Blogs

How to manage a narcissist (2017)

Manfred Kets de Vries

"Advice for dealing with narcissists"

George, a senior executive of a large internet provider, was a participant in one of my leadership development programs. Although a very talented individual, he was a nuisance within the group. Whenever someone else spoke, he would quickly become impatient and try to change the topic to something closer to his interests. And he had a habit of devaluing others’ work while overemphasizing his own successes. It was quite clear to the other participants that George viewed most people as far below his standards.

 

Often, it seems that having a narcissistic disposition — grandiose, self-promoting, larger than life — is a prerequisite for reaching the higher organizational echelons. Narcissistic people can be charismatic and manipulative, which helps them get ahead. But although their drive and ambitions can be effective in moving organizations forward, excessive narcissistic behavior can create havoc and lead to organizational breakdown.

 

Narcissistic individuals have a strong sense of entitlement: when they don’t receive special treatment, they become very impatient or get quite angry. Given their self-serving mindset, it’s difficult for them to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others. They are often quite thin-skinned: they have difficulty handling criticism, very quickly feel hurt, overreact, and get defensive. Underneath the confident exterior, they are troubled by a deep sense of insecurity.

 

Managing the narcissist

 

This all creates challenges for those who would manage narcissistic individuals. Making matters worse, narcissists refuse to acknowledge that they have a problem.

 

Create a strong sense of team cohesion. A group setting makes dysfunctional acting out more noticeable, controllable, discussable, and therefore less acceptable. Peer pressure will push the narcissist to adapt to the group’s norms. Peers take on the role of “enforcers,” to encourage the narcissist to listen and empathize with others.

 

Use this strong team to promote peer feedback. Feedback from many people is hard to ignore. If the dynamics of the group are facilitated effectively, the narcissist’s view of themselves may be revealed, mirrored, challenged, and even modified.

 

Create a safe, somewhat playful space. This can become an environment where people with a narcissistic disposition learn to develop trust, explore boundaries, accept feedback, and increase self-awareness.

 

Don’t confront the narcissist directly. Instead, support the team. Returning to George, the group facilitator was very careful not to confront him too forcefully when he acted inappropriately during the group leadership development sessions. Instead, the facilitator would empathize with George (showing surprise and hurt) as a result of the confrontations with and feedback given by his peers. At the same time, the facilitator empowered George’s peers not to accept his way of dominating the conversations and thus to make him realize that he didn’t always need to be the smartest person in the room.

 

Dealing with narcissists will always be a challenge, be it in a group setting or otherwise. But a manager’s biggest worry should not be losing their narcissist; it should be that other team members, tired of the narcissists, will be the ones to resign.

HBR, 2017

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