Dealing with a narcissist in any context can be a confusing, frustrating, and draining experience.
Unlike in a personal relationship, you can’t just cut your losses. At work, you’re playing by a whole other set of rules, and you may well need to engage them directly to do your job.
There’s no simple and easy way of resolving an issue with a narcissist. However, knowing a little more about how they tick and following some of the steps I’ve listed below can help you protect your business, your employees, and yourself from challenges that arise.
Understand exactly what’s going on
It’s vital to take the time to understand what’s going on for everyone involved.
When an issue is raised – whether it’s an interpersonal dispute or someone having a problem with a change – everyone needs to be allowed to air their feelings. Before you start thinking that narcissistic behaviour is at play, ensure that the people involved are listened to and treated with respect and sensitivity.
Managers should invite everyone involved to speak to them directly, ideally in a low-pressure, one-to-one environment. Regular 121’s with employees are a useful part of any leadership strategy. They can help managers understand the people in the team, and they also serve as a tool to document what is going on.
Respect, consideration, and consent are key here. Until you understand the full context of the situation, you will not have all the data to begin to form a fair and measured view of the situation.
How a narcissist reacts to something they don’t like
Once you have all the data (‘data’ rather than ‘facts’ because you don’t yet know fact from fiction), you can reflect on how your potential narcissist might be impacting the situation.
While most folks experience genuine reactions to a situation and may act accordingly, a narcissist will always default to their tried-and-tested tactics to ensure they’re protecting themselves and their worldview.
Let’s imagine that a manager announces that everyone’s bonus will be 25% less than expected. Most people will react with disappointment, but eventually reach a begrudging acceptance – it’s rubbish, but they understand that it’s not the manager’s fault.
A narcissist, however, might perceive this news as a personal attack that affects them far more than anyone else. The reduced bonus is not what they believe they deserve; it’s not about anyone else, it’s about how they are affected.
It doesn’t really occur to a narcissist that it’s not the manager’s fault, that the company would pay the full bonus if they could, and that other people (including the manager) are equally affected.
The tactics used by a narcissist in the workplace
Once riled, a narcissist might resort to tactics like:
- Incessant emailing (or other correspondence) relaying their perspective, experience, or rights in exhausting detail
- Ditching their positive attitude and acting coldly until their needs are met
- Gossiping about or spreading ill-feeling toward the company or person(s) who they feel have wronged them
- Escalating the smallest issues through official channels repeatedly
- Attempting to seek sympathy using justification that is objectively untrue
- Accusing another colleague of bullying or subpar performance.
Most of these tactics may drain you of energy, resources, and resolve. It can be tough, especially when you’re being targeted by the relentless attention of an angry narcissist.
The most important thing to remember is that a narcissist’s tactics are just that: tactics. They’re truly nothing personal because to a narcissist you’re just a background character to their starring role.
It doesn’t always make things feel easier, but you must remember that their behaviour is not a reflection on you, your character, or your value as a member of staff.
Narcissists can’t accept any reality other than their own
Here’s why it helps to remember why a narcissist resorts to tactics to get their way; they don’t see the situation from the same multi-dimensional view we do.
They’re seeing everything from their perspective. “It’s my world, baby; you only live in it!”
It doesn’t mean that they think they’re gorgeous, hyper-intelligent supreme superbeings (although some do!). They’re unable to accept any information, insight, or perspective that interferes with their way of seeing things.
At their heart, they’re incredibly insecure and need to reassure themselves that they’re justified in how they feel or think. They’ll never acknowledge or accept any criticism.
Let’s explore another example. A new team member has some insight into a more efficient way of completing a task, and they respectfully share it with the team. There’s a narcissist on the team, and they take the suggestion as an attack on their incredibly fragile ego.
The narcissist’s inner monologue might sound like this: “This new colleague has just tried to show me up in front of the team, making out that I’m stupid! This person is out to get me, specifically!”
The narcissist gets to work on warping everyone else’s reality to match theirs. They may use their trusted tactics to convince others that they’ve been wronged, perhaps lodging formal complaints, gossiping about, or otherwise damaging the reputation of the new starter.
They will not have any issue with lying outright to ensure the rest of the workplace sees things their way.
How to deal with a narcissist during a work dispute
As a manager or colleague, you want to maintain a fair and honest workplace – so how do you keep yourself grounded in reality and not dancing to the narcissist’s tune?
Maintain a strong sense of clarity
A narcissist will defend their point of view to the bitter end, so all you can do is calmly and consistently bring things back to objective truth. Stick to the point and don’t get side-tracked or distracted (no matter how many 10-page emails you receive!).
Remain crystal clear on your point and do not argue
Narcissists love arguing their point; some might inundate you with legalities and others might guilt-trip you into conceding to their perspective. Do not be drawn into a back-and-forth argument; you’re never going to “win” or convince them to concede because they’re not playing by your rules.
Get yourself a reality check
When resisting a narcissist’s tireless efforts to make you see things their way, it can really help to have a trusted, objective person (perhaps from outside your workplace) to run behaviours or situations past: “Is it just me or is what this person is saying not adding up?”. This must be done in absolute confidence and is not always appropriate.
Document, document, document
This is the golden rule for dealing with any transitions, challenges, or HR-related matters at work! Narcissists won’t let a little thing like objective fact stop them but having documented evidence or data stored somewhere safely can help you stay rooted in reality and, if necessary, make fair and ethical judgements on how to resolve issues.
Narcissism in the workplace
This marks the final post in our series exploring narcissism in the workplace. I wanted to wrap up by reminding you that the people you work with day in day out can have an extreme effect on us.
While many of us have a “work mode” or a “work persona”, we still spend a vast chunk of our lives at work. If you’ve ever experienced the negative effects of narcissistic behaviour at work, you’ll know that it’s not something you can just leave at the office and head home.
As managers, HR professionals, and colleagues, it is up to us to recognise these kinds of behaviours so that we can put them in their proper context and make fair, ethical decisions to the best of our abilities.
Get in touch with Ella Stockdale to explore how you can get support to create a safe and fair environment for your staff, professionally and personally.