The Secret to Dealing with Workplace Narcissists

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The Challenge: Narcissistic bosses in the workplace are often a nightmare for employees

The Science: Studies show that narcissists hurt employees and create havoc within organizations

The Solution: To increase your success in dealing with narcissists, follow the suggestions below

M any of us have had the challenging if not traumatic experience of dealing with narcissists in our personal lives or at work. They can create havoc and do much to destroy lives, organizations and even countries. So, what do you do if you have to work with a narcissist — particularly if he/she happens to be the boss?

Your experience may be one of dealing with a narcissist who has the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) which presents a formidable problem, or an individual who displays some narcissistic behaviors but isn’t necessarily of the pathological variety. The latter may often be less challenging to handle.

What is a Narcissist, Really?

To begin with, it’s useful to examine what genuine, pathological narcissism truly entails. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV-TR defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as “an all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts”, such as family life and work.

Their appearance is very important to narcissists, and they continually are comparing themselves to others, wanting to look better. They tend to believe that they are above the law, regulations and social norms, and act accordingly. As a result, they engage in behaviors destructive to those around them. And in the absence of severe consequences, their tendencies are only reinforced.

Narcissists are entirely averse to empathy, and frequently use aggression, anger and abuse to control others. This erupts to the surface most frequently when they are criticized or challenged. They further try to control others by being unpredictable, ambiguous and contradictory. Narcissistic leaders in particular refuse to respect or acknowledge others’ independence of thought and action, and will often punish employees for anything less than blind loyalty.

At the same time, however, narcissists, by virtue of their actions, end up being victims of their own self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors. They lie frequently in order to feed their self-image and grandiosity, even if the lies eventually catch up with them.

Narcissism in the Workplace

Research indicates that individuals who would score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behavior that harms organizations or people, usually when the narcissistic leader’s self-esteem is threatened. One of the problems is that an individual with NPD is not likely to take the Inventory and expose himself. Lesser forms of narcissism still present problems for the effective functioning of a workplace and relationships within it.

You may be working with a narcissistic boss or colleague, who engages in “gaslighting” to diminish you and aggrandize themselves. These behaviors include withholding, in which the narcissist feigns understanding; countering, where he calls your memory into question; blocking and diverting the conversation to something else; trivializing your concerns; and forgetting or denying abusive behavior. All these behaviors are intended to make you doubt your thoughts, memories and actions and attempt to make you see that there’s something wrong with you.

The Narcissistic Leader

The narcissistic leader has a source of supply of employees and colleagues who can continuously provide flattery, attention and sometimes blind obedience. High profile corporate narcissistic leaders have been profiled by psychologists Alan Downs and Victor Hill. They illustrate in their writings how narcissistic leaders can be successful in achieving short-term success or benefits, but in the long-term, damage employees and their companies.

According to Alan Downs, corporate narcissism occurs when a narcissist becomes CEO or other leadership roles within the senior management team and gathers an adequate mix of sycophantic co-dependents around him to support the narcissistic behavior. Narcissists profess company loyalty but are only really committed to their own agendas, thus organizational decisions are founded on the narcissist’s own interests rather than the interests of the organization as a whole, the various stakeholders, or the society in which the organization operates. Downs says “a certain kind of charismatic leader can run a financially successful company on thoroughly unhealthy principles for a time. But…the chickens always come home to roost.”

The Disastrous Effects of Narcissistic Leaders

The long history of financial frauds enacted with callous disregard for both employees and shareholders is an example of the disastrous effects of narcissistic leaders. These narcissistic leaders resort to shortcuts, fraud and unethical practices. Examples would be Tyco’s Denis Kozlowski or “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort. The narcissistic leader does not recognize boundaries – personal, corporate, or legal. Everything and everyone are to him only ways to provide gratification.

Don Hambrick and Erick Jackson of Columbia University Business School, did a study of narcissistic CEOs a few years ago and concluded, among other things:

  • Their leadership was consistently linked to large, unpredictable performance fluctuations for the companies
  • They are much less responsive to objective measures of their own performance
  • Their over-responsiveness to social praise tends to result in increased pace of acquisitions and premiums paid, deteriorating shareholder value

Effective Strategies for Dealing with Narcissists

First, I would argue that attempts to control, change or modify the behavior of an individual with NPD will likely be unsuccessful and backfire, based upon my review of the research and my experience coaching narcissistic leaders. My best advice would be to get as far away from them as possible. The help they need is with an experienced psychotherapist. With respect to narcissists who don’t have NPD, and exhibit less pronounced narcissistic behaviors, here are some suggestions to deal with them:

  • Ignore them and don’t react if they are abusive
  • Communicate in terms of his/her self-interest and image (e.g. “It was really generous of you to…”)
  • Hold eye contact and speak in a confident but non-critical manner
  • Don’t try to appeal to their empathy or compassion
  • Never disagree with him/her in public
  • Do not argue
  • Never offer any personal intimacy
  • Express awe at his/her accomplishments

And last but not least, if ever you find yourself attacked, personally and abusively, simply respond by saying, “that’s not okay,” and walk away. It’s best not to engage any further.

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Ray Williams
Ray Williams is Owner and President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, providing leadership and executive coaching and professional speaking services internationally. Ray has been a CEO, senior HR Executive, Management Consultant and Executive Coach for the past 30 years. His clients include those in the Fortune 500, Best Managed Companies in Canada, entrepreneurs and professionals. He has written books on leadership, personal growth and organizational change, and written for, or been interviewed by such media as NBC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The National Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Financial Post, Psychology Today, and other international professional publications. He has served as the Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and President of the International Coach Federation, Vancouver.
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