Work may be the one place where you cannot follow the good advice of the Desiderata:
“Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
Narcissistic people in the workplace are, by definition, loud and aggressive. And they are of a sociopathic mindset that, although there are no greater people than themselves, you and your fellow workers populate the vast universe of lesser persons in their low regard.
So, aside from simply avoiding the toxic narcissist at work, you can learn how to take control away from a narcissist. Here are six of the tactics recommended by experts:
How to defeat a narcissist at work
Tactic 1: Know your enemy
The word “narcissist” comes from the Greek mythological character Narcissus. A beautiful son of a god and nymph, Narcissus was so much in love with himself that he loved no one. One day he saw his own reflection in the water, became infatuated with himself and pined away until he died.
How to recognize narcissistic behavior
What separates a well-adjusted and cooperative team player from a toxic narcissist at work are the following signs.
Narcissists tend to:
- constantly interrupt and monopolize conversations. Narcissists are self-absorbed. Their needs and thoughts take priority over the group. Narcissists hog attention, interrupt, or ignore the opinions of others.
- avoid accountability for mistakes, but have no problem taking credit when things are going well. When things go wrong, they blame others or circumstances beyond their control—or they simply lie.
- react negatively in the face of constructive feedback. Narcissists are highly sensitive to criticism. Their ego can be either extremely fragile or so encrusted with self-delusion that any criticism can trigger anger and disruptive defensiveness.
- seek constant reinforcement and assurance. They often seek validation and reassurance from coworkers or supervisors throughout the workday, long before a task or project is completed.
- consider themselves above the rules of ethics. A narcissist is the classic adherent to the ends justifying the means. They will, however, hold others to higher standards.
- display extreme jealousy. Narcissists can’t abide the success of others. Despite seeming outwardly arrogant, they harbor feelings of insecurity and emptiness.
- can turn on charm and charisma. Displaying some manipulative traits of the classic sociopath, narcissists can be friendly and may be well-liked among others who don’t know them well and have formed a good first impression.
- thrive on chaos, gossip, and triangulation. With gossip and rumor mongering, narcissists constantly poison the atmosphere with conflict and controversy. Using triangulation, they suck in third parties as unwitting accomplices when involved in disputes with others.
Tactic 2: Know what you can do and what you can’t do
Like the Desiderata, the Serenity Prayer has some great advice for dealing with the toxic narcissist at work. In part, the prayer goes: “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
What you can’t change
So, if the narcissistic coworker happens to be your supervisor, that might be something you cannot change. Your only recourse could be to find another job. On your way out the door or in a resignation letter, you might want to mention that the boss is a jerk and you’re moving on.
Studies by the National Instituted of Health found that the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder was 6.2%, with rates for men (7.7%) higher than women (4.8%). If the coworker has a narcissistic personality disorder, according to WebMD.com, there is no known cure.
Narcissism, psychologists believe, is caused by genetics and neurobiology—how the brain is wired and how it affects behavior and thinking. Then there are environmental factors that include either coddling or neglect as a child.
Who can change
Narcissists who don’t have all the behaviors associated with a mental disorder can change. However, narcissism comes with barriers that keep them from seeking treatment. Their self-image is as a powerful, strong person, and admitting their behavior is causing problems—or even wanting to change—can be a huge obstacle to a healthier pattern of human relations.
What you can change when dealing with a narcissist whose behavior and symptoms don’t meet the criteria of a personality disorder—in other words, a conceited jerk—is to stop being a resource for the narcissist’s psychic energy.
Tactic 3: When you know your enemy, you can plan your attack
Narcissists are masters of the mind game. Their ego and self-image are invested in a repertoire of activities, preferences, which define their self-worth. They believe they are smarter, are better looking, and have better toys than everyone. They flaunt and brag about them as weapons to undermine or put down others.
Perhaps your narcissistic coworker is a know-it-all who likes to flaunt his or her superior knowledge of any subject. What the narcissist doesn’t want to deal with is having to say, “I don’t know.” So, dig around and find some esoteric and relevant job-related facts that can tax the intuitiveness of the most knowledgeable person.
Bring up a question in casual conversation and watch the narcissist come up with some fake response. Allow the coworker to continue, and then provide the right answer. Then follow up your response with, “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
Or you might tell the narcissist that you saw an article that his hot car was rated the poorest for safety and could be recalled any time.
Tactic 4: Adopt an “I’m rubber, you’re glue…” stance
Narcissists thrive on feeling superior by putting others down. Their personality underpinnings are shame and feelings of inadequacy. The secret to handling criticism—from narcissists or others, for that matter—is to 1) consider the source, 2) consider whether the criticism is valid, and 3) disregard the criticism if the criticism lacks validity.
If the source of the criticism is the office narcissist, disregard everything and turn the tables. For example, if the narcissist seems to thrive on making disparaging remarks about the looks or body weight of others, try something like this:
Narcissist coworker: Have you noticed Alice’s hair lately? And what about that paunch?
You: Well, I have noticed your hairline seems to be heading away from your forehead. Also, have you put on a few pounds?
Have something like that ready every time the coworker speaks out. When they stop receiving the payoff they expect, they will steer clear of you.
Tactic 5: For supervisors—Learn how to deal with narcissistic behavior.
The worker whose narcissistic behavior is hurting the team effort needs to be handled with finesse. The narcissist, despite outward appearances, actually has fragile self-esteem. Vanessa Van Edwards in an article posted on Science of People writes:
“It’s important to understand why these people act the way they are acting. It doesn’t mean they are bad people, or sinister, or out to hurt anyone. Unfortunately, however, narcissists can be toxic–even though they rarely intend to be.”
Brian O’Connell, writing for SHRM.com provides some advice to cope with the negative impact of narcissists in the workplace. His advice includes:
- documenting the behavior. Getting the poor or consistent performance on the record removes the wiggle room narcissists rely on in justifying their shortcomings.
- set performance expectations with agreement. Narcissists thrive on ambiguity so that the narcissistic employee can’t move the goal posts.
- establish boundaries that are strong and healthy. The boundaries are set by performance expectations. Performance expectations always preclude those narcissistic behaviors described above and set a zero-tolerance of verbal and psychological abuse of coworkers.
- dismiss the employee who refuses to change. This final step should occur only after referring the employee counselling and setting the performance standards described above.
Tactic 6: Know what not to do.
Don’t become argumentative or aggressive. Aggressively confronting narcissistic behavior has the boomerang effect of reinforcing the behavior. Narcissistic people rationalize what they do with “I was just trying to help,” or “I never intended to hurt anyone.”
Don’t try to control or direct a narcissist. Their greatest fear is losing control. Any attempt to lead or instruct a narcissist is often doomed to failure.
Don’t expect a narcissist to see any point of view other than their own. Trying to get a narcissist to admit when they are wrong and are being obnoxious or unlovable could backfire. The narcissist might outwardly agree with you, but could embark on a renewed campaign of sabotage and undermining you.
Don’t expect meaningful, constructive, or deep communication with a narcissist. Honest, two-way conversation requires give and take as well as empathy. Narcissists don’t experience empathy unless the other person totally agrees with them. When the truth hurts, narcissists can become angry or will shut down.
So, the bottom line of how to take control away from a narcissist is to give control to yourself. Unlike a narcissist, you can, as suggested by the Desiderata, “without surrender, be on good terms with all persons…” –even narcissistic coworkers.
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