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Dealing with Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the Workplace


Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the workplace

A couple years ago, we published a post on the rise of narcissistic personalities in the workplace and some effective methods for learning to work with them productively. The article was inspired by an ongoing series of labor research from around the world.

It was also inspired by the reporting in a November 2015 expose by Harvard Business Review, titled “Why Bad Guys Win at Work”. The author cited a recent German study that found a strong correlation between narcissism and higher salaries. He then referenced a 15-year longitudinal study that determined “individuals with psychopathic and narcissistic characteristics gravitated towards the top of the organizational hierarchy and had higher levels of financial attainment. In line with those findings, according to some estimates, the base rate for clinical levels of psychopathy is three times higher among corporate boards than in the overall population.”

And it seems this problem persists. How is that possible, you may wonder? There is a bright side to the darkness. These individuals tend to be extroverted, open to risks and new experiences, demonstrate high levels of confidence and are driven to achieve results over caring for others. Still, however, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to deal with.

In the increasingly diverse work environments of modern business, a greater spectrum of people with varied experiences, backgrounds and behaviors will be encountered. There are times when your teams must deal with strong personalities in client management, staffing supplier partners and contingent talent.

In fact, British journalist Jon Ronson, who immersed himself in the world of criminal profiling and mental health diagnosis, claimed that his research found the incidence of psychopathy among powerful executives to be four times higher than among the overall population. And a tendency toward narcissism ranked chief among the behaviors. Because your team professionals will probably find themselves faced with individuals bearing these challenging characteristics, it’s important to figure out how to deal with them in positive and productive ways.

Narcissistic traits

He may be a myth, and a dead one at that, yet Narcissus’ legacy endures today as a clinical personality disorder. It’s more common than you might think, and it’s growing. An estimated 6.2 percent of the U.S. population suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), meaning they satisfy five or more of the following criteria, according to the DSM-V:

  • A grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating their abilities and achievements
  • Persistent fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, etc.
  • Believe they are uniquely gifted and special, willing to associate only with others of similar status
  • A constant need for attention, affirmation and praise
  • A strong sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment
  • Exploitative of others, taking advantage of them for personal gain
  • An inability to empathize
  • A perception of being envied while envying others who seem more gifted
  • A projected sense of arrogance

Current psychological studies show that narcissism has been on the rise for the last 30 years, especially among young people aged 20 to 29. Psychologists can’t pinpoint the cause of NPD, and they express tremendous difficulties in trying to treat it. Because narcissists fancy themselves as special, exceptionally talented and superior, they don’t see a problem; so they’re not likely to seek therapy.

As Dr. Kelly Neff writes: “Unlike people with other personality disorders or behavioral problems, narcissists can easily slip by undetected because they don’t appear to be ‘sick’ or ‘mentally ill’ – They just seem to have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, a relentless need for attention and a lack of empathy. When you first meet them or get to know them, they might seem fun, energetic, outgoing and just a little egotistical, but this may or may not raise red flags. After all, it’s good to have high self-esteem right? Often they can lure you into their inflated self-importance and grandiose schemes and before you realize it, you’ve become involved with someone whose presence may be toxic to your well-being.”

So how can your HR team create a forward-moving and productive relationship with a possible narcissist? Neff and his colleagues in the field endorse peaceful coexistence, or “loving them from afar.”

Ease strained relationships or pressures through detente

In the geopolitical theater, detente is the policy that holds allied nations together. Very few countries see eye-to-eye on many issues. Yet, they find ways to achieve and sustain peaceful coexistence by focusing on shared goals and outcomes, and not dwelling on differences that hold lesser priority or are largely unrelated to the mission. A carefully orchestrated practice of detente works equally well in the allegiances that must be formed to drive a successful MSP/VMS engagement.

Whether intentional or not, narcissists have a reputation as masters of manipulation. They possess many laudable qualities: they are often intelligent, enthralling, confident, results-oriented, seemingly competent and receptive to praise and adulation. Unfortunately, those initial charms quickly give way to coldness, condescension, more aggressive manipulations and emotional distance through a lack of empathy and understanding.

