How to manage a narcissist

May 31 2011 by Myra White Print This Article

Narcissism is on the rise in the United States. Surveys have found a steady increase in the narcissistic traits of American college students who now score 30 per cent higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than they did in the 1980s.

Moreover, this trend has been steadily gaining momentum over a number of years. An examination of teenage scores on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory has found that in the 1950s, just 12 per cent of U.S. teenagers agreed with the narcissistic statement, "I'm an important person." By the late 80's this figure had jumped to 80 per cent.

Given this increase in people who narcissistically view themselves as important, it is no wonder that U.S. workplaces are often so contentious. If everyone views themselves as an important person who is entitled to special treatment, managers have an impossible task when it comes to eliciting the teamwork and cooperation that contemporary workplaces demand.

In order to address this problem it is important to understand the traits that narcissists exhibit. The term narcissist has its origins in the story from Greek mythology of the beautiful Narcissus who falls hopelessly in love with his reflection when he stops to take a drink from a stream. Mesmerized by his reflection he spends his remaining days lying by the stream looking at his reflection and declaring his love for it.

People who qualify as narcissists in contemporary times have a similar love for themselves which is manifested in an exaggerated and unrealistic view of their importance and abilities. They are like a former boyfriend of mine who, when he was a small child, saw other people swimming and thought, "I can do that." He then promptly jumped off the dock on which he was standing and nearly drowned.

Even more troubling than the tendency of narcissists to overestimate their abilities are their feelings of entitlement and the belief that they deserve special treatment. Narcissists consider that rules and regulations only apply to others and will frequently push their boss to provide them with extras or to bend the rules for them. On teams they will refuse to cooperate or fly into a rage when their teammates fail to recognize the brilliance of their ideas and work.

Given their delusions of superiority, narcissists also feel that others are there to serve them. Thus, they will have no compunction in appropriating other employee's ideas and accomplishments as their own. After all from their perspective, everyone works for them.

So how can you rein in the narcissists in your workplace? One of the best approaches is prevention. This involves learning how to spot a narcissist before you hire him.

There are a number of red flags that suggest that you are in the presence of a narcissist. First, narcissists tend to exaggerate their accomplishments. They will boldly proclaim that they singlehandedly turned around their former department or designed their company's successful marketing plan.

A second red flag is a tendency to criticize their former colleagues in order to show their own superiority. This is particularly likely to occur when you ask them why they left their former position.

A third is that narcissists are more interested in what a position will do for them rather than what they can do for the organization. They will push for special benefits and other indicators of higher status that don't normally go with the position that you are offering.

The greater problem, however, lies in managing the narcissists that you already have. This requires fortitude, ingenuity and an understanding of how to use their misplaced self-importance to your advantage.

First, leverage the fact that narcissists like to be associated with higher status people. Make sure that you keep your distance and demand the respect your position merits. Show them that you are wired into people at the top by communicating that your actions are directly supported by your boss and specific senior executives in your organization whom you identify by name.

Second, recognize that narcissists are generally not good team players since there are few people whom they consider their equals. If you do have to put them on a team, place them on one with people whom they admire and consider high status.

Third, stick to the rules. Narcissists are likely to push you for special favours and to ask you to bend the rules for them. Make sure you don't cave in to their demands.

Fourth, protect your other reports. Narcissists often step forward to claim the glory when things go well so make sure that you know who really deserves credit. As part of this, design incentives that reward teamwork and cooperation rather than individual work.

Finally, be aware that in our competitive self-promotional world, it's easy for all of us to become caught up in the prevailing culture of narcissism and forget that no one succeeds alone.

As Dr. Thomas Gutheil, a senior professor at Harvard Medical School, has pointed out, "Narcissism can be deadly for a person's career. With their sense of entitlement narcissists frequently become embroiled in career damaging workplace conflicts and have problems fulfilling their potential."

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.

Older Comments

Just because someone agrees with a statement ....I 'm am important person on the mmpi does not mkae them a narcissist. I believe they have a healthy self esteem. Other traitsor views need to be present to indicate narcissism. Thanks JB, MA LCPC

jb Chicago IL

I agree with jb that a statement on the MMPI is not an entirely reliable indicator of narcissism. It is important to distinguish between high self esteem and a clincial (and pathological) diagnosis of narcissism.

The information on how to manage a narcissist, however, is helpful. Perhaps the saving factor withmany narcissists is that since they never feel that they are adequately recognized or rewarded, and because they see themselves as capable of doing anything, they probably won't stay in one job for any appreciable length of time.

Patricia Pitsel, Ph.D. Canada

I became interested in the term 'Narcissist' when I was trying to put a label on the personality traits of some of my 14 to 16 year old students. The more I read on Narcissism the more the label began to fit these students. I understand that everyone is unique, but there seems to be some underlying character 'flaws' that are common amongst many people today. The common lack of respect and compassion for others combined with a selfish, egotistical nature has made my job as a caring and compassionate teacher very difficult. I feel as though I am viewed as weak and inferior by these Narcissistic students. They would rather argue to the point of ruining the lesson for me and those students who do want to learn. At first I thought it might have been my teaching style that brought about their arrogant and often childish behaviour, but I discovered that they exhibit the same behaviours in all lessons no matter what teacher they have. I have recognised that they all had a 'mask' on as they would never allow me to know anything about them. They never share their true feelings, dreams or ideas and they don't even come out from behind the mask when they hurl abuse at you. They acuse you of treating them unfairly and they are always trying to manipulate the situation to get their own way. I have asked the other students what they felt about the problem students and they all felt annoyed and harrassed, as well as feeling resentful towards them for wasting their learning time. I have heard other adults as well as students say that some of these problem children have parents who were also narcissistic or bullied others when they were at school. Therefore could it be a family trait or a behaviour learned at home? Through my own observations, many of these narcissistic children are good looking or athletically gifted and have the latest gadgets and fashions. I know that many good natured students are good looking and keep up with the latest trends also, but usually I see them working after school at the local supermarket. How does that old saying go? 'Easy come, easy go.' Perhaps some good old fashioned parenting wouldn't go astray these days. It might make teaching them a whole lot easier!

Deb Australia