In business, we can’t always choose the clients that we serve. Providing services to a narcissist is never easy. But since the rate of narcissism increases as you go up corporate hierarchies, all successful business will run in to a narcissistic client at some point. Here are nine tips to develop a successful working relationship with a narcissistic client.
Let Them Be the Boss
Never try to outsmart or lead a narcissist. Two key traits of narcissism are their need to be the center of attention, and their absolute conviction that they are the best. Anytime you show them up, even in your own domain of expertise, your are making yourself a competitor and a threat.
Solution — Always tie your suggestions to their wants or desires. Make it very clear you are responding to them, rather than leading them. If you can, make your good ideas seem like they came from or were inspired by the narcissist’s suggestions.
There may a certain amount of unwarranted praise involved with keep a narcissistic client happy. The more a narcissist respects you, the more they will feel threatened and the more lip service they will need stay disarmed in your presence. Take this need for your praise as a form of flattery.
Make It Very Clear that You are on Their Team
There is nothing that a narcissist loves more than their own name. The most effective way to work with a narcissist is to align their own self interest with the success of the business relationship.
Solution — When you are talking about you or your team’s successes, say that they are “our” successes, including the narcissist directly. Put the narcissist’s name on as many documents as reasonable. Let them see it and hear it on the regular. Attribute the success of the project to their good qualities when possible.
Stay Action Oriented
Narcissists are very driven people. When they want something, they want it now. The quicker you move in response to their whims, the more they will like you for it. Slow downs, missteps, or sluggish progress will inevitably strain your relationship with narcissistic clients.
Solution — Unlike some other types of clients, narcissists generally don’t mind getting right to business and cutting chit chat. So a safe space to be with them is focusing on concrete action steps you have taken and will take to solve their problem. Do this by —
- Keeping up the pace of presentations and meetings
- Present your activities in a logical, step by step manner
- Be focused and engaged with the client while you are with them
- Write down what they say (narcissist love that)
Document, Document, Document
If something goes wrong, a narcissist is likely to drag you for it. One symptom of narcissism is that they can never suffer being wrong or looking like the fool. When something goes wrong they will not accept responsibility, even if you were following their direct orders and had warned them in advance.
Solution — Be very careful to document all interactions with the narcissist, as well as their orders and direction. Most professions have rules for proper documentation in place, don’t let these be neglected.
Narcissistic clients often try to dodge signing papers, giving clear approval, or committing to things. They prefer informal or verbal agreements, precisely because they can use vague terms against you if they feel the need.
Solution — When insisting that a narcissist assist you in memorializing their wishes there are a few different tactics that work well, depending on the situation —
- Stand on policy and procedure. You have to do this, but you don’t want to. Certainly you trust them, but rules are rules.
- Assure the narcissist you are just trying to get every detail of their request written down and followed to a tee.
Anticipate Blame and Abuse from Narcissist Clients
Narcissistic clients will eventually shift blame your way. When working wit them, you have to be ready for confrontational situations without very little if any warning. These types of situations are dangerous because —
- You are liable to get heated and ruin the relationship
- The client may get a taste for abusing you
Solution — The most important thing is to not rise to the bait. Narcissists are moody and frequently blow up just to cause drama or through lack of control.
Instead remain calm. Act like you have everything under control, and don’t acknowledge or field their insinuations or allegations. In most cases, the narcissist will cool down quickly and move on when they realize they won’t be getting the rise out of you they expected.
Be Ready to “Fire” Your Client If Necessary
Sometimes narcissists just aren’t worth the effort. They say an elephant never forgets, and the same is true for narcissists. Once you get on a narcissist’s bad side, you may never recover the relationship.
Solution — Be vigilant of your relationship with the narcissist and evaluate if their relationship is worth the extra effort. Rate increases may be warranted to cover their bad behavior.
There may come a time when the narcissist has to go. Make sure you have your business dealings with the narcissist well documented. And, try to let them go gently, saying your business is going a different direction, or that they are too sophisticated of a client for you to service properly.
Choose Your Professional Boundaries Wisely
When you get to know a narcissist, they can be overly friendly at the start. Narcissists have a habit of collection personal information as leverage for later in a relationship.
Solution — Be very careful to keep your business life professional, and your personal life as separated as possible when you are working for a narcissist. They may ask you personal questions about hobbies, friends, and family. Respond to these with as little detail and as blandly as possible.
Use “Narcissistic Dog Training” to Influence Your Client
Narcissistic clients don’t respond will to frank feedback or direct criticism of their behavior. Telling them that they were wrong must be avoided at all costs. But, this can make it difficult to enforce boundaries with them.
Solution — What I call “Narcissistic Dog Training” consists of three steps, and is the most effective way to modify a narcissist’s behavior ethically.
- Tell them, frequently, how impressed you would be if they acted in the way you want
- When they are going in the right direction, ramp up the excitement, positive feed back, and praise
- When they are going the wrong direction, withdraw praise, act bored with them, turn down the energy
Just like treats motivate a dog to do tricks, praise motivates a narcissist to act the right way you. This method is a powerful means of enforcing boundaries without direct confrontation that is likely to sink your relationship with the client.
Don’t Let Their Narcissism Rub-Off on You
Narcissists tend to make the people they work with more competitive, distrustful, and petty. This effect seriously stymie teamwork and collaborative success within a team. Dealing with a narcissist client means you need to take steps to avoid this influence.
Solution — actively promote and enforce contrary policies, which —
- Promote team success over individual success
- Makes failure part of the process, and not any single person’s fault
- Maintain a light and creative atmosphere that minimized competitive sentiment
Need Help with a Narcissist Client
I offer one on one coaching and a number of resources for business dealing with narcissism. For more information, see the following pages —