Rather than withdrawing from the NDP sufferer, hoping something will change, strategically limit your interactions and time spent in active engagement. Stick to the program’s core objectives, established performance metrics, SLAs, KPIs and overall vision of success as defined by the client during implementation. Avoid agreeing to out-of-scope or grandiose schemes, which will prevent you from being manipulated.

Practice forgiveness, sympathy and compassion, even though you may not be receiving these attributes in return. Although another person may lack compassion, we can always find it within ourselves to forgive by recognizing that our partners may be suffering internally. Forgiveness should not imply accepting counterproductive behaviors or justifying them – it means letting go and not allowing them to affect you. “Remember,” Neff observes, “the way they act says nothing about you and everything about who they are. Do your best to forgive and not take their narcissism personally!”

Create boundaries and space. Allowing the negative energy of narcissists into your space becomes your responsibility. Do not make agreements with these strong personalities that fall beyond the core mandates of the program. So with hiring managers, do not accept projects or unrealistic new solutions that reside clearly outside the needs of the current and future program as they have been discussed. When presented with such directions, seek validation from a higher ranked sponsor within the organization – the client’s and yours. With supplier partners and their talent, don’t commit to additional incentives, perks, benefits, rate increases or vendor discounts without approvals from all parties involved in regulating the program. A narcissist can be demanding, compelling and even intimidating. Curbing these behaviors by making changes you have the power and authority to influence will break or stop a cycle of strife.

Keep communications direct and precise. Avoid open-ended questions or responses to them. Narcissists like to talk, particularly about themselves, their beliefs and their accomplishments. They are not, however, very good at responding to the questions of others. In many instances, you’ll sense that a narcissist is too anxious to gloss over your question so that he or she can jump to their next statement. When making inquiries, narcissists tend to twist a simple discussion into what seems a courtroom deposition. The secret to actively and efficiently engaging with a narcissist is to minimize responses to closed-ended “yes” or “no” statements.

When complications arise in the process, narcissists are not likely to own any portion of the responsibility. They may rationalize their own innocence and manipulate emails or direct conversations to place the lion’s share of accountability on you, often portraying themselves as victims or martyrs.

Reply to questions succinctly and with factual answers such as:

  • “Yes, we sent out all the requisitions for this job before 1:30 p.m.”
  • “We expect resumes to be submitted no later than noon tomorrow.”
  • “We are aware of the problem and have executed the following steps to resolve it.”

Follow up by sending brief and accurate (non-emotional) reports to the person. This is tantamount to your success and wellbeing if the challenging individual attempts to further remove culpability from himself by refusing to document discussions in emails or other auditable formats. If the narcissist demands to talk over issues exclusively by phone, only respond to direct questions that you consider in scope for the conversation. Ignore all attempts by the narcissist to provoke a heated or emotional reaction. If the discussion devolves into accusations, coercion or manipulation, professionally request that the individual list all questions in an email so that your team can research the issues and address them with the most thoughtful and accurate responses. Thank the person and politely end the call.

Dealing with challenging and confrontational personalities can be one of the most daunting and exhausting chores of managing a business relationship. Like a raging fire, the flames are easily stoked by more oxygen. The trick is to save your breath, understand the nature of the fire, keep a safe distance and utilize its benefits strategically.

Control yourself and the situation

In the end, the primary take away is to not react emotionally, which will only become fuel that fans the blaze. Always be professional, on-task, focused on the job and, if necessary, take advantage of the program’s chain-of-command. To mitigate the prospect of such challenges up front, always work with clients to create an issue escalation hierarchy during the first stages of implementation. A strong MSP program emphasizes visibility and partnership. Developing a solid escalation process at the beginning of the relationship will ensure both: transparency about all stakeholders involved in process and a committed group of partners that will have your back in case problems arise.

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