3 secrets to dealing with narcissistic people at work — and in life

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You know that co-worker who makes everything about him? Or the boss who is always bragging about her life while never asking about yours? Or the brother-in-law who must turn every family gathering into a fight because of his jealousy and patronizing tone?

These troublesome colleagues, managers, friends or relatives may have narcissistic personality traits. While only a trained expert can diagnose someone with narcissistic personality disorder — in fact, whether it is a diagnosable condition at all has been the subject of debate within the psychology community — traits like needing constant praise and a "grandiose sense of self-importance" are hallmarks of narcissistic behavior and can make relating to others especially difficult. From the outside, working with someone who has even slightly narcissistic tendencies can be frustrating.

But whether the person you're trying to work with has a diagnosed personality disorder or not doesn't really matter; the strategies for adapting to narcissistic personality traits remain the same. Rather than getting angry or trying to fight fire with fire, you can use tactics proven in the field to prevent conflict and dysfunctional behavior from hurting you or other members of your group.

The three tips below will help you survive working or interacting with a narcissistic person — and even help improve your relationship with them. 

1. Set healthy peer examples

Give people the benefit of the doubt. "Many narcissists have a great deal to give once their self-love doesn't cloud the observer's eyes to what is really there," Michael S. Dobson explains in his book Working with Difficult People.

Indeed, encouraging a narcissistic person to exhibit more-positive traits will help the individual and his or her co-workers alike, as it helps in building strong, healthy working relationships. "Set up a situation where acts of caring and kindness are aligned with admiration and success," the book Narcissism Epidemic explains. "Show narcissists that they can get their narcissistic needs met by acting like decent, caring people."

Making people with narcissistic personality traits part of a strong, cohesive team is a good way to set up this type of environment: "A group setting makes dysfunctional acting out more noticeable, more controllable, more discussable and therefore less acceptable," according to Harvard Business Review

Members of the group can be helpful in encouraging positive behavior because "Feedback from multiple team members is harder for narcissists to ignore," as HBR explains. Plus, "for narcissists, it’s often less threatening to receive feedback from peers, rather than from a single person or leader."

2. Avoid a showdown

Direct confrontation with a narcissistic person rarely works. According to Principles of Social Psychology, "Narcissists may be obnoxious, continually interrupting and bullying others and they may respond very negatively to criticism."

Instead of confronting a narcissistic individual, gently prompt the person to think about the impact of their negative behaviors: "Don't tell them how people might react; instead ask probing questions," Albert Bernstein wrote in Am I The Only Sane One Working Here?: 101 Solutions for Surviving Office Insanity. If a narcissistic person recognizes on his or her own that such behavior is eliciting a poor reaction, that individual is more likely to change voluntarily.

In a group setting, peer responses can also help change behaviors. Encouraging team members to — politely — interrupt if the narcissist goes on for too long can help the narcissist to realize "he didn’t always need to be the smartest person in the room," according to HBR

Direct confrontation won't help when dealing with a narcissist.
Direct confrontation won't help when dealing with a narcissist. Brett Eldredge/Giphy

3. Suggest a perspective shift

Narcissists are focused on themselves, but getting them to consider the viewpoints of others may be as simple as asking them to try. When researchers instructed narcissists to watch a documentary about a domestic violence victim and to "imagine how she feels," high-narcissists — individuals the authors classified as more narcissistic than the average person — "reported significantly higher empathy" after considering the woman's perspective.

When measuring physiological reactions, high-narcissists didn't naturally experience symptoms associated with empathy — like a measurably higher heart rate — when exposed to someone else's distress. But, if they were asked to consider the distressed person's perspective, they experienced a physiological response on par with lower-narcissists, or participants having lower levels of narcissism than the average person. 

"If we encourage narcissists to consider the situation from their teammate or friend's point of view, they are likely to respond in a much more considerate or sympathetic way," the lead researcher concluded.

How can you be even more effective? Create a safe, trusting environment in which empathy-challenged people can explore boundaries, HBR advised. Narcissistic individuals who develop their emotional skills can build better relationships and have more positive interactions at work and at home. 

In short: A narcissist on a strong team, in a playful space, with the right feedback, could have a much easier time letting positive traits show. That will make his or her life better and yours, too.

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