Article week 04 – 2024

The Sun King – Dealing with Narcissists

Inspired by the beautiful Narcissus, who could love no one but himself – in the form of his own reflection in the water – we speak of people with excessive self-love as narcissists. They also appear in the professional world, and depending on their manifestation, can pose a risk to the company. Therefore, it is sensible to engage more closely with this phenomenon. In everyday life, we cannot make a deep psychological diagnosis of colleagues and superiors, but it is certainly worth taking a closer look at people who increasingly display narcissistic behavior.

The scale begins with healthy and socially compatible self-confidence, extends to annoying „pushing oneself to the forefront“ to occupy the spotlight, and goes as far as maliciously aggressive behavior towards supposed enemies. A narcissist has an exaggerated desire for attention and recognition. He is convinced that he is something very special and uniquely brilliant, and therefore expects unconditional support and positive reinforcement up to open admiration. In pursuit of his goals, he is ruthless and often unscrupulous in his choice of means. If it serves his purpose, he manipulates his entire environment.

A narcissist often makes it to leadership positions. The opportunity for companies lies in the fact that the energy and persuasiveness of the narcissist can motivate his team to peak performance. His risk-taking – the „courage to leave a gap“ and his determination – sometimes bring about excellent results, like the invention of the iPhone or the construction of the Palace of Versailles. Of course, he attributes the team’s and others‘ successes to himself. Those who claim a share in „his“ success and want a share in the glory experience what it would be like trying to steal prey from a pack of hyenas.

Herein lies the danger for companies. Employees and colleagues generally do not want to be treated this way and will defend themselves as soon as they realize what their leader is really like. Absenteeism, reduced performance, and high turnover are often the flipside, and every company should ask whether the short-lived successes are really worth these consequences.

Things get even worse when it doesn’t go well. The narcissist is highly sensitive to criticism, which he takes as a personal insult. In the event of failure, the narcissist naturally blames others (or claims, for example, that the elections were manipulated). As a result, no fruitful exchange takes place in the team; in the worst case, employees and colleagues let him race towards the abyss with obvious bad decisions, because they have learned that it is not only useless but also punished to intervene.

This is also difficult in the call center environment. The frequent content exchange between agent and team manager in coaching, workshops, and team meetings inherently carries the risk of conflicts. If this is already a tightrope walk with a lot of empathy, goodwill, and mutual respect, the idea that a narcissist is involved is frightening. In customer service, it is more common for not the supervisor but the employee to display narcissistic traits. In the past, I have often experienced strenuous discussions – even on the call floor – and had to give corrective feedback. It is particularly offensive when a discussion between agent and customer erupts, and it is important to the employee to be „right.“ He possibly enjoys being unable to/must not help the customer („Unfortunately, I can’t help you further, you should have called yesterday“ can sound very sarcastic). Here a clear red line is crossed. Decisive action from the start is indicated, as the impact on CX is devastating.

So, what to do? As supervisors, we have the obligation to protect our team, the organization, and the customers. We cannot tolerate this behavior and must treat the narcissist accordingly. As colleagues or employees, we need to protect ourselves if we don’t want to lose the joy at work. The reaction will depend on our own position within the team/company, our (frustration) tolerance, and our alternatives.

Some tips for dealing with the situation (especially for colleagues of the narcissist):

  1. Recognize the signals: If you notice examples of some of the behaviors described above, you should become suspicious and sensitive to further clues.
  2. Don’t take it personally: You could walk on water, and he would criticize you for not being able to swim. Don’t question yourself, but the overall situation.
  3. CYA – Be prepared: If you find yourself in a situation where you need to justify your actions or take measures, it’s good to have a collection of evidence at hand.
  4. Keep your distance: If a narcissist doesn’t receive recognition from you, you become uninteresting to him, and he will leave you alone.
  5. Exchange with others: Speak with your colleagues to see if their perception matches yours and support each other.
  6. Criticize carefully: If you have to criticize the narcissist, wrap your criticism in praise, and never do it publicly.
  7. Set boundaries: Make it clear that you demand respect in the interaction, but don’t expect too much.
  8. Seek help: It is not a sign of weakness to seek help when needed. The HR department should be able to support you.
  9. Pull the plug: Before you suffer harm yourself, take your leave.

For supervisors the following additionally applies:

  1. Prioritize the team: The overall success counts, not the glory of an individual – including yourself.
  2. Make it very clear to a narcissist that there is a zero-tolerance-policy for inappropriate behavior.
  3. Watch closely if the line to bullying is crossed, talk to HR.

If necessary, part ways with the narcissist. Narcissists in companies – especially in leadership positions – are not harmless annoyances but poison the company culture sustainably and cause medium- and long-term damage. The spotlight they claim for themselves ultimately leaves nothing but scorched earth.

To be clear: Not every confident employee or supervisor is a narcissist, not at all. On the contrary – a truly extreme and risky manifestation is relatively rare. However, narcissists do occur. It helps to be aware of the mechanisms at play – just in case.

Lars Scheffen – Senior Consultant


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