Narcissist employees have a way of making themselves very useful if not indispensable to an organization. Having managed narcissists in the past, I’ve seen them practically take over organizations, where management isn’t wary of the games they play. So, how do you manage a narcissistic employee?
Narcissist employees have a tendency to hijack the team, and bring focus on them in either positive or descriptive ways. The most effective way to manage a narcissist is to make them work for approval, and to align their goals with that of the team. Meanwhile, protect team moral, and be ready for their mind games.
Here are 10 tips for effectively managing a narcissistic employee which you supervise. Including the one thing most employees get wrong about managing a narcissist.
Mentor Narcissist by Expanding on Their Strengths
One huge mistake that I see managers make when they supervise narcissists is an over emphasis or mistakes or corrective action.
The best way to manage a narcissist is to leverage their need to be perceived as successful and good at what they do. Narcissist respond very positively to when you set out clear goals that are within their ability. The way I do it is —
- Identify the narcissist’s strengths. Use performance reviews and other objective measures. Also, ask them what they feel like they are good at. (They won’t hesitate to tell you.)
- Stretch their ability by setting measurable goals for them that have no downside if not met.
- Make sure they are rewarded for their accomplishments with recognition for what they have accomplished.
This one two three push is like crack for a narcissist. They absolutely crave attention for what they do well, and contribute most to a team when there is little risk of embarrassment if they don’t quite make a goal.
Embarrassment leads to toxic behavior from narcissists. While negative consequences (the stick part of the stick and carrot) are part of effective motivation for many employees, they should be downplayed with narcissists.
More in this in the later tips.
Develop Procedures to Prevent Narcissist Employees from Sabotaging Other Workers
As alluded to above, narcissists are not willing or able to accept criticism for their mistakes. Narcissist employees will frame or blame other employees for their mistakes to escape responsibility.
The prevent this behavior, in addition to minimizing direct criticism, take steps to insulate other employees from becoming scapegoats for narcissists. Some ways to do this are –
- Don’t assign narcissist to roles which require a lot of team work
- Make measures of employee success as objective and independently verifiable as possible
- Remove narcissists from positions that control information flow around the business, assigns work, or managers essential resources.
While this may seem drastic, narcissist are amazing creative at sabotaging their fellow workers. And, love to set up people around them to fail. They also foster an overly competitive work environment that hampers free flow of information and collaboration that makes a team more effective.
I have described more specific types of coworkers sabotaging I’ve seen with narcissist in this short article —
Avoid Making This Big Mistake Managing Narcissists
The big mistake most managers make when supervising narcissists is falling for the narcissist’s false narrative. Narcissist live to weave stories, and you are undoubtedly part of one they have made up for themselves.
As a manager, you must naturally learn to rely on your employees to keep you updated and in the loop about how things are going. No boss can be everywhere at one, and shouldn’t be if they are delegating effectively to their team.
However, narcissists will take every opportunity to influence your perception of reality in a way that makes them look good, even if it isn’t actually the truth. There is a reason narcissists get paid more than their peers.
This fact is undoubtedly the most difficult part of managing a narcissist. Remember the old maxim, “trust but verify.” And, with a narcissist this goes double. With a narcissist employee, always double check what they are tilling you, don’t rely on them exclusively for information, and watch how you react emotionally to what they are telling you.
More on the emotional bit later. . ## Leverage Indirect Forms of Reprimand or Critique
Narcissists rarely if ever respond to criticism with positive behavior. While narcissists do tend to have an outward respect for authority their psychological disposition doesn’t allow for them to internally accept that they may be at fault.
When the time comes to discipline a narcissist, you must take great care otherwise you risk making things work. I suggest you —
- Avoid calling them out in public places
- Emphasize rules and procedure as the basis for the complaint
- Give them an out, or way to redeem themselves
- Be ready to counteract their attempts to project blame on other people
For more detailed advice, see my article on disciplining a narcissist, which walks you through every step of the process, as well as what you can expect in terms of narcissistic backlash.
Have an Exit Plan for Your Narcissist Employee
While a narcissist employee may seem to valuable to let go, they can do substantially damage a company from the inside only to suddenly cut ties and switch over to a competitor with no notice. As a manager, you should be vigilant of what they might be doing to company culture and the overall effectiveness of the team. And, be ready to get them out if they are not making a net positive contribution.
Narcissists have a habit of making themselves look good at the expense of others. While your narcissist employee might be the best on the team, according to all the reports, this is probably partially because they make it harder for everyone else to succeed. They will systematically attack and drive out your best employees, who they fear might be too much competition.
