Have you ever had to deal with a narcissist at work or in your personal life? Chances are the answer is “yes” since a major study on the prevalence of narcissistic personality disorder indicates that over 5% of the general population exhibit the traits of this disorder, with a higher occurrence among men and young adults- it’s no wonder the Silicon Valley biopics always have plenty of drama for their story lines! The disorder occurs on a spectrum, from a healthy serving of ego to true pathological behavior; fortunately most of us have only had to deal with the milder cases, though such people can still be challenging.
A recent experience at work made me think about narcissism and the best way to address such behaviors in the workplace or your personal life. I am working on a project that has been taking shape for over a year, at this point, and involves collaboration across departments within my office and across offices within the broader organization. Without getting into all of the details, while I initially made the connection, pinpointed the interest, and got the project rolling, one of the high-level supervisors in my office has come to believe that this was all his idea and that the entire idea was spurred by his conversation with the other office’s director. This supervisor [let’s call him Narcisso] is known to be egocentric and arrogant, classifying people based on his evaluation of their intelligence and academic degrees earned. While based on these metrics I am on his “good side,” it doesn’t make Narcisso’s attitude less grating or this experience less frustrating.
At our most recent meeting to finalize the deliverable, Narcisso repeated multiple times how he just “can’t believe” all of this has come from his initial idea. There have been many moments in the process when I’ve wanted to yell, “It wasn’t YOUR idea!!!” I’ve always chosen to hold my tongue and focus on the positive impact of the work, not overly-acknowledging his comments or role but not denying those claims, either. Which made me wonder, am I devaluing my work (and myself) by staying silent, or is this the right approach?
Four questions to consider
In exploring the topic, the general consensus seems to be that you should NOT confront a narcissist, especially the more toxic types. As infuriating as this advice may sound, it makes sense because the person is likely unwilling or unable to acknowledge faults on their part, so confrontation probably won’t lead to a satisfying out come for you. That being said, there are some other factors I think are important to consider when determining how to deal with the narcissist in your office:
What is the hierarchy?
In my example, Narcisso is a high-level supervisor, so confrontation could have more negative consequences. On the other hand, if this were a new hire of equal stature who claimed ideas generated by me or by a group were solely his, I would have a conversation where I made it clear I disagreed with his approach (even if it didn’t lead to change) and, if needed, involve my supervisor.
What is the property value?
Narcisso claimed credit for spurring an idea; while this is important to me, this was not a massive flagship project and did not take up the bulk of my time and efforts, so the “property” value was relatively low. On the other hand, if this were an idea that was a game-changer, a product for which intellectual property rights and patents came into question, or a project that demanded all of your blood, sweat, and tears, the property value would skyrocket!
Is your work still being validated?
Since Narcisso has been in his position for ages, everyone knows he acts this way and that behind the self-centered monologue there were others who contributed to achieving the project or the organization’s goals. It’s still possible for me to get professional credit for working on projects with him, even if he claims ownership over the idea. However, if you are in a situation where your professional accomplishments are being erased from consideration, you should at the very least document all of your contributions so there is proof of the work you did.
What are the degrees of separation?
In your personal life, it would be much easier to deal with a narcissistic acquaintance than a narcissistic romantic partner; a similar dynamic plays out at work. Since I only interact or work with Narcisso occasionally, it’s much easier to cope. However, if your Narcisso is a direct supervisor or a colleague with whom you share most of your duties, you may feel called to have a conversation in order to be able to continue your work at that organization. Of course, the closer you are, the more delicate the conversation can become if you’re approaching someone unlikely to validate your feelings.
When dealing with a narcissist at work, the question of whether or not to confront your version of Narcisso is a key one to consider. The other key question, of course, is whether you want to stay in a job where you have to deal with a narcissist! In my case, I can easily move on and even have a sense of humor about the situation; as one coworker says, “When Narcisso starts to go off on an ego tangent, I just hum the note “Mi” [sounds like “Me”] over and over in my head: Mi-mi-mi-mi-mi!” There can even be positive outcomes from working with a narcissist whose perfectionism and passion pushes the team to greater results. However, if you find that you can no longer define any of your own goals at work, or find yourself changing fundamental career choices and goals based on what your Narcisso values, then be careful: A narcissist can make a convincing point as to why their values matter, but you should ultimately define what matters to YOU in your career and life.
How have you coped with a narcissist at work? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section below or Tweet @pracpassionista!