Leading Difficult People, Part 3: The Narcissist

April 20, 2021

We’ve all seen them, heard them or even worked for them: people who think they are truly above others. They are great. They are superior. The things they do are very special or the absolute best. They recoil when they are told they are wrong. And they turn aggressive in the face of a real or perceived afront. I’m talking about people with a narcissistic personality style.

So how can you work with someone who reflexively rejects or attacks anything that doesn’t align with their worldview? It is possible to get a different response from narcissists. But it requires taking another approach than the one many of us tend to use.

Understanding the Narcissist

There is a common misconception that narcissists have a low sense of self. Narcissists actually have a high, but fragile sense of self. This makes the sense of self unstable, which is why they so often seek approval, acclaim and recognition. And it’s why they attack when they feel threatened, rejected or shamed — or even when they perceive a neutral difference of opinion as a criticism.

The key to dealing with narcissists is appealing to their need for admiration and recognition. Too many people think that the way to do this is the old “praise sandwich” method: giving an affirming statement before and after a criticism. Conceptually, this may sound really good. But it is less likely to work for narcissists for two reasons:

  1. Narcissists tend to ignore or not hear criticism altogether.
  2. Our brains have what is called a primacy-recency effect. We remember what we heard first and last and forget what came in the middle.

A Better Way to Deal With Narcissists

Working successfully with a narcissist requires using praise more strategically. It’s all about nudging their behavior by the aspects of it that you choose to praise. Please note, however, that “strategically” doesn’t mean “disingenuously.” Your behavior must be authentic and affirm your respect for them. While this may not be easy to do, it will be necessary to achieve your desired outcome – getting the narcissist to consider they might be wrong and change their mind.

What does strategic praise look like? First, praise the right things. If you want a narcissist to change their mind on a decision about strategic direction, it would be a mistake to praise them on their strategy or decision-making. Instead, praise them on their leadership or communication abilities. Also, remember that all of us, particularly narcissists, become more open in one area when we feel stronger and more supported in another.

Here’s one more research-based tidbit that might be useful: Narcissists are less aggressive and less selfish after being told that they are athletic or funny. But you should only use these points of praise if they truly apply to the person you’re speaking with.

As with the other types of difficult people we’ve discussed in this blog series, the challenge for most of us in working with narcissists will be our willingness to set our immediate needs aside and meet the needs of others first. That becomes a lot easier to do if we understand that our needs will indeed be met in the end, if we do what we need to do – in a genuine way – in the moment.

This is the third of four blogs about personality styles that you may find in people who make work and life difficult. You can catch up on Part 1 (know-it-alls) and Part 2 (stubborn people) at these links. The next blog in this series will discuss a disagreeable personality style.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

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