Managing a Narcissist

How do you manage a narcissist?

You have a senior management team with the right balance of personality characteristics and a leader who is growth orientated. But you have a narcissist in the team whose increasing negative influence is preventing the organization from achieving its full potential (see case study, "Is she a narcissist?"). So how do you deal with the narcissist?

Narcissistic personality disorder and paranoia are closely linked, as is pathological envy.1 The paranoia that the narcissist suffers leads to a fear of failure, resulting in impairment of his or her development. As David Bell stated:2

"It is a peculiarity of the paranoid universe, a grim face full of terrifying figures which paralyses all development..."

This fear of failure, paranoia and pathological envy felt by the narcissist will ultimately result in him becoming a burden to the senior management team. Eventually the narcissist's well documented negative consequences for co-workers will take its toll.3

Narcissists are highly motivated, energetic, assertive and competitive. These characteristics relate closely to the 'Belbin' team role of Shaper, which is a leadership team role. However, the potential benefits of the narcissist's leadership characteristic are lost through his narcissism. As Dr Roy Lubit explained, "At the same time that [narcissistic] personality traits may help managers rise within an organisation, these same traits impair their ability to lead effectively."4 and as Dr Belbin stated, "The only option is the effective leader."5

It seems that it is almost inevitable these days that there will be some personality disorders in a senior management team.6 Unfortunately, in the case of narcissism there is little that the leader or other senior management team members can do for the narcissist as the likelihood of change in his personality disorder is slim. As Ronningstam and Gunderson put it, "For clinicians, the assiduous and sustained resistance to change common in patients with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) has been especially noticeable and trying."7

A common sense approach to the problems caused by the narcissist would be to challenge him by pointing out his behavioural problems and the negative influence they are having on the organisation, but this would certainly invoke their immediate denial, followed by distortion of facts. The narcissist would simply rewrite history, as Theodore Millon put it, " freely transform failures into successes, and to construct lengthy and intricate rationalizations that inflate their self-worth or justify what they believe is their right..."8 Theodore Millon and Roger Davis pointed out that narcissists, "...remember the past as they would have wanted it to occur, not as it actually happened."9

Denial, distortion and projection

According to Millon, if a narcissist is challenged for attempting to rewrite history, he may lash out and blame others:

"Narcissistic individuals may never have learned to be skillful at public deception; they usually said and did what they liked and without a care for what others thought. Their poorly conceived rationalizations may, therefore, fail to bring relief and, more seriously, may evoke scrutiny and deprecating comments from others. At these times, narcissistic people may be pushed to the point of using projection as a defense..."

So if denial and distortion fail, the next step for the narcissist is projection. Perhaps the only solution for an organisation faced with a destructive narcissist is to force him into a narcissistic breakdown. As Kernberg noted, narcissistic patients persistently deny they have any problems or limitations and consequently lack any motivation for treatment, until faced with a major failure (narcissistic breakdown).10, 11

However, James McDonald Jr (a lawyer) pointed out, "When the narcissist ultimately fails, the fall will be long and hard. Litigation is likely to result, so it is essential that the narcissist's performance problems, disruptive conduct, and abuse of others be thoroughly documented as they occur."12

If you want to know more about how to manage a narcissistic team member, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.

1 E.g. Travers, A. (1989), Shelf-Life Zero: A Classic Postmodernist Paper, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 19, Issue 3.
2 Bell, D. (2002), Ideas in psychoanalysis: Paranoia, Icon Books, UK, p. 57.
3 Campbell, W.K., Goodie, A.S. and Foster, J.D. (2004), Narcissism, Confidence, and Risk Attitude, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Vol. 17, pp. 297-311.
4 Lubit, R (2002), The long-term organizational impact of destructively marcissistic managers, Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 127-138.
5 Belbin, R.M. (1981), Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail, Heinemann, London.
6 Kets de Vries, M. (2003), The dark side of leadership, Business Strategy Review, Autumn 2003, Vol. 14, Iss. 3. p. 26.
7 Ronningstam, E. and Gunderson, J (1996), Narcissistic Personality: A Stable Disorder or a State of Mind?, Psychiatric Times, Vol. XII, Iss. 2.
8 Millon, T. (1998), 'DSM Narcissistic Personality Disorder' in Disorders of Narcissism: Diagnostic, Clinical, and Empirical Implications, American Psychiatric Press, Washington (DC), Ed. Elsa F. Ronningstam, p. 75.
9 Millon, T. and Davis, R. (2000), Personality Disorders in Modern Life, Wiley, New York, p. 294.
10 Kernberg, O. (1985), Internal World and External Reality, Jason Aronson, New York.
11 Kernberg, O. (1992), Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism, Jason Aronson, New York.
12 McDonald, J. J. (2005), The Narcissistic Plaintiff, Employee Relations Law Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, p. 97.