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Working With A Narcissist? Here Is What You Should Do

Spotting a narcissist amongst your staff can be difficult, and dealing with them can be even harder.
Spotting a narcissist amongst your staff can be difficult, and dealing with them can be even harder.
  • Narcissists in the workplace can be extremely harmful
  • There are warning signs that you can spot before narcissists get promoted into leadership positions
  • Training can help minimize the potential damage narcissistic employees could do

Do you ever get the feeling that someone within your team is only working for themselves? Or maybe what you originally perceived as confidence, is now coming across as a heightened sense of self-importance, and arrogance?

Perhaps one of your colleagues isn’t a team player, and requires excessive admiration? If your answers are yes, then it is possible that you are working with a narcissist.

“Narcissists see themselves as superior to others, and in a work environment, the presence of these people can have very damaging effects, especially if their behaviour starts hurting other people and brings down morale” says Professor Birgit Schyns from NEOMA Business School.

“This is mainly because their interests don’t tend to match those of the organization, but are instead exclusively for themselves”.

It is not always easy trying to identify these traits in the people around us, and it can be even harder to decide what to do once you do recognize them.

What makes them difficult to identify is that narcissists tend to make great first impressions. Due to the positive initial impact that they can make on others – narcissists can do significantly well in organisational contexts.  It is well established that narcissists do well in job interviews and are quite capable of landing a job. In addition, their social skills and their ambition often help them to end up in more senior positions.

In fact, a recent research study claimed that narcissists are generally more likely to get involved in politics.

“People with narcissistic traits are much more likely to engage. It’s a way of getting attention and make themselves appear better than other people” says Julie Blais, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University.

Within a work environment, there are warning signs that you can spot before these people get promoted into leadership positions. According to Professor Schyns, one of the biggest ‘red flags’ when it comes to spotting a narcissist in the workplace is that typically, narcissists will falsely claim or take credit for undue contributions within the organization.

As far as narcissists are concerned, they have to be the best, they are always right, and they are the most competent. Therefore, these colleagues will do everything their way and will take ownership of everything. However, if things do not go their way, then lack of responsibility is a blatant sign of a narcissist. Although narcissists want to be in control, they never want to be responsible for anything that may have gone wrong.

“When things don’t go according to their plan or they feel criticized or less than perfect, the narcissist will place all the blame and responsibility on someone else” says Professor Schyns.

But what should you do once you have identified these troubling characters within your team?

As colleagues with narcissistic traits will be very manipulative, and may try to control or minimize the influence of others within the team, Professor Schyns advises that managers who notice these behaviours among their employees should talk about it with this person immediately. Managers should also check in with other members of the organization with whom he or she interacts. However, it is vital that you do not wait for performance reviews to do this. Instead, managers should actively seek thorough feedback on the person straight away.

On top of this, it is important that fellow colleagues who detect abnormal behaviour should also talk about it by going to other members of the team to find out if this has happened to them as well.

“If it has only happened once, it might just be a misunderstanding. But if the case has happened several times and involves different people, then this is definitely an issue that needs to be dealt with” says Professor Schyns.

One of the biggest things you need to be careful of doing is rewarding narcissists in the workplace, says Professor Schyns. This reward may be in the form of a promotion, and as a manager, you need to be wary of this. This is because you might have even more of a problem once you give people with these traits more leeway, more responsibility, and their own team to manage. If narcissistic personalities have a lot of room for maneuver and strategic influence within organisations, they will use it.

In many cases, training can help minimise the potential damage narcissistic employees could do. If managers limit these people in the workplace – with checks, balances and performance feedback, for example – they may not have the opportunity to express these characteristics. 

Also, managers should think about the tasks they give people with narcissistic traits. “Since narcissists are likely to prefer to have responsibilities in very visible tasks, managers could adapt their role so that they give them a better opportunity to perform for an audience” explains Professor Schyns.

And finally, since it is difficult to get narcissists to accept direct feedback, steering them towards taking others into account by highlighting the benefit to themselves, might get narcissists to consider some more team-oriented behaviours.

Spotting a narcissist at work can be challenging, and learning how to deal with them can be even harder. However, there are ways in which you can approach the problem, and there are mechanisms you can put in place so that your whole team is not negatively affected by their presence.  Although this does not mean that these personality traits will disappear, it does mean that narcissists will have less opportunity to express them to the detriment of the organisation.

This article is based on research from the ‘Academy of Management Perspectives – Shady Strategic Behaviour: Recognizing Strategic Behaviour of Dark Triad Followers’, co-written by Birgit Schyns, of NEOMA Business School, Barbara Wisse, of the University of Groningen and Durham University Business School and Stacy Sanders from the University of Groningen.

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