"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, 2017Read more
"Managing those who won't see the middle ground"
This blog entry for the Harvard Business Review explores how one can manage leaders who see things in black and white, unable to accept a middle ground.
Published on 10 Mar, 2015
"High-flyers and the fear of success"
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review address the fear of success and its consequences.
Published on 4 Mar, 2014
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review explore the manic-depressive leaders, who are great in a crisis, but overestimating their capabilities can try to do more than they can handle.
Published on 20 Mar, 2014
"Corporate genius and psychopaths"
This blog entry with the Harvard Business Review. discusses the thin line between corporate genius and psychopaths.
Published on 7 Jan, 2014
“Knowing is the easy part; saying it out loud is the hard part.”
Successful coaching involves working with – not against – an individual’s resistance.
Published on 20 Aug, 2018
"Rescuer syndrome and excessive helping behavior"
In this article the author explores the problem of excessive helping behavior—The Rescuer Syndrome—with particular reference to executive coaching.
Published on 9 Dec, 2010
"Ways to Manage Difficult Bosses"
This article explores the options available to anyone who has to manage a bad boss. Much of it will feel like common sense. But people often forget that it’s in their power to improve bad situations, so having the options systematically laid out can be very helpful.
Published on 1 Dec, 2016
"The uses of humour in the workplace"
This blog looks at the sources of humor and to distunguish between humour that is congenial and empathetic and humour that is dysfunctional and divisive.
Published on 2 Jun, 2015
"When drive and commitment are too much"
Published on 21 Mar, 2016
"A large chair doesn’t make a king"
Africa is a cautionary example of the need for checks and balances against the abuse of power.
Published on 5 Oct, 2016