Narcissistic employees are a challenge to motivate, and often present a professional risk to their supervisors. From my experience managing narcissists and executive coaching clients with narcissistic employees, here is how you deal with a narcissistic subordinate directly.
Managing a narcissistic subordinate effectively starts by recognizing and accepting their psychological weakness. Then, by tailoring your management style meet their needs you align their narcissistic tendencies with your team’s needs. During this time it is essential to develop defense against narcissistic attacks on your reputation or false allegations.
Ready to dive in. Here is a step by step guide for managing a narcissistic subordinate effectively and safely. This is the same framework I use when I coach executive clients.
Calibrate Your Expectation of What the Narcissist Subordinate Can Do
The biggest mistake managers of narcissists make, is they believe the narcissist’s BS. Narcissists are experts at talking themselves up, making themselves look good, and being in the right place at the right time.
It is very easy as a supervisor who trust their team or isn’t able to fully engage with the work they are doing to be taken in by these lies. You may have a completely unrealistic perception of your subordinate, possibly not even noticing they are a narcissist for some time.
That’s why I wrote, “Most Common Examples of a Narcissistic Employee”, to help managers see what narcissists in their organization they might be missing.
When you have a narcissist in your organization, only trust what you can see with your own two eyes. While objective and measurable performance measures are an essential tool in any business, they are doubly important for managing a narcissist.
Don’t trust what the narcissist says about themselves, what other employees say about the narcissist, or any other subjective evaluations as these can and will be manipulated by the narcissist to their benefit.
“Failing to calibrate to the truth of a narcissist’s abilities, rather than the hype, has lead to many organizations to but narcissists in critical positions that they were unsuited or too inexperienced to handle.”
Don’t Expect a Narcissist to Change
Your narcissist subordinate will never be a selfless team member, work well without recognition, or put other’s needs before their own. While we all hope the best for narcissists in our lives, there is nothing we can do to motivate them to reform their worst tendencies.
As a manager, it is critical that we find a way for our subordinate to be an effective team member without profound psychological change, or we find a way for them to exit the team gracefully.
This article will primarily consider ways to work with a narcissist. But I highly recommend have a plan for terminating the narcissist in advance, should the need arise. Narcissists have a tendency to cause serious damage to business as they exit, if not handled correctly
Here are examples things not to expect from a narcissist subordinate —
- Don’t expect them to be fair or impartial evaluators
- Don’t expect them to be good mentors or to train other employees effectively
- Don’t expect them to put the business first if it doesn’t benefit them directly
- Don’t expect them to improve in response to criticism
- Do expect them to hoard critical knowledge and information
- Do expect them to engender competitiveness and hostility in the team
- Do expect them to be overconfident
- Do expect them to hide their involvement in failures and blame other people for their mistakes
Use Goal Setting to Effectively Motivate a Narcissist Subordinate
Narcissists respond much better to high expectations rather than criticism or appeals to teamwork. This is because narcissists are naturally hyper-critical of themselves and long for ways to show that they are “good enough.”
Use of negative feedback with a narcissist will cause them to become defensive, either accepting the criticism altogether or finding ways to deflect it toward other employees.
Another important quality of effective goals for a narcissist is that they will be rewarded with public praise if they succeed.
If a narcissist doesn’t have an opportunity for personal recognition, they will not be motivated by that goal.
Goals are best decided on with the help of the narcissist, so they align with the narcissist subordinate’s already well defined motivations. This can be accomplished with short, directed individual mentoring sessions where the narcissist is given the opportunity to express their wishes.
I’ve described in detail how to mentor a narcissist here: “Coaching Narcissistic Employees | Effective Methods and What to Avoid”
Another important quality of motivational goals for narcissists is that there is no cause for embarrassment if they fail. Fear of failure will either cause the narcissist to disengage or resort to less than ethical means of ensuring their success.
For additional hints on goal setting for narcissists, see my previous article:
Find Ways the Narcissist can Be Productive
Narcissists work best in competitive and individualistic roles where they have the opportunity to shine. For example —
- Skilled trades or crafts
- One person special projects
Because narcissist tends to make any working environment individually competitive, roles that are naturally competitive suit their personality best.
Avoid management, mentorship, or team based roles where a narcissist is tempted and has the opportunity to sabotage their coworkers in order to get ahead —
How do you manage a narcissistic employee?
Manage a narcissistic employee by first accepting they will not change. Use them most efficiently by placing them in naturally competitive and individualistic roles in your business. Motivate them by setting high expectations using collaborative goal setting, rather than through punishment or shame.