a unique problem
Over a year ago, I was faced with a challenge: I was the direct supervisor to a narcissist.
I just didn’t know it.
Through not knowing what I was dealing with, problems compounded. Early interactions were amiable enough, but that faded fast. What should have been routine became laced with accusation, flared tempers, and the occasional tantrum. This was a grown man, pouting and screaming.
I was stuck with him. Most who’ve dealt with modern HR departments know it’s difficult (near impossible) to fire someone without an outright incident.
Something was off, though I couldn’t figure it out (I have little formal psych training). It was only through a lot of analysis and research I came to understand the individual I was dealing with. Stumbling upon a chance reference to “Cluster B” personality disorders opened my eyes.
It’s easy to accuse someone of being a narcissist. It’s hard to get it right. Only after I understood the nature of the problem, was a able to adapt and turn the situation around.
Below, I’ll help you build an understanding of narcissists, describe the different approaches that worked, and conclude my own story.
building an amateur’s understandings
Again, I’m clearly not a psych therapist. However, I was stuck with this individual and the damage he inflicted on my office was my problem to deal with.
Narcissism Personality Disorder (NPD) is a psychological problem. For this reason, we’ll defer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) for the definition. From the 4th edition, code 301.81:
“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- requires excessive admiration
- has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes”
It’s easy to state the definition, but to truly understand how problematic individuals with the traits above can be will take some explanation. There are three references that expound on the ramifications of dealing with a narcissist:
- Mayo Clinic’s Diseases and Conditions: NPD (a clean, clinical diagnosis)
- HuffPo’s 18 Signs You’re Dealing with a Narcissist (an accessible read)
- The Rawness’ Exhaustive Coverage of Narcissists and Codependents (the most exhaustive, street-level take)
I must pause here to thank “T” of The Rawness Blog. Without his insight into narcissists’ toxic nature and their unique relationship to shame, my situation would have faired far worse. Take the time to read his work.
This will sound strange now (even considering the definition above): Narcissists do not react to guilt (from a conscience), only shame (of social stigma/reprisal).
This understanding gives us insight into how those with NPD behave:
- IMAGE is EVERYTHING. They’re obsessed with having the best/being the best. Narcissist’s station in life is never good enough. They are marked for special privilege. Often, you will catch them participating in “the good things in life.” However, they do so because that’s what the believe is expected of them, not for their own enjoyment.
- Strongly adverse to criticism. NPD sufferers cannot handle the perception that they aren’t perfect in every way. Feedback can set off strong feelings of resentment and potential backlash. If a narcissist works for you, watch out!
- They’re likeable at first. You form easy connections with them, which makes them hard to spot and more difficult in the long run. These guys have bullet-proof first impressions and are rock stars at job interviews.
- Their need for public validation compels them to pursue leadership positions. They can quickly catapult into positions to cause real damage.
- Their natural solipsism will eventually center any conversation around them. Narcissists are so self absorbed that they are unable of considering viewpoints other than their own.
- They are either the victor or the victim. Success is their own doing, mistakes are someone else’s. There is no in-between when you’re the center of the world.
- Lack of empathy mean that they’re opportunistic and willing to exploit others. Naturally, they don’t last long in relationships with healthy individuals, and often leave a trail of wreckage behind them.
Narcissists do not live in reality. Their world centers on them and there is little room for others in it. They have no issue destroying you or your organization to maintain their self image.
None of this is to say that narcissists are incompetent. In fact, they may highly capable in numerous areas.
However, the combination of social suave (as evinced by their first impressions) and outright hostility to criticism & accountability make them dangerous.
Any action they perceive as negatively impacting their public reputation will be met with sudden, intense resistance. This can be a problem if you’re their supervisor (or peer) where feedback is a natural part of the relationship.
now, what to do
The following list are the lessons and observations I made while dealing with my own troublemaker.
- Don’t invite one in. This isn’t possible in all situations, but give yourself time to feel out those around you.
- Adjust expectations — you aren’t going to fix them. NPD goes far and deep. Individuals with it can’t be reasoned with, and frequently are unaware of their own narcissism.
- Minimize exposure. This is crucial. This may mean “promoting” them into positions where they are not responsible for others. At the minimum, limit your own interactions with the individual.
- Catch performance coaching in a guise of mild praise. Softening feedback isn’t out of order if it means keeping the peace. However, don’t use deference. Again, you aren’t going to fix these individuals (See #2), but you can make them more receptive to your feedback.
- Spin the situation so that they look good doing what you want. These guys obsesses over being the hero. Give it to them and smile as they jump through hoops doing your bidding.
- Appeal to self interest, never empathy. Related to #5, make sure they know what’s in it for them. Not only is appealing to their empathy useless, it can telegraph vulnerabilities they will seek to exploit.
- Outlast them. The nature of narcissists makes them ticking time bombs. Often, you only need to minimize your exposure, and they’ll take themselves out. In the mean time, you should be cataloguing their actions and building a case for HR to kick his ass to the curb.
- Shame and ostracism. This is a last resort. It puts all your cards on the table, so don’t do it to satisfy your own ego. When the situation calls for it, level them by turning public opinion against them. This is the most powerful leverage you have against a narcissist. Do not insult them directly, rather offer up their actions for public scrutiny.
You can see these in play in the conclusion of my own encounter…
My own narcissist exited the picture spectacularly.
Dealing with an individual that you’ve promoted to a position of influence can always be tricky. Obviously, I’d already failed to employ Tactic #1. However, I did have leeway in what function he was fulfilling within my office, and minimize the exposure of my organization to him.
Thankfully, I had a valid opening for a position that was technically a “promotion,” but without any one working for him. When it comes to a narcissist, that was as good as it gets. This judo move denied him the anger of any perceived insult, but contained his sphere of influence (Tactics #3 & 5).
This did not mean that the problem had been dealt with. As with any of my subordinates, I kept a journal of their performance (both good and bad). Eventually, my narcissist got complacent and slacked off on his efforts. When counseled and confronted with a written account of his performance (something I’m legally mandated to do), he decided to so in kind. It wasn’t that he received a negative evaluation (Tactic #4), rather it wasn’t as positive as he anticipated. He assembled, on paper, a litany of personality flaws and alleged transgressions to counsel me.
If that wasn’t enough, he was critical of both myself and higher leadership, and made sure I knew this — in writing. This lack of self awareness on his part wasn’t sufficient to fire him (nor should it have been), but it was enough to stop his advancement within the organization.
As I mentioned before, narcissists often leave a trail of wreckage. Unbeknownst to me, missteps and opportunism in his personal life got him investigated by two government agencies, who had reached out to our leadership. At the same time, his contract was up for renewal. Due to his own actions, our organization’s leadership had no incentive to keep him around.
Over a decade into his career, he suddenly didn’t have one.