as their sense of entitlement, lack of empathy and focus on ““me, me, me” can impede work getting done.

One of the biggest problems is that narcissists often are very bright, and may cover their darker tendencies under the guise of having career ambition. They can turn on the charm when needed, and often are described as charismatic. They are driven – but can also be manipulative and self-centered and can seriously impact a team’s efficiency and productivity.

For example, say a sales meeting is called to discuss the upcoming quarter. But as the boss tries to get input from everyone, the narcissist constantly interrupts to talk about himself and his successes. Later, when there are informal gatherings of the sales staff to discuss strategies, the narcissist constantly interrupts to again direct the conversation to an area he or she wants to discuss.

“These people are always trying to shine the light on themselves. They always want the glory,” Whitbourne explains. “They like to derail things. They constantly have to be attended to. They can be very aggravating.”

So, the result is that a sales team may miss its projections because they can’t do effective planning with the narcissist’s interruptions, or may be so irked by the behavior they find it hard to concentrate and do their jobs.

The bottom line is that narcissists can really throw a wrench in the works when it comes to others doing their jobs effectively, Whitbourne says.

But, there are strategies to help you cope better with the narcissist at work. Whitbourne suggests:

  • Becoming educated. Before you label someone as a narcissist, take some time to really observe the behavior. “Vulnerable” narcissists may actually have low self-esteem while “grandiose” narcissists are more low-key with their emotions so may undercut you more subtly. In work teams, the grandiose narcissist might be a strong ally as long as you can get the person to buy into your team’s goals.
  • Pinpointing your aggravation. Once you begin studying the narcissist, you may see that what bugs you the most is the person constantly interrupting you and demanding attention. But once you see that, you can learn to soothe the narcissist’s insecurities, which helps redirect him or her away from bothering you.
  • Be flexible. Just as you have your own insecurities, so does a narcissist. That means you need to recognize particular triggers for that person – such as losing out on a promotion that can trigger insecurities – and then respond accordingly. For example, you may need to simply ignore spiteful behavior because you know it comes from a place of insecurity and unhappiness.

Finally, try to stay positive and even laugh at outrageous narcissistic behavior sometimes, Whitbourne says.

“Narcissists,” she says, “are not easily wounded.”

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