Narcissists are notoriously difficult to manage, yet tend to be “star” employees. Disciplining a narcissist using typical management methods will often not have the desired corrective effect, and may cause the narcissist to poison the work environment. Here is how you discipline a narcissist effectively.
Discipline a narcissistic employee by emphasizing their strengths and setting positive goals. Direct criticism of a narcissistic employee rarely produces positive reform. Redefine boundaries indirectly through group meetings or emails rather than one on one, if possible.
Narcissistic employees can do significant company if not kept in check through effective discipline techniques. This is how you discipline a narcissist without triggering their defense mechanism.
Don’t Confront the Narcissist Directly
Narcissists are psychologically unable to accept criticism, and resort to a number of coping mechanisms to maintain their self esteem. In the context of discipline, any direct confrontation is likely to be meet by the narcissist with —
- Counter accusations
- Deflection to other employees and supervisors
- Developing a narrative where you are oppressing them
Even well meaning and measured professional discipline is very unlikely to provoke a positive transformation or cessation of prohibited behavior.
For more info on spotting a narcissist, and details of narcissistic coping mechanism, see these previous articles —
- Signs of a Narcissist | 21 Behaviors of the Classical Narcissist
- Tell-Tale Signs of a Covert Narcissist | A Fool Proof Test
- Recognizing Narcissistic Behavior | Unexpected Signs of a Narcissist
Utilize the Narcissist Employee’s Strengths
Narcissist respond best to motivation based on achieving goals and being victorious in a public way. This can make narcissists very effective employees.
When a narcissist’s behavior doesn’t meet standards, make sure they are in a position where they are utilizing they abilities to the fullest. Discipline might take the form of —
- Removing responsibilities
- Modifying job descriptions or titles
- Barring from special assignments or tasks
Be sure to reframe any movements of this type as either a lateral move or a promotion, rather than a demotion.
Refuse Validation to a Narcissistic Employee that Misbehaves
Since narcissist employees crave positive attention, and they usually find a way to get it at work, the lack of such attention will be very uncomfortable for them. While I have not found punishment to be very effective with narcissistic employees, knocking them out of the lime light can have the same effect.
When a narcissist misbehaves, this should disqualify them from any positive recognition in the company.
Ideally, a narcissist being reprimanded should have no positive feedback from bosses, coworkers, or supervisors during this time. However, at the very least they should be barred from special assignments or winning awards.
Be Very Clear when Narcissists are Doing Thing Right
One way to make non-confrontational discipline more effective to be very clear when the narcissist either gets back on track, or when they are doing the right thing in some regard.
Narcissists respond much better to positive reinforcement than to harsh discipline. Narcissist also generally require more positive feedback than most other employees to feel satisfied with their work.
Setting the bar of what the narcissist expects in terms of recognition fairly high during the good times, means that when you withdraw it during bad times, they are more aware that they are doing something wrong.
Narcissists respond very well to public ways they can prove themselves, without risk of falling short in some regard. Some ideas include —
- Employee recognition programs
- Sales drives where only the best performer’s numbers are publicly available
- Interoffice competitions
- Special assignments ending with reports to management
Leverage Documentation and Procedure to Rain in Narcissism
Making it clear to the narcissist what behavior is required of them while also making it clear that their behavior is being observed is the most effective way to set boundaries with a narcissistic employee.
When discipline is required, reinforce the rules by either writing or reminding the narcissist of a general policy against what they are doing. Also, give their exact behavior as an example of what not to do.
This should happen indirectly as a —
- Email with many recipients
At the same time, let everyone know that you will be observing and documenting this type of behavior in the future. If possible, make such observation public. This is not intended to be a threat, but rather motivation for narcissists to avoid embarrassment by staying on the right side of rules.
Cover Yourself when Executing Disciplinary Measures
At times, you may be forced by company policy or legal requirements to directly confront and discipline a narcissist. Do not expect such meetings to go well.
The best you can do is limit the harshness of how you approach the subject, and cover yourself while you do it.
Narcissists are prone to destructive behaviors when confronted, and may resort to allegations of misconduct, targeting coworkers, or attempted sabotage of the company is a form of retaliation for what they perceive as an attack.
When you approach disciplining a narcissist, be sure you —
- Record or have neutral observers when you speak with them
- Prepare documentation of their behavior
- Limit the narcissist’s access to sensitive information or critical company infrastructure
For more information on how to limit your exposure to narcissistic backlash, see my previous article on how to fire a narcissist —
How do you deal with a narcissistic employee?
Deal with a narcissistic employee through motivational goals the result in public validation of their successes. Narcissist respond much better to praise than criticism. Avoid direct criticism whenever possible and set boundaries through policy and documentation of behavior. Handle disciplining and firing narcissist with care to avoid retaliation.
How do you fix narcissistic behavior?
Fix bad narcissistic behavior by praising them for the things they get right, and withdrawing positive feedback when they break the rules. Reinforce boundaries indirectly through policy and procedure. Avoid direct confrontation with a narcissist, as this almost always leads to retaliatory behavior.