The narcissist at work: how to deal with this toxic personality

By Karlyn Borysenko

Ahh, the narcissist. It’s not just a character from Greek mythology; it’s also one of the most difficult personalities that you will encounter at work.

When you first meet a narcissist at work, they seem like a superstar – they have great ideas, work long hours and have high expectations. Then you get to know them and find they are all about individual glory and are willing to step on and betray those around them for the sake of advancing their own interests. Here are some of the attributes you might see:

  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • A belief that they should only associate with ‘high-status’ people like them
  • An unreasonable sense of entitlement
  • Arrogant or haughty behaviours
  • Require excessive admiration
  • Interpersonally exploitative – they take advantage of others to achieve their own needs
  • Lack empathy, completely unwilling to identify with the feelings and needs of others

So, how do you deal with them? Here are some thoughts about what to expect, and what to do if you are reporting to a narcissistic boss or working with a narcissistic co-worker.

Reporting to a narcissistic boss

When you work directly for a narcissist, you’re often going to find yourself feeling frustrated, angry and filled with self-doubt. This personality demands an unreasonable level of perfection because they perceive themselves as perfect and want you to be the same. Here are some things you might experience:

  • They aren’t going to recognize that you have a life outside of work. They work long hours so YOU should work long hours.
  • You will never be thanked or receive for your efforts. Your boss will take all the glory.
  • They are not loyal to you, and will throw you under the bus in a second if it means protecting their own self-image.
  • They are only interested in hearing positive things about themselves, and are not at all open to feedback or critique.
  • Nothing you do will ever be good enough – you will never feel as though you’ve lived up to expectations.

What to do if you report to a narcissistic boss

  • Don’t take it personally. This can be incredibly difficult, but once you accept that this has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them, the problem becomes easier to cope with.
  • Speak selectively. If you don’t have anything good to say about them or to them, then don’t say anything. The satisfaction you would receive from it would be short-lived, and the possible repercussions for you may be immense.
  • Accept that you cannot change this person. It’s not to say that narcissists never change, but even with coaching and mentoring, it is incredibly rare.
  • Plan your exit. Sad, but true. If you can’t find a way to cope in this situation, the stress will get to the point where it begins to physical manifest itself through things like tension headaches and upset stomachs. The only solution will be to remove yourself from the situation.

Working with a narcissistic co-worker

What if you don’t report to the narcissist, but have to work alongside them? That presents its own distinct set of challenges. Here are some things you can expect to experience:

  • When you voice concerns to them, they won’t have any real interest and likely think they are petty. If it doesn’t impact them, they won’t care.
  • They are going to make requests from you that are outrageous, and then they will be angry with you if you don’t do what they want.
  • You might find yourself trying harder and harder to gain their approval, which they will never give. If you do impress them, it may actually backfire on you – it will only make them jealous of your work and looking to take you down a peg so they can be on top.

What to do if you work with a narcissistic co-worker

  • Don’t take it personally. This is the mantra of dealing with a narcissist in any situation. Don’t blame yourself – the problem is not with you. The problem is with them.
  • Manage your expectations. If you know what you’re getting into with a co-worker, it can be much easier to de-personalize the situation. Yes, it’s always going to be about them. Yes, they are going to ask you to do crazy things. Go into it knowing that.
  • Seek leadership support. Make sure your boss knows what’s going on – it is their job to help you deal with this situation. That also means you need to document, document, document! Make sure you are recording incidents as they occur. That way, if you need to go to HR later, you have amassed documentation about what’s going on.

A longer version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.