How to Handle a Narcissist

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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

Callie

I inherited a narcissist with my current job, which – except for this person, who is supposed to be an assistant – I really like. From the beginning, she was less than welcoming, which didn’t really bother me, since I don’t require adoration and have usually been able to adjust to most kinds of people in my work situations. In the four months I have been working there, she has caused me all kinds of stress, anxiety and worry. Two months into the job I had to call her on her chronic lateness and propensity to leave early without permission, as well as her tendency to loudly criticize the head of our organization and other people she does not like, right in front of others who may be around. I also asked her not to send memos out that imply department policy without running them by me first. I considered all of these reasonable requests, and normal and necessary for the functioning of any well run department. She reacted with hostility, accusing me of not thinking she was intelligent enough to send her own memos. She has stopped talking to me since that day, and when I ask her input on something I know she has knowledge of, her answer is “I don’t know,” or “You’ll have to ask [X} about that…” – I usually find out afterward that she was withholding information. She will only talk to me if I ask her something directly that requires an answer, and that usually engenders a monosyllabic reply. Her desk is full of all sorts of signs with “clever” sarcastic sayings & put-downs. When people who are new mistake her for the manager (me) she does not correct them. The list goes on and on. I went to the head of our organization (who she hates) after about a month of this. He said, it’s happened before many times, people have quit before oven this woman’s behavior, document it and I’ll get her out of there and let you hire someone normal. I feel grateful that I have the support of my supervisor, but it is still so difficult and stressful dealing with her every single day. I had an extremely narcissistic, abusive father as a kid, who never got any better – he was fired from two executive jobs due to his behavior and ended up divorced and alienated from his family, and yet he still blames others for his woes – so I do find this behavior hard to take. I had a boss like this a few years back who made rotating people the object of her rage, and it was very tough to deal with. Being the boss of a narcissist is no easier than being bossed by one. The same head scratching, nonsensical behavior can make the work day a living hell. Apparently the person in my previous position was very passive and just let her do her thing without ever calling her to task. So I am the one who now has to deal with this monster! I resent the fact that I have to spend a Sunday looking up articles to try to understand this employee’s behavior, but it has helped. I have a meeting tomorrow with the mid-level manager who hired me and who hinted from the start that I might have difficulties with this woman. Another meeting later in the week with the head honcho to deliver a month’s worth of documentation and talk about the next step. My only hope is that she doesn’t exit kicking and screaming. What I find particularly puzzling is her complete inability to recognize that her work behavior towards her supervisor could result in the loss of her job, as our organization is facing a huge budget crisis in the coming fiscal year and several jobs will be eliminated. But after reading all the material on narcissists, I guess nonsensical behavior is the norm. She can blame the loss of her job on me and the fact that I was out to get her, I guess. The truth is, if she was cooperative she would have been a great and valuable team member, since she has talent and technical ability.

Lane

I cut them out of my life, eliminated all their connections to me and my work product and burned the bridge behind me. I am also as nasty as can be to them. When they ty to re-enter my life — because they remembered me as an easy source of narcissistic supply, I draw a firm line in the sand. I will never tolerate a N in my life again. Kudos to you for finding effective strategies to manage your N.

Matthew

I had a relationship for a while with a narcissist, that was hell after about a week but i tried to make it work for months after. I finally abandoned the relationship after she admitted sleeping with someone else and couldn’t see her wrongdoing or why i would be upset because that’s what she does. Never get into an argument with a narcissist they don’t back down just go along with what they say and be quiet and avoid where and when possible. these people make good first impressions and can play act to certain people so they think nothing is wrong with them, only those who really get to know a narcissist experience their true nature, however i guess in a business setting their buttons are pressed so their actions are more transparent.

Meg

We have a narcissist for a real estate agent. She plays the game well, its never her fault, she is beyond reproach, she is always looking after you, you must have a problem because you called her on her behaviour.
We can’t get away from her, but the number of mistakes and outright screw-ups she has made in the last six months are hilarious. For once, a female narcissist doesn’t scare me, but she is very annoying. The only way to deal with these people in my book is in writing. If you can get them to commit themselves to writing, you will inevitably win on their inability to think in a straight line. Once you can call them on it however, its rare that you get an apology, except the ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ non-apology.

We had the non-apology the other day from our agent, I tried to explain that I wasn’t interested in hearing her apologise for my feelings, and I got the whole martyr thing ‘I am trying to apologise but YOU won’t accept it, so see, I am right AGAIN!!’. Cue violins.

Its pathetic, and its a waste of time trying to argue with them. Generally, I say as little as possible and allow her to dig herself into a big ditch which she inevitably does because she isn’t very good at her job, and pretends she is gracious and professional but comes off looking like a pretentious snob.

The other day, I finally lost my temper after six months of saying nothing about the subtle put-downs and the amused tone of voice whenever I have to draw her attention to an error she has made. We argued for twenty minutes and at the end of the argument, she simply drew my attention back to her opening statement as though the last twenty minutes didn’t even happen. This is also textbook narcissism in action.

Chris

Oiy, the trials and tribulations of workplace politics. One of the first lessons I had during new-hire as a Management Consultant was how to avoid these people. (Most consultants are prima donnas, so they clash hard with narcisists…not that I do, being perfect and brilliant and all.)

The best thing to do is SHUN these people (like the non-beliver Charlie the Unicorn) from all meetings, conference calls, projects, and invites. Don’t even let them know what’s going on, because they’ll hijack everyone and lead things off course. Eventually, they’re so OUT of the loop that they can’t do any more damage. If they ask why they weren’t involved, you simply say, “This is so beneath you, I didn’t think it was worth wasting your time when you’re busy with other things.” Instant deflection!

anvoro

Sorry, I didn’t realize that the post wouldn’t show my real name.
Andrei Vorobiev

anvoro

I study bureaucracies for a living and long ago realized that the way we normally structure organizations (the top to bottom approach) helps us become more sociopathic. All/most of us have a narcissistic streak in our character, but it is either suppressed or, conversely, rewarded by the organizational structure and processes that we have in the workplace and societies at large. I agree with Nancy Raulston that, for the benefit of the organization/society, we should try to remediate the narcissists. But if s/he is your boss in a “normal” organization, run as fast as you can: you’ll either be squashed, or forced to become a bit of a sociopath yourself (trying to get rid of her via her own methods IS being a sociopath.)

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