· Comment

How to cope with a narcissist at work

Narcissism is a personality behavioural disorder where an individual has misrepresented feelings of inflated self-worth, often masking very low confidence.

Narcissistic individuals have a profound need for attention and adoration and are often described as egotistical, egocentric, self-centred and entitled.

People with this personality disorder can find it incredibly difficult to build and sustain relationships and those around them can experience time spent together as highly toxic and even abusive.

The causes

Generally, men are more affected than females.

As with many mental health disorders, the causes of narcissistic personality disorder are often complex and may stem from relationships with parents which features a mix of excess adoration followed by inappropriate criticism.

Healthy behaviour and thinking may have been altered by a traumatic life event. Some characteristics may also be inherited.

Healthy leadership:

The importance of authentic leadership

Emotional intelligence – the new skills gap

What to do when leadership fails, part one

The effects

Many people who struggle with this personality disorder suffer from relationship troubles, have problems in the workplace and can also suffer from depression, anxiety, and loneliness and misuse alcohol and drugs.

Treatment of childhood problems, family therapy or accepting guidance from someone they trust may help, but they may not believe there is any problem to fix.


How to spot a narcissist in the workplace

A workplace narcissist is characterised by: 

  • Being overly interested in their self-image and switching from defenceless and vulnerable, to aggressive and manipulative.
  • Failure to accept the smallest of critiques and prone to meltdowns.
  • Inflated sense of entitlement and a keen interest in the most influential individuals in the company.
  • Constantly believing they are right and not changing beliefs even if they have been proven to be wrong. An argument is often pointless.
  • Need for praise, appreciation and support from others, but struggle to commend other’s achievements.
  • Disregard for other’s feelings, needs and opinions.
  • Bossy, competitive and know-it-all attitude.


How to cope with a narcissist at work

Recognise their good qualities. Everybody has some positive attributes so try to remember what these are in this colleague. For instance, they may be very good at making tough decisions or taking control of tricky situations.

Acknowledging that narcissism is a behavioural disorder, may enable you to be more sympathetic about this co-worker. Remember that mentally healthy people do not behave like this, but equally acknowledge that this is not an excuse for you to endure unacceptable behaviour.

Be assertive. Narcissists look for people that they can take advantage of. Communicate assertively but do not be aggressive because this may come across as an attack and may make the narcissist defensive.

Give them options and describe how every one of these can benefit them to avoid resistance.

Define expectations. Talk to managers if there is a problem working with your co-worker. Establishing clear expectations and boundaries is key to preventing manipulative behaviours if these arise. 


How to protect yourself from narcissistic behaviour 

Be sure to never accept unnecessary blame. Regardless of what is being said, you are not responsible for their actions. Employees should set and stick to personal boundaries.

Narcissists will exploit others if they get the opportunity to so set some clear boundaries for yourself to prevent this from happening. It is difficult to control another person’s behaviour, but you can always control your own.

Report and document problematic behaviour and alert management if any problematic or manipulative behaviours arise. Holding individuals accountable is paramount for the team to cope.

Don’t divulge any vulnerabilities, or too much personal detail about you or colleagues or it may be used against you. 

Most importantly, know that you can’t force others to seek help and don’t get drawn into their drama. Understand that individuals with a narcissistic personality disorder may not think anything is wrong and are therefore unlikely to seek treatment.

They are more likely to receive treatment for other resulting problems such as depression, or drug or alcohol misuse but even then they may make it difficult to follow through with treatment.


Lynda Shaw is a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist