When you have a narcissist employee under your supervision, it is a tricky dance that you have to do, to get the best out of them. I have seen that narcissists can be the best employees on your team, or the worst, depending on how you manage them. Here is my secret to supervising narcissistic employees.
The secret to supervising a narcissistic employee is to leverage their strengths, while avoiding putting them in situations that cause them to act badly. Attempting to shame, discipline, or otherwise coerce a narcissist to follow the rules only results in worse, and often difficult to detect, misbehavior.
While this strategy might be a little difficult to get your head around at first, it works wonders with difficult narcissist employees. Let me walk you through the process.
A Five Step Strategy for Supervising Narcissists
When I work with managers having difficulty with narcissist employees, I start by walking them through this five step process.
- Use positive reinforcement (carrot rather than stick)
- Keep them out of situations where they will be tempted
- Minimize exposure to negative feedback
- Leverage mentoring techniques tailored to narcissist personalities
- Evaluate and correct the impact of narcissism on team culture
The key insight here is that narcissists will do anything to avoid criticism or take responsibility for their mistakes. This is why many supervisors find it difficult to manage narcissistic employees.
More on what not to do with a narcissist here: “What Everyone Gets Wrong About Managing a Narcissistic Employee”
The Mistake Most Managers Make with Narcissist
We are much more likely to interact with employees when we are correcting their mistakes. Direct and candid feedback, which may work well with other personality types, will not result in constructive or corrective action from a narcissist.
Because, narcissists have certain developmental deficiencies, they have a very hard time rebounding emotionally from perceived failures, even minor ones. And, typically resort to a number of coping mechanisms which allow them to not take responsibility. More on this here: “Why Some People are Narcissists”.
Narcissists respond much better to possibilities where they can succeed and be admired. Because corrective feedback is unsuccessful, we motivate narcissists by finding opportunities for them to shine.
Likewise, we avoid situations where they could be publicly shamed for failure, or will be tempted to sabotage other employees to make themselves look good.
Lastly, we take steps to invite them in to the team building process, through narcissist specific coaching. And, by adapting company culture to be resilient in the face of narcissist personalities.
More detail on how to accomplish all this in the following sections.
Motivate Narcissist Employees with a Vision of What They Could Be
Narcissists work tirelessly to make themselves look good. As supervisors, we can leverage this tendencies to improve the narcissist’s work performance and overall success at the company.
Find and praise work they do that is above avenge supports the team’s mission
Make the effort to find areas of the narcissist’s work that they do well. Narcissists tend to make themselves highly skilled and knowledgeable members of the team they are on, so this should be too difficult if you try.
By shedding light on the good things, we are motivating them to put more energy in that direction, rather than misbehavior or areas of under performance.
If your narcissist has areas of particular weakness, then find areas where they exhibit the opposite behavior and praise that. For instance a narcissist employee with a messy work space is best motivated by finding an area of theirs that is tidy, and praising that.
Clearly define what makes someone in their position a “winner”
Narcissist want to be the best at what they do. They already believe that they are, and will do whatever it takes to fill that role.
As a supervisor, we have a powerful tool in delineating an “ideal” employee. A narcissist will undoubtedly try to live up to this ideal.
- What makes one employee better than another
- What habits does an exceptional employee have
- Are their boundaries that an exceptional employee does not cross?
Ideals are better than hard fast rules with a narcissist, who doesn’t think rules should apply to them anyway.
Make it clear that individuals that succeed will be recognized
Narcissist crave positive attention. When you lay out a vision of an ideal employee, be very clear that those who meet such ideals will be recognized.
This is best demonstrated through actual recognition, whatever form this may take in your particular workplace.
While an “employee of the month” program is a little trite at this point, creative ways of recognizing outstanding employees will jump start a narcissist’s motivation to get on board with the team.
Provide opportunities for lighthearted competition
To a narcissist, every day is a form of competition, where they strive to be better than everyone else. Or, at least make themselves seem better.
Since we can’t get this idea out of their heads, it is better to go with the flow and organize fun, competitive events at work. Fun means there is not shame in failing, and no global ranking of best to worst.
Competition will backfire if a narcissist is afraid of loosing, so only the winner(s) should be recognized. And, the metric of success shouldn’t be too serious.
Identify and Isolate Narcissists from Roles that Lead to Harm
Some roles are not well suited to narcissistic personalities, that are likely to be highly competitive. A narcissist is just as happy to push other people down as to push themselves up, so long as they look relatively successful.
Because of this, the following roles are not well suited for narcissists:
- Setting schedules or assigning work to other employees
- Training new hires
- Evaluating or subjective quality control
- Managing or distributing key information
- Supervisory roles
In general, if a narcissist has the ability to make someone else look bad, they will be tempted to do it.
I recommend that you take the initiate to remove narcissists from such roles, if at all possible. Take care to make the move look as much like a promotion or at least a lateral transfer, rather than a demotion.
If your narcissist cannot be removed from these sensitive roles, do what you can to tie the success of these they have control over to their own personal success. By instilling a “captain goes down with his ship” attitude about the role, you maximize the change the narcissist will be successful and minimize ways they can sabotage other workers.
More detailed examples of a narcissist attacks their coworkers here: “9 Ways Your Narcissist Coworker is Sabotaging You”
Keep Narcissist Employees in a Happy Place
As mention before in this article, narcissists do not respond well to any form of criticism or confrontation.
Direct accusations, no matter how mild, will put a narcissist in a fight or flight posture that is not constructive to their growth. Such situations must be avoided, since they more likely to be destructive and cause a distrust of your authority.
Some ways to shield a narcissist include:
- Discuss their work quality in private
- Emphasize following rules and procedure rather than discussing their mistakes directly
- Use forms of employee self-evolution when possible
- Don’t display employee performance metrics publicly, even just rankings, except for possible the top performers
See the final section for more general recommendations on how to make your team more conducive to narcissist personalities while avoiding narcissistic rage.
Take the Time to Mentor Narcissists and Develop a Shared Vision of Success
Because narcissists tend to value the attention and approval their superiors, they respond very well to properly structured individual mentoring. Setting even a little time aside to guide your narcissist employee one on one makes a huge difference in their ability to be successful.
The thing to realize when coaching a narcissist is their goals are the only goals that matter to them. They will not feel successful if team or company goals are met that do not recognize them as more successful than others.
Because a narcissist always has their own personal agenda which they will follow over all other goals, it’s best if you find out what that is. Here are some tips for coaching a narcissist employee successfully:
- Let the narcissist take control of the meeting, with you acting as a guide
- Determine their personal goals, and find ways to align them with team success
- Take care to track and acknowledge their persona successes
- Be non-judgmental to the extreme
I have written in greater detail how to successful mentor a narcissistic employee here: “Coaching Narcissistic Employees | Effective Methods and What to Avoid”.
Make Your Company Resilient in the Face of Narcissism
Narcissist employees have a way of eroding team cohesiveness and company culture. They tend to promote distrust, dishonestly, and over-competitiveness in the workplace.
Here are some tips for building a productive company culture that will withstand inevitable exposure to narcissistic personality types:
- Keep the workplace open and collaborative, without shame for making mistakes
- Recognize outstanding performances
- Establish and continually refresh a vision of what a successful employee looks like
- Avoid concentrations of power or central hubs of communication a narcissist can exploit
- Document as much as you can about employee performance
- Develop and follow a minimal set of well defined procedures and rules
A company that follows these guidelines is much stronger in the face of narcissism, because they protect themselves on multiple fronts from narcissistic rage or manipulation.
Ultimately, some narcissists will have to be let go because of their bad behavior. Once a narcissist develops a grudge against certain coworkers or management, it can be almost impossible to rectify.
When you fire a narcissist, be prepared for false accusations or other sabotage events that could be precipitated by their termination. I cover preparing for such events here: “Firing a Narcissistic Employee | Protecting Yourself and Your Business”.
How do you deal with a narcissistic employee?
Narcissist employees are best dealt with my emphasizing their strengths, and not rewarding bad behavior with attention, either positive or negative. Give narcissist employees a clear vision of what success means in your company, and make it clear they will be recognized when they meat this standard.
Are Narcissists good employees?
A properly managed narcissist can be a huge asset to a team, while poorly managed narcissists erode team culture and breed over competitiveness. Their narcissistic tendencies will lead them to make a huge effort to succeed in their field. But, also to make sure their coworkers don’t out shine them, potentially bringing down the team as a whole.