August 2, 2021

Working with a Narcissist: Boss, Employee & Colleague

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Working with a Narcissist: Boss, Employee & Colleague

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A narcissist – quite the buzzword you’ve probably ran into at some time or another. But what is a narcissist? And what does working with a narcissist entail? And how does this differ between boss, employee and colleague?

As defined by Merriam-Webster, a narcissist is someone who is characterized as “extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.” To be clear, narcissism is a disorder classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. If you haven’t already worked with a narcissist, chances are you will at some point in your career. 

So, what does a narcissist look like? Like everyone else at the office! Narcissists are often quite charming, talented, and even attractive people. With a passion for achievement, narcissists can be great leaders and do wonderful things in a work environment. However, most of the time, working with or even for a narcissist is much more challenging. When a narcissist doesn’t get their way, they will lash out until the opposing party apologizes, surrenders, or admits they’re wrong – which are all actions a narcissist would never do by the way. They are not afraid to gaslight, manipulate, and lie to protect themselves. Again, we are focusing on an individual that meets the DSM categorization for narcissism and not someone who may just have a larger ego. 

Have a hunch that you may be working with a narcissist? Here are some warning signs:

  • They have an unwillingness to be questioned and struggle with feedback
  • Uncaring towards other’s needs and feelings 
  • Exhibit extremely competitive behavior and use manipulative tactics to gain control

Okay, so you think you’re working with a narcissist, now what?

We’re about to walk you through all narcissist in the workplace scenarios: colleague, boss & employee.

Working with a Narcissistic Colleague

If you’re working with a narcissistic colleague, it’s important to set your boundaries to maintain your mental well-being. But setting these boundaries with a narcissist can be extremely challenging. So, how can you face a narcissist head-on? Here are our best suggestions:

  1. Set boundaries. It is so important to create clear parameters. Although you may feel guilty for saying no or drawing a line, don’t – you are protecting yourself. Stay firm in your decisions.
  2. Don’t call them a narcissist. A narcissist thinks they know themself, however, a narcissist actually lacks a fully formed sense of self. If they feel like their sense of self is under attack, they will fight back with force. In fact, they’ll probably throw the term back on you. 
  3. Practice detachment. Working with a narcissist will cause hurt feelings and will make you want to vocalize this hurt to the colleague. However, seeking an apology that will never come and will likely lead to you apologizing is probably more hurtful. Let go of your own ego and focus on clear boundary setting.
  4. Have compassion. Although it can be extremely difficult to feel empathy for a narcissist, it’s important to remember that they are mentally ill. 
  5. Look for the positives. A narcissist is often very ambitious, and can be quite successful. They can open doors and be ladders to success, however, if you’re going to say yes to a project, remember to be clear about your expectations, boundaries, and even money if relevant. 
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Working with a Narcissistic Boss

Working with a narcissist can be challenging on a peer-to-peer level, but having a narcissistic boss can be that much worse. 

One Gallup study found that 75% of employees left their job not because of the job itself but their boss. A similar experience to working with a narcissistic colleague, working with a narcissistic boss can be even more challenging with the addition of a power dynamic. If you’re stuck with one of these bosses, check out the strategies below.

  1. Know who you’re working with. What makes them tick? What’s their personality type? The more you understand them, the better your relationship will be. 
  2. Take care of yourself. Working with a narcissist puts you into survival mode. To cope, find things outside of work that bring you joy and relaxation. 
  3. Brush their ego. Pretending to compliment them or even being neutral will get you a long way. While it may seem disingenuous, it ultimately will protect your peace at work and help you advance in your position.
  4. Save the workplace drama for your mama. Coworker gossip can be tempting but keep in mind narcissists feed off of the attention. They’re also constantly doing recon missions and looking for signs that people are against them. If you need to vent, find someone outside of your office to talk to.
  5. Weigh the pros and cons of staying. Even if you implement some of the above strategies, working for a narcissist can take a toll on your workplace satisfaction and ultimately on your mental health. Consider then, if this is someone you still want or need to work with. Leaving your job isn’t always possible and if you see advancement for yourself in the next few years try to stick it out, but if not, it might be time to leave.

Working with a Narcissistic Employee

Having a narcissistic direct report can not only be costly for a manager’s mental health, but it can cost the company. If your team’s performance is being negatively affected, it’s time to step up and start taking the power back.

  1. Document behavior. Make a list documenting problematic instances, especially when they are negatively affecting your team’s performance and be consistent with recording.
  2. Clarify expectations. Narcissists tend to push the envelope on what they can get away with. To help, lay out clear expectations.
  3. Set boundaries. Establishing strong and healthy boundaries will help to prevent this behavior from sneaking past everyone and help you stay firm on those clear expectations you’ve made.
  4. Remember your role. As a manager, your role is to support your organization’s mission and goals. Stay focused on supporting your team towards meeting their objectives and not the personal goals of the narcissist.
  5. Follow through. If you’ve clearly laid out boundaries and expectations, make sure you’re consistently following through on them. Expectations not being met? Follow up promptly so the situation does not escalate.

In Summary

Working with or for a narcissistic person is quite the challenge but remember what they can teach you. The greatest gift of engaging with a narcissist is learning how to surrender your ego. At first, this can be difficult as we desperately want to protect our reputation and integrity, leading to more mental conflict, but once we let go we can find peace and self-growth. With this self-awareness, you can recognize when your own narcissistic tendencies flare-up and how to steer them away. So thank the narcissist in your life for the gift of self-growth… they’re probably wondering why you haven’t already!

Looking for more personalized support? Considering the benefits of executive coaching with the NU Company.

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