For better or for worse, people often possess “less than ideal” character qualities or behaviors that make working with or for them intensely challenging. We all have them: impatience, chronic tardiness, aloofness, poor listening skills, the list goes on.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Psychological Clientology: 5 Types of Clients to Avoid.” Not only did the post end up getting syndicated by multiple outlets, but it also sparked many subsequent online conversations about how to deal with difficult personalities in the workplace, particularly clients or customers who are vital to the stability of your business.
One standout personality type, the narcissist, is particularly difficult because he or she often lacks the ability to see things any other way than their own, needs constant attention and admiration, and generally lacks empathy. And somehow, amidst all of it, they can make you feel like the biggest loser on the planet. It’s much like dealing with the antics a spoiled child, which is confusing because you’re looking at this person, this grown human being, thinking “This has to be a joke, right?”
However, working with a narcissist can also be extremely rewarding and inspiring because of their nearly superhuman skills for getting things done – when they want it and how they want it.
To gain insight into the best strategies for working with and for a narcissist, I tapped my dear friend Robert Weiss, the senior vice president for clinical development at Elements Behavioral Health, an accomplished author and world-renowned speaker on sex and intimacy in the digital age. Needless to say, he’s seen thousands of narcissists.
According to Weiss, the most important thing to know about narcissists is that their behavior and world view is grounded in deep shame and enduring low self-esteem.
“No matter how successful these individuals become, they feel deep down inside themselves as if they are not good enough,“ Weiss says. "Every small human error – even the little errors we all tend to make – become reminders of their shortcomings.”
While there are most certainly genetic aspects to personality development, these individuals have typically experienced profound childhood trauma. Typically their trauma experience has been layered, building up over time and creating their negative self-perception.
So how does one identify a narcissist, and what are some useful things to know about this particular personality type in terms of a working relationship?
The “key negative traits” of a narcissist in a work setting, according to Weiss:
- They demonstrate a clear lack of empathy for how others feel or what they need.
- They often have an overly excessive focus on getting others to consistently validate them (even small accomplishments).
- They tend toward impulsivity and making decisions “from the hip.”
- They may rage, pout, gossip, devalue and otherwise act out when they don’t get their way.
- They are not great team players. They tend to get into power struggles and “I’m right, you’re wrong” discussions. They need to be right.
- They tend to see people as being either on their side or against them, with few gray areas.
- They will use gossip, manipulation, charm and even seduction to get their way.
- They will use other people and their thoughts and ideas to get ahead.
- They are not (consciously) malicious, and they will feel ashamed (even self-hating) for their bad behavior when it's pointed out, but then they will turn around and do the same thing without a second thought.
- They are often highly demanding of themselves and others, which can lead to them being perfectionists and controlling, holding unreasonable expectations for others and their performance.
- They struggle with close relationships and lack trust.
- They are easily frustrated (and can rage) if their projects, goals and needs aren’t getting equal or more focus than the projects, goals and needs of others.
- They have limited leadership skills due to their excessive self-focus.
“It is incumbent on those in a close relationship with a narcissist to be warm, genuine and empathetic,” Weiss says, “and to be able to tolerate some of their pouting and anger – knowing that any negative thing said to them will be amplified internally, often to an extreme degree. Similarly, every positive thing they hear will be seen as obviously deserved or not positive enough. Relationships need to feel consistent, real and non-shaming to the narcissistically wounded person.”
The narcissist does have a variety of positive attributes, which can make working alongside them inspiring and rewarding, assuming you are aware of how to handle the negative aspects:
- They tend to speak out about a problem, whereas others will be more polite and say nothing.
- They tend to be creative and passionate about any projects they take on as “theirs.”
- They tend to think and work outside the box, often offering unexpected new and fresh ideas and concepts.
- Their perfectionism and control (when tempered) can produce profoundly positive results within their organizations.
- Their need for attention and validation can shine on their workplace, bringing more attention and useful notice to an organization.
- They can be great leaders, provided that they have people around them to provide the interpersonal functions they don’t have (essentially, they need someone in power to contain and confront them, and they also need someone to provide a buffer between them and those who might react negatively to them).
- They work extremely well on their own, tending to be highly self-motivated.
- If they embrace an organization as their own, they will work tirelessly to help it succeed (as it has become a reflection of them).
- They are often good at working with the media in PR, outreach, social media, etc.
- Their charm, extroversion and seduction makes them great sales and marketing people.
- They are great at creating superficial relationships (see sales/marketing above), though not so great at personal follow-through.
- They can use their powerful persona to shape and mold a company or work environment.
Is it really possible to work with a narcissist?
“Working with narcissists can be very difficult, as their sense of self-worth is rooted in trauma and shame,” Weiss says. “As such, they typically feel unsafe in any sort of emotionally connective relationship. They seek control and power because they think it will keep them safe from being ‘exposed’ as the unworthy frauds that they believe themselves to be.”
Problems typically arise if and when those working with and around the narcissist are non-empathetic, critical, slow to praise and impatient with the narcissist’s struggle to hold onto his/her self-esteem.
But Weiss is quick to point out: "Narcissistic people can be incredibly warm, bright, engaging, thoughtful (when they are thinking about doing that) and creative, and, as such, they may offer a great deal to any work or personal situation.”
While at face value the narcissist may seem like an impossible colleague, customer or manager, a little understanding about this particular personality type will likely go a long way in a work setting. After all, no one is perfect, and we could all benefit from applying more empathy, compassion and listening skills to those with whom we spend a great majority of our time.