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Summary:

Years ago, I worked with a woman who scared me silly. What I found the most frightening was the way she would cheat, control, charm and cajole to get what she wanted, and she had to be the center of attention at all times as well.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who scared me silly. And I’m not easily scared. What I found the most frightening was the way she would lie, steal, cheat, manipulate, control, charm and cajole to get what she wanted. Oh, and by the way, she had to be the center of attention at all times as well.

What twisted my brain (and got my undies in bunches) was not that she did all this, but that she managed to do it so skillfully — and get away with it.

She was a master at playing people off each other, telling one story to one person and a different version of that same story to another. She was charming when it suited her and calculating about who she charmed. The upshot of this strategy was that if one of her co-workers (including me) tried to call her on any of it — or bring the behavior to our bosses’ attention — she would put her hands up and innocently say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

This situation had a devastating effect on team morale and on our productivity, both as a group and as individuals. Problems that would normally have been handled with one quick conversation grew into gigantic group discussions. Decisions that were made and should have been followed with no argument by the whole team became undermined by her personal agenda. And the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I tried every good management consulting strategy I knew, and each and every one of them failed. Stressed, unproductive, angry and with a tightness in my chest that I swore was going to give me a heart attack, I sought out the services of a specialist.

The first thing this top-of-the-line professional asked me to do was describe, without judgment or interpretation, exactly what had happened. As well as I could, I recounted the facts of my encounters with Ms. Personality.

Within five minutes, the therapist began laughing and said, “Ahh, I see what the problem is. You are dealing with a classic, textbook narcissist. Of course nothing you are doing is working; you’re not playing by the same rules.”

He then went on to explain that people who are truly narcissistic, as opposed to the occasional moments of narcissism we all have, are driven to be the center of attention at all times and under all circumstances — and will do just about anything to make that happen. Here is the official definition of a narcissist from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following: Has a grandiose sense of self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love; believes that he or she is “special” and unique; requires excessive admiration; has a sense of entitlement; is interpersonally exploitative; lacks empathy; is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her and shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

OK, now’s the part where you should start thinking about the people in your life who might fit this bill.

Connie Dieken, author of the book “Talk Less, Say More,” says that if you’ve ever been the target of a narcissist’s anger or condemnation, their once-charming personality morphs into melt-down mode. They lob verbal grenades at you and howl at the moon. It’s painful to be on the receiving end of their demanding, demeaning behavior,” says Dieken.

So what’s a web worker to do if a client turns out to be a bona fide nasty narcissist that’s sucking your productivity dry, the way a dog sucks marrow out of a bone? Dieken offers these five tips:

  • Give them options. Beneath their bluster, narcissistic people fear being left out of the loop. They crave control. It’s far better to offer them options to choose from, rather than feeding them ready-made decisions. They’ll tear other people’s decisions to shreds. Giving them options helps them feel respected and in control. It also prevents nasty hissy fits.
  • Focus on solutions, not problems. When you explain a problem or a challenge to a narcissist, direct their attention to the solution. Don’t allow them to dissect the problem over and over again. Narcissists love drama and revel in the chaos. They’re easily agitated when frustrated. Define problems and present possible solutions, so they don’t smell blood in the water and tear you apart.
  • Make them the hero. Narcissists are preoccupied with power and truly believe they are special and unique. They live for attention and admiration. Want them to do something? Tell them how great they are at it and watch them perform. Better yet, praise their performance in front of others. Just keep it real, please.
  • Let them think it’s their idea. Narcissists often steal the credit for ideas that aren’t theirs. Why do they do that? Strangely, they truly believe that hijacked results are their own. Grabbing credit is a driving force for them. If this gets things done, I say learn to live with it. Over time, everyone will catch on — wink, wink. Meantime, graciously transferring credit for ideas to them makes things happen.
  • Manage their emotional blind spot. Egomaniacs lack empathy. They’re so caught up in their own world that it doesn’t occur to them to consider your feelings or viewpoints. It’s a huge blind spot. You must put your own feelings on the table, if you choose to do so. Just be smart about sharing feelings with a narcissist. Brace yourself for the guilt trips and disparaging criticism that narcissists often dole out when others explain how they feel.

