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Narcissists can be exhausting. Their shallow conversations, self-promotion, and lack of consideration can leave others feeling used or drained.
Many strategies for dealing with narcissists—meaning individuals who meet the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder or display strong narcissistic traits—have downsides. For example, you can go along with a narcissist’s grandiosity but feel disheartened by the fakery. You can try to be positive but risk being put down. You can ignore them but end up as a target. You can speak up, only to be attacked.
While there are no perfect strategies, some approaches can help when facing narcissistic bosses, colleagues, or clients.
1. Use narcissists’ ego-driven goals to your advantage.
Expecting those who are high in narcissism to play by normal rules is a setup. Such individuals tend to be motivated by attention, image, and winning.
Cooperation and open communication are not highly valued by narcissists. A new study of 118 executives in a large Chinese firm, for example, found that narcissistic executives influence their units to be less cooperative and less receptive to information from other units within the same company.
Yet lack of cooperation can be costly to an organization. To increase cooperation from a narcissist, appeal to their core motives by asking yourself:
- How would cooperating with you enhance their image in their eyes?
- How would cooperating get them more attention?
- How would cooperating make them feel respected?
- How would cooperating make them feel they won?
2. Know when and how to set boundaries.
Narcissists are used to getting what they want, often by manipulating or wearing others out. You may be going against the tide if you speak up. However, when you let a boundary violation slide, future boundary violations are likely to be bigger and come more often.
When a narcissist is insulting, contentious, or violates your boundaries, you might find something to acknowledge them for, no matter how minor—but also tell them their treatment does not feel respectful and may interfere with your ability or willingness to help them achieve their goals.
Of course, you have to factor in power differentials at work. Highlighting values or pointing to boundary violations may be effective or appropriate with a subordinate or colleague. But doing so with a client may risk you losing a sale. Standing up to a highly narcissistic CEO may risk your job.
Ask yourself: What is the cost of going along with or standing up to a narcissist? Narcissists can be vindictive. Yet losing your sense of self brings a higher price.
3. Focus on values.
Narcissists tend to be driven by self-aggrandizement. The question, “What’s in it for me?” looms large. Narcissists’ behaviors often reflects their underlying values.
One review of three studies found that narcissistic individuals are more willing to lie, cheat, and steal than others. In one of the studies, participants were asked, if they were selling a car with a faulty water pump, whether they would disclose the needed repair. Not disclosing would mean it would likely remain undiscovered until summer, long after the car was sold. A non-disclosing seller would receive a greater price for the car but the lack of disclosure could cost the buyer significantly more when the pump failed and damaged the engine. The study found that the higher the level of narcissism, the more likely the person would not disclose the needed repair.
Another scenario asked participants to imagine they were up for a promotion. They were told of a subordinate’s brilliant idea and had the option to present the subordinate’s idea as their own. After being told that their presentation of the idea had secured the job, participants were asked how much of their $10,000 hiring bonus they would share with the subordinate. Participants with a higher level of narcissism were less likely to share any financial gain.
The authors warned, “When a leader is willing to lie, cheat, and steal in pursuit of his or her own interests, it can demotivate others, put the organization at risk, and encourage others to engage in similar behavior.”
These tactics are about domination. They leave little room for values such as reciprocity, inclusiveness, diversity, compassion, connection, learning, empathy, altruism, or self-awareness. By pointing to the lack of such values in narcissists’ actions, you claim higher ground that narcissists rarely consider and have little way to compete with.
Narcissistic leaders may dismiss values such as compassion or altruism as inconsequential to a company’s bottom line. However, a 2020 review of more than 150 studies on narcissism found that grandiose narcissistic leaders jeopardize their organizations as they “take outsized risks, exploit others, overclaim credit for success, blame others for failure, ignore the advice of experts, and are overconfident in their abilities and judgment.”
The negative effects of narcissism can even extend to pro sports organizations. A 2020 study on NBA team performance found that teams with higher mean narcissism had poorer coordination and performance than teams with lower mean narcissism.
4. Avoid the following traps.
- Arguing with narcissists. Instead, validate any of their strong points, and move on.
- Feeling you need to defend your approach. Instead, keep your comments short and sweet. Less is more with narcissists. They’d rather hear themselves than you, anyway.
- Trying to get them to accept responsibility. Instead, point out possible negative consequences their approach may bring them, then let them choose.
- Taking what they say personally. Instead, recognize they are like this with everybody. This is simply how narcissists seek to get their needs met.
- Responding to dramatics or ultimatums. Instead, sidestep theatrics and return focus to the task at hand.
- Taking the bait when they blame or criticize. Instead, reassure them that you are not against them, and then go about your business.
- Overlooking narcissists’ vagueness, failure to keep their agreements, or attempts to claim credit for your work. Instead, protect yourself by documenting agreements and your accomplishments. Consider notifying HR or other authorities. Recruit allies so you don’t face a narcissist alone. And consider whether working with a narcissist is best for your career in the long run.