Additionally, when a narcissist hits a rough patch, they tend to spiral out of control. If they are no longer the best, they sometimes begin a vendetta against the company that can involve lawsuits, ruining of reputations, stealing sensitive information, and sabotaging sales.
The best thing you can do is have a plan in place, should you need to get a narcissist out quickly. This involves proper documentation and having a procedure for getting them out while quietly while erecting company assets.
I go in to depth on how to accomplish this here —
Align Your Narcissist’s Objectives with that of the Organization
Be strategic with how you set goals for narcissistic employees. Narcissists go way over the top when it comes to exceeding expectations, so be sure that this is actually in your company’s best interest.
One team I worked with was involved with transcription of audio. In one quarter, a manager decided to challenge the team to see who could transcribe the most hours. Of course, the narcissist employee won and was recognized.
The only problem was that narcissist had stayed late and assigned himself audio sections that were mostly silence, and easy to finish quickly. While he assigned the very hard segments to the best employees, ensuring their numbers would be low even though they were doing much more work.
When other top performers realized what the narcissist had done, they too stooped transcribing difficult segments. In order to compete they left hard work for new team members who didn’t know the game. Work quality suffered across the board and errors grew increasingly common.
It would have been better to measure words transcribed and transcription quality, rather than the easier to measure hours of audio. The reason management choose hours is that the software used atomically reports those numbers, where as words and quality would have required manual review and input from the most experienced transcribers to get right.
But, failing to choose correct performance measures and set effective goals caused the teams output to suffer long term while damaging team norms in a way that is very difficult to repair.
Build a Narcissist Safe Company Culture
Narcissists – through excessive defensiveness, scapegoating, and a desire to be better than everyone else — tend to foster toxic company cultures where they work. Here are some traits of a company that is resilient in the face of narcissistic employees —
- Presents an open and non-judgmental atmosphere of collaboration de-emphasizes
- Personal accomplishment vs team success Looks at internal competitor
- Unfavorably outside specific management lead exercises
- Fosters lighthearted and creative feedback on how to improve every individual’s and the team’s work product
Watch Your Own Reactions to the Narcissist
As the boss, a narcissist is very likely to try to play you in one of two ways:
- To butter you up through flattery and brown nosing
- To cast you as their enemy or oppressor
Both are very dangerous for both the team and for you personally.
The way a narcissist controls you is through your emotions. And they are very adept at getting an emotional reaction out of people. You will find yourself liking or hating them, without even necessarily knowing why. They allure you to be an actor in a drama they have cooked up for themselves.
While every good manager knows that they should be objective with their employees, it is easier said than done with a narcissist. The most important thing you can do is be aware of how a narcissist operates, and try to observe their manipulation techniques as they happen.
This article helps you learn what to expect from a narcissist, and how the operate psychologically.
Involve Leadership with Your Decisions
Because narcissists are so good at looking good, they tend to be well liked by management at all levels. At some point, your narcissist employee is likely to try to go over your head.
That’s why I recommend that you appraise your boss and upper management who might be approached by the narcissist of what they can expect. Additionally, keep them in the loop as much as possible about decisions you make regarding the narcissist, as well as your reasons for doing so.
Depending on how your company works, this may seem unnatural, but it is worth the effort. The last thing you want is an upset call from your boss about how you were “mistreating and employee.” I’ve gotten that before, and it isn’t fun.
Remember, a narcissist is either a hero or a victim, and as their boss you are likely to be cast as their oppressor if they don’t get their way. So, prevent that game altogether by making mention of what is going on, CCing your boss in emails, or making reports so your boss knows your side of the story before the narcissist gets to them.
Additionally, be very careful to document everything you can about the narcissist employee, and your interactions with them. See the article linked above on firing narcissistic employees for details on how to do this, as their more aggressive narcissistic traits tend to come out near the end of their employment, and may come as a complete surprise.
Stay Consistent with Your Expectations for the Narcissist
Another danger with narcissists is developing two tiers of expectations — one for the narcissist and one for the rest of the employees. While narcissists require special handling, you shouldn’t give them special treatment.
If a narcissist notices you are making allowances for them because of their behavior, they will continue to press that line of attack to get more and more.
One of the best thing you can to do contrail narcissism in an employee is to make the way you handle them part of company policy or at least standard operating procedure for your team.
Every team member should get the same treatment as the narcissist, and have the same opportunities to succeed.
Need Help with a Narcissist Employee
I offer limited consultation and coaching services for managers who need whelp with narcissistic employees. For more information on services and materials available, see my coaching page —