For those of you reading this who have to deal with a narcissist gone wild, you have my empathy, but also my confidence. Knowing what I was dealing with and having some skills to work with, helped keep me sane. I never liked this woman, and I never trusted her, but I was able to quell my internal conflicts and get back to being productive — all while keeping one eye on my back.

Have you known a narcissist? What strategies have you used to handle them?

By Karen Leland
  1. Benjamin Doherty Monday, March 1, 2010

    Do you have any advice for people managed or led by folks who think they can diagnose mental and emotional disorders because they can read a definition from the DSM?

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    1. Some advice for people who write pointless, worthless comments: When you don’t have anything intelligent to contribute, shut-up.

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      1. Benjamin Doherty Monday, March 1, 2010

        I’ll elaborate.

        No ethical therapist would say “You are dealing with a classic, textbook narcissist” about someone who wasn’t her patient. Probably the author took license and paraphrased.

        Managers and team leaders shouldn’t be encouraged to diagnose their subordinates’ mental and emotional disorders and then handle them with special treatment. If there were an actual diagnosis for which the person was seeking treatment, this could be legal discrimination. When you work in an institution with different levels of management, there are procedures and resources for dealing with a deeply negative working relationship like the author describes. A manager/supervisor has a responsibility to her subordinates to do better than keep a destructive person in the group, and she often has better options.

        For contractors, freelancers, or otherwise equal members of a team, the way to resolve the problem is going to have to be social and consensual. I’d lose a lot of confidence in a team where I sensed that one person was problematic and another were giving her special treatment because of her supposed skills at home psychiatric diagnosis. In this case, the problem has to be discussed as an adult matter in an open and transparent way. Manipulation and hobbyist head games from a pop psych book are going to be part of the problem.

        If it’s a client, well, it’s a client. Money mediates your relationship. You have a contract. This is the rough side of independence. Use head games if you have to, but it’s your reputation and character on the line.

        So my point remains: where is the advice for workers and collaborators who have to work with leaders who fail to use their judgment and instead rely on advice that may actually be unethical, illegal and harmful?

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    2. Interesting thoughts. But why would identifying narcissistic treats and handle them accordingly be any different then identifying people that value structure more then others and provide that for them?

      Most people-management and pedagogic trainings have ways to identify different personalities, what makes them tick and how to provide for that tick.

      I’ve been to standard leadership classes in the military and numerous pedagogic classes to be a teacher, both settings do this. They group people in personalities and how to meet them successfully.

      So would you also argue that the standard classes are encouraging discrimination? I would argue that it’s about meeting people on their terms to get the most of a productive relationship.

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      1. Benjamin Doherty Tuesday, March 2, 2010

        It’s different because NPD is a diagnosis—an illness—and could even be represented as a disability if the person is seeking treatment for it. Judging work habits and style is not the same thing as judging people’s diseases and disorders.

        In this discussion there’s an evident lack of concern with the distinction between actual medical diagnosis and the casual opinions people develop of others they work with. NPD is a psychiatric diagnosis. It’s not merely an opinion.

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    3. Benjamin, You are BRILLIANT ! that was a GREAT IDEA ! Would you like Option 1 or Option 2 ?

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  2. Interesting. Reading a description of your situation reminds me of a similar person I have dealt with in the past.

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  3. Apostol Apostolov Monday, March 1, 2010

    Why handle a narcissist when the most obvious solution is to destroy him?

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    1. +1

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  4. Life’s too short. If you find you’re having to cater to a narcissist or any other type of problem co-worker then the solution is either get rid of that person or leave yourself. There are talented people of every personality type and no reason to keep working in a situation with that kind of conflict. Work with the types you click with and don’t waste precious energy and time dealing with people who make you miserable.

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    1. I agree with Chrispian largely. If a person with talent shows such attitude, may be one can bear it.. But, I don’t think one can work with one like that longer..

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    2. Totally agree!

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  5. There is no room in the workplace for narcissists. These people should never be trusted and/or fired.

