How to Handle a Narcissist

55 Comments

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?

55 Comments

Stephen

I really really believe my so called friend is a narcissist. My mother has a mixture of narcistic, histryonic and sociopathic behaviours and i have lived with that for 34 years of my life. So I have been able to spot it quite easily. The reason I think my friend has this disorder is that, he has to have constant dialemas in his life, and needs to be the centre of attention, what ever the cost. He will never admit fault, and totally turns it round to make out it is everyone elses fault. I find it so frustrating as it drains me completely. He is constantly on facebook posting comments and gets angry if no one replies or “likes” the status. He will then say something to a mutual friend, causing a rift between people, and sit back and watch the fireworks. The best and only cure to deal with people like this is to get them out of your life totally. Guilty as i feel that I had to do that with my mother because she is my mother and i feel terrible about, the stress and strain of trying to make a narcasist change is impossible. They have total disregard for peoples feeling or welfare. They are very dangerous people and are experts in manipulating people. Thats why if they do get counciling or psychotherapy, it makes them better at pyschological attacks because they learn from councillors how to make people vunerable. Get them out of your life, its the only way.

journik

The fastest way to destroy an egomaniac is to give him even more praise and power than he wants. He will immediately hang himself on the rope he so desired.

Eddie May

I aways watch these people too. But I make them think that they are important while I keep my feelings close to the vest. I never say to much to managers so that when I do they listen. If I have to go to them about this person I come with documented facts dates etc. These people think that they are close to me when they are not. I can smell these people like a shark smells blood in the water. Then I protect myself from them.

Nancy Raulston

I am a consultant to start up companies, and many of them have someone who fits this pattern. And sometimes the company is successful BECAUSE of that person’s creativity and confidence and persistence. Many successful Silicon Valley companies probably have a narcissistic personality (notice no caps — I am describing behaviors, not labeling the person) in their history.

Working with start up management teams I always believe the first step is to try to make the team that exists more effective, based on giving both the individuals and the team tools and increasing their self awareness. If this doesn’t work, I then turn to trying to make sure to plan for contingencies, to transfer knowledge, identify back ups, make sure people know the consequences if no change happens. Only as a last resort do I recommend firing a key individual.

Part of the reason I choose to work with start ups is that everyone involved has their own quirks — and who is to say which part of the “quirk” is bad and which part actually contributes to company success?

Lillie

Try watching that person more closely. If the company is successful due to a NARCISSIST creativity, more than likely they stole someone elses idea.

BW

Unfortunately I have much experience working with narcissists. Ever notice how much more this word is used since the popularity of the CSI and Criminal Minds shows?

I worked in an organization that had 5, ranging from the no. 2 position to supervisors. The only thing you can do is run for your life. If top management doesn’t step on these people they eventually run the place.

I got out and sleep a lot easier at night; stayed it the position way too long thinking I could make it better. I was wrong. There are other positions out there; you only have one life.

Recruiting Animal

Everyone knows nutbars so the article is intrinsically interesting. But it is too vague.

You didn’t give one story when a few might have been useful.

Also, I don’t see a remedy here. Don’t oppose them head-on is important. But is there more to it than that? How do you get them to agree with someone else’s more reasonable point of view?

Maureen Sharib

If it’s a customer – make them pay upfront. I doubt if many of them would pay cold hard cash for the same bang to their buck.

Bill Bennett

The only sane strategy for dealing with narcissists is get away fast.

If you’ve hired one, take the hit and get rid of them.

If you work for one, find another job.

If you’ve a narcissistic client, move on quickly.

Barkleyfan

While I would like to agree with the theory of getting away while the gettings good, our culture is saturated with narcissism. Some are quite adept at playing it off, and can rope you into looking like the bad guy for calling them on their crap. Many are sharper, and quicker than you are, and will exploit your attempts at restoring balance to the relationship, whatever it is. But these personnalities are everywhere these days. They’ve been nourtured by a polite society that tends to back down in order to move forward with less drama. If you are in a position to distance yourself, count your blessings. Most of us are left with the daily struggle of not subscribing to a more simplistic rule system. Its often far too much involved to simply walk away.

Bill Bennett

Fair enough. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to run from a narcissist. Perhaps I should have written: “If you can, run”.

But seriously, I feel society is far to tolerant of this kind of behaviour. I think managers who employ them, then turn a blind eye to the behaviour in the mistaken belief they can deliver results are particularly guilty.

