Coping with narcissists in the workplace: The 3 biggest mistakes people make

A man in a suit is standing next to a picture of a businessman.

Narcissistic individuals in the workplace are difficult to deal with – and even more difficult if you cannot rely on a collective group response to counterbalance certain dynamics.

Whether your challenges are linked to a narcissistic client, colleague or boss, there are some mistakes we need to avoid when dealing with individuals with narcissistic traits. This will allow us to move on from the circular conversations and repetitive patterns we may have noticed in these interactions. In this blog, we are going to be using the term ‘narcissist’ to refer to an individual who displays traits consistent with NPD.

Mistake 1: Staying in diagnosis mode of the narcissist: your biggest priority is to look after yourself.

A boss, colleague, client or resource with narcissistic traits may quickly become a stressor in the workplace. Common traits of narcissism typically include a sense of grandiosity and entitlement, a lack of empathy and regard for others’ points of view (being a bad listener), a tendency to take up all the space and devaluate other people’s work, being domineering, having difficulty handling criticism and seeing themselves as being ‘special’ and deserving special treatment. Narcissists are unable to engage in meaningful self-introspection and generally deny having a problem; the outer and grandiose self is a coverup the narcissist feeds with a daily admiration procurement strategy to keep them away from a deeper sense of terror and inadequacy. Organisations’ responses to how to best manage these issues can differ significantly.

When friction and difficult conversations become triggering and the search for meaning becomes crucial, we want to know what we are dealing with, and it may be helpful to self-educate ourselves on narcissism. It is important to remember, however, that we are, and will likely remain, in the remit of an informal diagnosis and subjective perceptions of how we experience certain dynamics. Even when comparing notes and experiences with others, information for confirming our suspicions will be limited, unidimensional (all taking place in the workplace) and scattered. In other words, we are unlikely to receive an expert report or a letter from HR that finally confirms our suspicions.

Remaining in defining or labelling behaviour is not our ultimate goal. It is only when we shift our attention from diagnosis mode to considering the impact certain behaviours have on us, or how we can contribute to creating different group responses to frustrating dynamics, that we will be able to take a step forward. This is necessary to move us from discovery – say, of what gaslighting is – to recovery of our own sphere of influence. Taking care of ourselves is, indeed, our priority number one and ranks above fine-tuning the exact narcissist profile.

Mistake 2: Entering into a word-battle or confronting the narcissist

Depending on the degree and display of narcissistic traits, the person exposed to the narcissist’s self-absorbed conversational style may be tempted to invest considerable effort in trying to ‘fix the conversation’. Sometimes, this goes as far as trying to persuade the narcissist that our perspective is equally valid, grounded and well-reasoned. Individuals who display narcissistic traits are often skilled and convincing speakers, and they are keen to ensure that they have the final word on everything. This may leave the more empathic individual, now triggered by the narcissist’s need to always be right, in ruminating mode – revisiting and replaying the same conversations over, again and again.

At some point, stepping back and leaving the ‘word battle’ may well be the healthiest way forward. It is unlikely that a narcissist will settle for a meet in the middle – ‘now that I see your point, I’m happy to reconsider’ – or respectfully accept that on certain matters, two people may elegantly ‘agree to disagree’. In the narcissist’s world, which is built around control and retaining that control over the prevailing narrative, they have to win. And they often need to win at any cost. One of the traits of narcissism is a lack of accountability, and the use of circular conversations to avoid taking ownership is common.

This insight may allow people who experience frustration with leaving the conversation unfinished on an ‘unfair ending’ and wish to reach a sensible conclusion, to see how this cannot be accomplished by better spelling out of our point of view – there is no ‘winning’ the argument in this dynamic, assuming winning a word-battle with a narcissist qualifies as any sort of valuable win. In other words, it may help to accept that we cannot use reason with someone who is not also using reason or reach sensible conclusions with someone who is not interested in them.

Mistake 3: Overreliance on the belief that the word ‘narcissist’ will unlock empathy and support. Not everyone has an exact understanding of the challenges.

When we believe that a dynamic is not just ‘difficult’ or ‘stuck on the same pattern’ but may instead be resultant of narcissistic traits, this insight may resonate deeply. The power of the discovery may feel liberating – it is not you who is inadequate as per the narcissistic mirror-back narrative! – and create the expectation that, say, other work colleagues will respond accordingly. It can be disappointing finding out that this discovery may not mean the same to others and more crucially, that just saying, ‘I think [my boss] is a narcissist’ does not unlock empathy, immediate support or alignment in understanding. And perhaps not just at work; this may extend to your circle of friends, who don’t know exactly what you are talking about and may have not invested as much as you have watching YouTube videos on narcissism.

A more effective strategy is to start shifting the focus from saying the word to focusing on the facts and behaviours. For example: Instead of seeking support because our boss has narcissistic traits, we can reframe the conversation to focus on the behaviour. This may be the fact that we have been trying to mention for [x] months that we feel significantly overworked, but our boss is not giving any indication they are concerned or will address the situation. Ultimately, what matters to us is not receiving validation of our diagnosis or fixing the narcissist but directing the right degree of attention to the behaviours that are causing us distress.

Coping with narcissists may be a significant challenge and, depending on circumstances, lead to choices we did not anticipate. Like all difficulties, it will also lead to personal development, setting new priorities and, over time, a renewed confidence in our capacity to navigate adversity.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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