Recognizing and Dealing With Narcissism in Professional Environments

Feb 15, 2023

Narcissism in the workplace can create a difficult and toxic atmosphere for colleagues and employees. While it can be hard to recognize a narcissist, understanding their characteristics and how to manage them is key to reducing the potential damage they can cause.

Recognize the signs of narcissism. 

Some of the symptoms of narcissism to look for include arrogance, a sense of superiority, self-focus, grandiosity and a lack of empathy or concern for others. But behind the mask of extreme confidence, they are not so sure of their self-worth and are easily upset by the slightest criticism. Narcissists can also be overly sensitive to criticism and defensive when challenged in any way. Additionally, they tend to devalue people and are not often supportive of other’s successes. It is essential to be aware of these signs so that you know when you could be dealing with a narcissist in your office. When people talk about narcissism, they might be referring to it either as a part of someone’s personality or as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcissistic personality disorder is a formal mental health diagnosis, and there’s only one type. This condition is usually diagnosed when narcissism extends beyond a personality trait and persistently affects many areas of your life.

There are specific criteria for the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Criteria include at least five of these nine symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder:

* grandiosity and self-importance

* fantasies of success, perfection, or power

* a strong conviction of being special and unique

* a need for admiration and praise

* entitlement

* a pattern of exploiting others for personal gain

* low empathy

* envy, jealousy, and distrust

* arrogance, haughtiness, and scorn

But, researchers and other experts on narcissism have found multiple ways narcissism can show up as part of someone’s personality, including those with the formal diagnosis, and that’s what we’ll be talking about here

Understand their motives and boundaries. 

Understanding a narcissist’s intentions is key since they often make it difficult to read where their boundaries lie. This can be especially true when you are in a professional setting with one. As an example, if they seem to always be criticizing you and giving orders, this could signal that they have a need to control the situation. Establishing firm boundaries and standing up for yourself when needed can be effective strategies for dealing with a narcissistic colleague or boss.

How to know you are dealing with the dynamics of narcissistic behavior? The underlying (and suppressed) feeling of emptiness and inferiority is often transferred to others. Notice feelings of inferiority, excessive self-doubt or aggression and powerlessness after a meeting or conversation? Be aware of these dynamics, and see whether it happens again with the same person in another situation.

Deal with their behavior efficiently and professionally.

To deal with a narcissist in a professional setting, it’s important to be diplomatic. People with high levels of narcissism tend to respond very defensively when their positive self-evaluations are threatened. Try to keep any conversations with them civil and be sure to avoid being confrontational or aggressive. Remember to focus on the behavior instead of attacking the person, and state your concerns calmly while emphasizing the bigger picture—such as preserving the company’s reputation or keeping the team on track.

Exercise caution in confrontations with them. 

It is important to be somewhat careful when directly confronting a narcissist, as they may become defensive and lash out. Instead, try to have an open dialogue with them that focuses on solutions. If you must confront them, remain calm and focus on facts; also be sure to emphasize any positive points you make that can benefit the company or project. Honesty is generally important, as is respectful conversation that doesn't do unneeded damage to the fragile self. Additionally, it’s a good idea to bring someone else for support if possible so that there is a third or neutral party present during confrontations.

Narcissists will often try to shift blame to those around them and make others take responsibility for the narcissist's mistakes. It is important to address this situation as soon as possible so that neither you nor your colleagues become targets of abuse or manipulation. Before escalation takes place, oftentimes it is possible to stay away from most destructive patterns by avoiding too much contact and friction (like a boxer who doesn't wrestle a wrestler but holds his distance). Empowering and behaviorally reinforcing approaches can sometimes contribute to narcissistic personality traits in managers and CEO's being moulded successfully into the bigger picture of team and organization.

For more guidance on distinguishing narcissistic behavior, see the article on power, masculinity and narcissism.

Dirk Jan Versluis (MM, MSc) is psychologist and executive coach and specializes in the integral psychology of trauma, leadership and top performance (more information).