Use Teamwork to Address a Narcissistic Coworker

Have you ever managed a capable person that few or maybe no one wanted to work with because he was a self-absorbed, condescending, braggadocious jerk. Well, you would be lucky to have spent more than a few years in the workforce and not come across someone with strong narcissistic traits. Used wisely, their drive can create impressive results. Carried too far, their behavior can destroy a work environment.

Narcissistic people are charming and manipulative, so they often advance through organizations quickly. When their idea of success aligns with the group, all do well. However, the cost of this success is of little interest to them. They see themselves as “special” and struggle to empathize with the masses they believe to be beneath them.

All too often, they aren’t treated as special as they believe they should be, becoming agitated, impatient, and angry. It is all about them, and they don’t easily see or concern themselves with the needs of others. For all their grandiose proclamations of their own capability and worth, they are usually insecure and questioning of their capability. Combined with their thin-skin, they have difficulty accepting criticism and rarely with admit to a shortcoming or having made a mistake. Therefore, you will not likely encounter a narcissistic person willing to admit they have a problem. In fact, you are likely to be perceived as the problem.

All is not lost. While attempting to change a personality is a difficult, slow, and low probability of success endeavor, there are actions we managers can take to help people work together. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, the Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD and the author of Riding the Leadership Rollercoaster: An Observer’s Guide, has quite a few ideas (See the Sidebar) about using the team environment to reduce narcissistic behavior and help folks understand how to better work with others.

You can find more details in his Harvard Business Review article, “How to Manage a Narcissist”.

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries suggests creating a strong team environment to effectively work with the narcissist in your midst.

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

Use this strong team to promote peer feedback.
 For narcissists, it’s often less threatening to receive feedback from peers, rather than from a single person or leader. Of course, feedback from many people is harder to ignore than feedback from one person. If the dynamics of the group are facilitated effectively, the narcissist’s view of themselves will be revealed, mirrored, challenged, and can be 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. In such a setting, the narcissist’s peers will be able to constructively confront problematic behavior while simultaneously offering a modicum of understanding.

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 in the group leadership development sessions. When needed, 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, to interrupt him when he went on for too long, and thus to make him realize that he didn’t always need to be the smartest person in the room.

Originally published at Dwayne Nesmith.