Siger

I remember a case of NPD, she was a perfect manipulator. Shrill and abusive. She ended up marrying badly under her station, and had to keep goats on her balcony to be roasted for neo-African festivities! Finally she quitted to the great relief of hundred of colleagues who had to deal with her sheenanigans. She should have never ever been hired in the first place. The agony on the system lasted 10 years. Finally her stupidity came to the surface and the System lost faith in her so-called qualities. She had none to boot really. She was quietly put aside for important assignemnts and let to whiter drying out to finally see the light and vanished in the outer world.

joof

Condmemning those as presumptuous or clinically shallow if they attempt to understand their counterparties using DSM lingo actually plays into the sociopaths/ narcissists advantage – they will exploit your maturity, balance and humanity ruthlessly to their self aggrandizing advantage. It is true you need different rules for them – brutal, cruel and Machiavelean rules. They only understand and respect naked power

As a side note you can quit, or fire them in the workplace . Unfortunately you can’t divorce your blood family. Imagine Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanza, Golden Week etc.

Alex

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

Simple Observer

Solution to dealing with a narcissist: Have an FU fund saved. Life is too short and you have too many talents to waste on enabling this type of dysfunctional personality. I suspect the author has never had to deal with a narcissist, otherwise she would have posted more useful suggestions.

truth teller

Sounds exactly like Obama…he is a textbook narcissist. And his love of himself is leading us off of a cliff.

Lula

Exactly. It takes more than a year to economically destroy an entire country!

Sundown

and what if the narcissist is the ex-wife of the man you love? To give up the narcissist, I have to give him up too. :-(

bebeth

My last boss is this person. I had never before encountered a personality like this. Early on I saw her as an “attacker” personality – but when she used her power for good and not evil, also a brilliant strategist, persuasive presenter, savvy salesperson and a closer.

I believe it is a rare personality – You will now know it when you see it. You live with it or get out. I am out.

Derek

Really I think the lesson here is not in amateur psychology, but in identifying when there is a disconnect between your ‘rules’ and the ‘rules they are playing by.’

Narcissists, and to a greater extend sociopaths, will have a value and need structure that is not aligned to yours or to the supposedly shared business goals. They are easy to deride because a group will always condemn individuals putting themselves first. Note what was upsetting was not the behavior – but that she got away with it.

At the end of the day you need to decide if it is worthwhile for you to address or avoid the behavior. While some feel a need to deliver ‘what is deserved’ others trust karma to let cream rise and separate wheat and chaff. Where do you want to invest your effort? And what is more important to you, your success, the business success or the justice of putting a jerk in their place?

In the end I think most of us need to get credit for what we do and the occasional kudos and believe our work is good and valuable. Otherwise I would be a much better consultant – from a revenue perspective – leading hapless customers along indefinitely.

Mary Bruce

Psychoanalyzing others is taxing and probably a bit dangerous for those of us not trained to do so. Why not get to the core issue? All business relationships are based on trust. When you cannot trust someone, the only question is — does this person provide enough value for me to use energy watching my back and take other risks to our enterprise.

When I realize that a client does not share our values it’s time to work our way out of that relationship. If resigning seems too abrupt, you can usually get the client to leave you by telling them what you need from them in order to be successful.

Carrie Keenan

“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.” I have first hand experience with this. While I appreciate and respect the above posters comments, I will confidently say none of these people have dealt with a true, text book BPD Narcissist. It is not as simple as a personality difference. It is complicated, and they can be so convincing that you begin to question reality and truth because they can be so manipulative and convincing. The tips are useful, and I truly hope that they help people and that the above never have to walk down this road.

Louise McGregor

I spent almost a year working with a “narcissist”, someone who needed control on every decision even decisions that were far outside his expertise or skills. It was hell. There were moments where I wanted to resign, despite the fact that I love what I do, enjoy who I work with and am good at my job.

So if I ever found myself reporting to such a person I would leave fairly quickly, but tips such as those given above might help me if I ever have to work on a project with such a person again.

DK

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

Craig

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.

Kriket

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.

Karen Leland

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 :-)

Bel B

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.

Teamworker

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.

melove54

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.

RafikNY

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

Chrispian

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.

Srinidhi

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..

Apostol Apostolov

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

sharmagee

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

Benjamin Doherty

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?

zenwitch

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

Benjamin Doherty

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?

Patrik Löwendahl

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.

Benjamin Doherty

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.

Gary

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

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