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  6. I agree with Chrispian, why enable them in the workplace, or anywhere for that matter? What you’re basically stating in these five tips is to walk around the “mine field” the NPD creates in the workplace?! Again, why? No I haven’t lost my sense of humanity and give them fair opportunity. However,I do firmly believe that the workplace, or interpersonal relationships are, by design, unable to accomodate the insatiable needs of these sociopaths. NPD’s do not have the ability to fit into the “mean” of society, bringing chaos and trouble to those that wish to function within the “mean.” It is their way of beating the system, as they thrive on being bad, being non-conformant. As this condition has a 99% failure rate towards somewhat normal recovery, the risk Vs reward where it concerns business or personal relationships lends itself towards never-ending adversity, conflict and ill will with all they have close contact.

    Despite what you say or do to lighten the burden of their pesonality affecting business or personal relations, you have to bear in mind, that their wheels only turn in one direction, strictly for the sake of their self-serving needs. Sure you can temporarily boost their ego, give them cudos, etc.,however, the performance you witness will only evolve into higher levels of egomania. In other words, the size of that monster will grow proportionately. The only resolution in business is to fire them, the only resolution to an interpersonal relationship with one, is to get out while getting is good!

    I did 5 years with an NPD woman, and I speak from experience, they will indeed live for eternity in their own fantastical world of self-indulgence. There is no dealing with them, they must have control, and they must prevail. Cut and dry!

    As for Benjamin’s comment,here’s the crux of it all, despite whether someone does armchair diagnoses or not, when a person displays socially dyfunctional characteristics, it is considered a form of abuse, DSM or not! I believe that we can all agree, call it what you will, it’s simply wrong, unacceptable behavior, and that’s all that matters.

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  7. Working in a small team for seven years know I have seen them come and go – I just say: every little lie needs a big memory. Give them time, play along – your time will come and this person will finally be removed. No supervisor is interested in a bad team spirit, all you need is patience.

    Dealing with such customers is a totally different angle, you have to (if you can do it alone) decide how much gain you have from them. From my point of view every paying customer is a good customer, but there are certain lines which I will not cross and rather tell them “thanks, but no thanks” if the effort does not fit the profit.

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  8. I very much agree with previous posters. There is no time in my life to deal with narcissism. There are many personality traits that you do have to learn the best way to handle. Selfish childishness is not one of them. These people need terminated from the organization. If they cannot be terminated I will remove myself.

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    1. Hi all. Thanks for weighing in on my article.

      What I find interesting in the above string of comments is the feeling that you should not have to deal with a narcissist. But what if you do? Some people can’t quit their jobs, or move or quit the play or leave the group for whatever reason. While I agree that it’s best to avoid them at all costs, I also think it’s really critical to know how to deal with them, when you are forced to. That having been said I vowed to never work with that women on a project again – and I haven’t :-)

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      1. my ex is a typical narcissist – and i was lucky to get a judge to get him tested by the national forensics lab….the funny thing is that, even if he failed the test once, and had all the time in the world to prepare the fact is, not only he lied his ar$e (i was provided with a copy – so i read it & laughed) and even with all the tricks he was able to pull, the psychologist team was able to detect it! :)

        i find your tips very useful & accurate. dealing with a narcissist is a nightmare – there is simply no other thing one can do than leave them & avoid contacting them. unfortunately, i have a child with this man…so, things will be good the day he dies..but until then, i just want to be safe from the wicked & sicko mind he has.

        this is such a nut case & the difference between a narcissist and a psychopath is that, narcissists feed on people while psychopaths dont.

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  9. Interesting article. Don’t entirely agree with recommended action (rather inaction).

    First, the ‘enabling’ method of dealing with them is IMO part of what led them to their socio’pathetic’ state. Frankly, while they’re generally quite intelligent, they’re often spoiled brats that have figured out that most people are too nice to confront them about their behaviour. In short, they never really learned what ‘no’ means. Addendum – Yes, some may have a genetic pre-disposition, but that’s not an excuse.

    Second, I do have compassion and sympathy for those who for whatever reason are unable to sever a relationship with them due to financial or employment constraints. Some of the suggestions above might be useful, but as one commenter pointed out quite accurately, ‘be patient’. Cream rises to the top, and the wheat shall be separated from the chaff. Just be careful in all your interactions with them and never trust them.

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  10. Is there a danger of people playing amateur psychologist for anyone they simply can’t get along with (perhaps because of their own deficiencies)?

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