How to recognise and work with a narcissist

office politics, working with a narcissistOliver James’ latest book; “Office Politics” exposes a truth we all recognise – that the modern office is full of ‘triadic’ people; those who exhibit narcissist, machiavellianism and psychopathy. Plus, the more senior you look in any organisation the more likely you are to find them! While this may not be a huge surprise, what did surprise us was how much prevalent these characteristics have become over the last 30 years.

Recent research found that in 1979 just 15% of US graduates showed narcissistic traits, but this had raised to 24% by 2006, with the greatest rise amongst women. In 1979, men were much more likely to be narcissists, but by 2006 women had caught up. Talk about the wrong kind of equality!

Narcissistic leaders are fairly easy to spot but can make your life hell if you fall foul of them. They are attracted to sectors or roles that are high-stakes and where being a ‘big character’ and swagger is actually advantageous. In their personal life, they may struggle to hold onto lasting romantic relationships.

These are classic signs:

1. Attention-seeking
2. Exaggerated self-esteem
3. Taking credit where it’s not due
4. Courting high status friends and partners
5. Chasing public acclamation

So how do you manage a narcissist if you work with one? Careful use of flattery is probably the best tactic. Too frequent and they may suspect you of being disingenuous, but flattery has proven very useful as it aligns very much with their own worldview. Make it a goal to find out what identity has the most meaning for them. What do they seem most proud of? Your job is to make them show how that identity works well with what you need from them.

One Partner in a law firm we worked with repeatedly talked about how he prided himself on being ‘tough, but fair’ – it was almost a mantra for him. We were able to get him to see how better managing the two women and one Muslim man on his team, by spending more time with them than he had previously done, fit the ‘fair’ version of his self-identify. Once he got to know them as individuals, the way he had for the other three men on his team, he was more willing to sponsor their efforts for promotion as it was the ‘fair thing to do’.


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