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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism

There's a Narcissist in the Office! (What Do I Do?)

The only way to win with a toxic person is not to play

Young woman with a cup of coffee
Image courtesy of Quan Le

Are your difficult coworkers or bosses just controlling and self-important blowhards? Or are they something much worse? 

Could your colleague be a narcissist?

If you work with someone who has an inflated sense of their own importance and distinct lack of empathy for others, you may be rubbing elbows with a narcissist. Be careful: Whether clinically diagnosed with the personality disorder or not, these arrogant and overbearing colleagues can have an intense psychological impact on those around them and make life miserable.

So what are the signs to look for that you’re working for or with a narcissist? And what can you do about it? Is there any way to successfully handle that person in a professional manner so you can keep the job you love?

Read more: What to Do When the Workplace Bully Is Your Boss

Signs you’re working with a narcissist

Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re working with a highly self-assured, assertive person or a narcissist. Plus, some narcissism is healthy. 

In fact, Dr. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, tells InHerSight there are some advantages to having the right amount of narcissistic tendencies. “For example, narcissistic people are more likely to engage in physical activity, present a positive and professional self-image, have better grooming habits, and are more likely to seek and apply for jobs or promotions,” she says.

The problem is that while “some of the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like strong self-confidence, narcissism goes beyond that to the point of putting yourself above others and valuing yourself more than others,” Marsden explains. “With this disorder, people have an inflated sense of self, they feel that they are more important than other people and they have a deep need for admiration from others. They usually also lack empathy. However, behind these behaviors is a very fragile sense of self-esteem. Their façade can crack easily with the slightest criticism.”

Read more: 3 Practical Ways to Relieve Stress

There’s also the fact that the way narcissists present can be confusing. Some are very aggressive, loud, and in-your-face, while others are more introverted and anxious. They’re good at gaslighting colleagues, using passive-aggressive language and behaviors. They’ll put you down and then say “just joking!” You might even think you’re a close friend until suddenly you notice you’re being excluded and they “forget” to tell you about meetings.

But, some signs that you may be working with a narcissist are the same, no matter how their narcissistic tendencies present:

  • They like talking about themselves and their accomplishments to the exclusion of everything else. They like the sound of their own voice. They dominate meetings.

  • They’re not good listeners. When you’re talking, they’re not really listening. They’re waiting for you to stop so they can start again.

  • They’re jealous of anyone else’s success.

  • They’re bullies.

  • They’ll lash out in public for mistakes they made, denying responsibility, in order to preserve their self-esteem.

  • They’re unreliable. They make promises, like committing to deadlines and new projects, and then don’t keep them.

  • They take some or all credit for your ideas and work. Then they’ll twist the narrative so they come out as the wounded party.

  • They can't take criticism, and will always blame others, even if it means lying in the face of irrefutable evidence.

  • Their low self-esteem means they take offense easily.

Read more: Is Your Coworker a Control Freak? 4 Steps to Standing Up for Yourself

How to handle the narcissist in the office

Working with a narcissistic personality, especially if that person is your boss, can be so nightmarish that you may think leaving is your only option, but there are steps you can take to stop the abuse.

“One easy strategy to dealing with them is to avoid them the best you can and do your job to the best of your abilities,” Marsden explains. “If they try to interact with you, politely decline or say that you need to get back to work. In order for this strategy to be effective though, you must do your best not to get involved in any office gossip regarding the narcissistic coworker. Remove yourself from the situation and people will eventually get the picture—as will the narcissist—that you do not want to be involved.”

Read more: 6 Times You Did Not Overreact

Keep records and have witnesses

While you’re doing your utmost to disengage, document everything. If your boss gives you a task or project verbally, document that request. Email confirmation of their instructions and loop in key people including HR. Transparency helps keep narcissists honest, because they don’t want to lose face. Keep records of text messages and voicemails too whenever possible. And remember to keep all of this information on your own phone, not a company-issued device, so if you leave the company, it can’t be confiscated.

In addition to documenting everything, try to always have at least one witness at your meetings with the office narcissist. This can help keep the encounter on a professional footing, and your witness can confirm exactly what took place, should it become necessary.

Keeping it professional means that you never share anything that could leave you vulnerable to the narcissist. You might be tempted to do that when they befriend you early on, but they’ll use that private information against you later when they invariably fall out with you. And because they are liars, they may make up stories based on kernels of truth from those conversations to feed to your colleagues.

Don’t engage in the battle

Avoid engaging with the office narcissist when they’re accusing you of lying or ineptitude. Keep conversations professional and limit the time you spend with them. You don’t want to be drawn into the drama they create. This is where having a stock of disarming statements can come in handy.

In her video, Breakthrough Coaching founder and president Lisa A. Romano says there are certain phrases to use to disarm the narcissist and shut them down. These include:

  • I can accept your faulty perception of me.

  • I’m sorry you feel that way.

  • Your anger is not my responsibility.

You can also try “grey rocking” them. Psychotherapist Ellen Biros says this “strategy involves becoming the most boring and uninteresting person you can be when interacting with a manipulative person.” In other words, they might stop trying to bully you if you are polite but non-responsive.

Read more: 13 Signs of a Toxic Workplace & When It Becomes Illegal 

Know your rights and resources

If it’s time to take this up the chain at work, first check your employer’s workplace policy regarding harassment or bullying. Follow any procedures that are in place to guide you. You may learn that your organization has a hotline. According to Ethical Advocate, “virtually every major company in the United States runs an ethics hotline.” You can use this to report bad behavior anonymously.

Make use of your allies in the office too. Not only as witnesses who have your back and can vouch for you, but also as sources of encouragement. You’ll find that support easily if you work in a company that has a zero-tolerance policy for abusive behaviors.  

Meet with your human resources department, detailing the behaviors you’ve been subjected to by your narcissistic colleague, backed by documentation. Have witnesses to that behavior (or coworkers who have experienced their own abuse by the narcissist) in the meeting with you.

Your legal options include speaking to an attorney or to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC can help you determine if the harassment you’re suffering is a form of employment discrimination.

And finally: Why not just leave? Even if you love your job, why bother fighting the toxic environment created by the narcissist?

“When you tolerate the intolerable, you condone unfathomable atrocities and advocate for toxic work culture, abuse, and dehumanization,” writes epigenetic coach and executive consultant Rajkumari Neogy. By reporting the narcissist, you’ll be helping reestablish a healthy corporate culture and workplace environment for yourself—and everyone else.

Read more: How to Apologize for Your Late Email

About our source

A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. She specializes in human development, motivation, emotion and attitudes, abnormal psychology, including PTSD, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and eating disorders, human sexuality, and health psychology. Marsden also specializes in organizational behavior, leadership, organizational culture, social psychology, motivation, emotion, and attitudes and serves as an industrial/organizational psychologist with Thought Leadership Leverage in New York.

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