How To Deal With The Office Narcissist

A new study suggests the key to coping with the self-absorbed is surprisingly simple.

You’re so vain, you probably think this article is about you, don’t you?

The office narcissist is a perplexing creature: A social butterfly with a nasty sting, and a bad habit of taking all the credit or talking endlessly about himself.

We all exist on a fluctuating, complicated scale of confidence. Too little and we don’t look after our own needs; too much and we’re running all over each other. Even if the brazen in your office aren’t full-blown narcissists, certain moments—being criticized in front of a group, failing to take blame for a bombed project—can flare up anyone's delicate ego.

A new study from researchers at the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton looks at the pliancy of highly narcissistic people.

For the study, researchers separated the 282 online volunteers into low- and high-ranking narcissists. As expected, the higher a person scored on the scale, the less likely they were to respond to reading scenarios of other people’s problems. Severely narcissistic people showed no empathy—until they were asked for it.

Turns out, there’s hope: they can be swayed to feel empathy for others, and the trick is almost too easy, the study found. Could the key to peace with a narcissist be as simple as asking them to see things from your perspective? Before you write someone off as a social vampire, try these tips for handling life with your local narcissist.

How to deal with narcissists

There's no magic formula for making nice, but keep these tips in mind:

Understand them. It’s important to understand the difference between your average "functioning narcissist" and someone suffering from clinically diagnosed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. "People high in subclinical narcissism are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted, often even very successful, whereas people with NPD are inflexible and volatile, and don’t manage day-to-day life well," said lead researcher Erica Hepper.

Most garden-variety narcissists are happy with life—they’re the best at everything, after all—but know they have tendencies to be self-absorbed (and might not care). Clinical NPD bars them from seeing the damage they do to their relationships.

Be upfront. It’s not always possible to avoid the office peacock, especially if he’s on your team. Avoiding looks a lot like ignoring, anyway: A huge affront to someone who’s the sun in their own solar system.

Here’s where that study takes an interesting turn: The researchers gave their subjects a 10-minute documentary about a woman suffering in spousal abuse. They were asked to "imagine how she feels," taking the woman’s perspective. The low-narcissists remained unmoved; the high-narcissists, however, felt the distress as their own. Perspective-taking even raised their heart rate. They weren’t faking it to save face.

"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," Dr. Hepper said in a press release.

If all else fails, play the game. These findings don’t mean you should sidle up to the right hand of your narcissistic boss, as long as you sugar-coat your need for empathy. The tendency to split every situation and person into "good" and "bad," Forbes explains, carries from childhood to adulthood in these individuals; this means they’ll exalt your accomplishments one moment, and pull the rug from under you the next.

Being careful with how you present negative feedback, and keeping your relationship strictly, guardedly professional, may be the only way to cope. Befriending a high-level narcissist at work is a risky move.

How to be a nicer narcissist

Does all of this sound familiar? Set the smugness aside, and try these tricks. Your coworkers will thank you.

Recognize it. Hold up a mirror with this quiz from Psych Central—similar to the one the study volunteers took—and see where you rank.

If you’re not proud of the results (although, if you’re a true narcissist, maybe you’re a little proud), here’s how you can make the workplace a little more pleasant for everyone:

Practice bilateral listening. Listening to yourself, as well as the other person, is a huge step in making long-term relationships work. Bilateral listening is a skill narcissist are missing: They listen only to hear a pause in conversation that lets them in. Instead, listen for points you can agree with.

Replace "but" with "and." Swapping these tiny words can shift the perspective in a conversation massively. According to Psychology Today:

"But negates your prior agreement. It subtracts, dismisses and eliminates whatever came before, undoing your initial good efforts to understand others' points. Instead of using but, link others' thoughts and yours with either and or and at the same time. That way instead of indulging in the narcissistic patterns of ignoring and disputing others' viewpoints, you will begin to be able to add others' viewpoints to your own."

Cool off. Narcissists find themselves in tense situations more often than others, regardless of who’s to blame. Setting aside the issue until both parties are calm and collected will make everyone look better in the long run.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Quine]

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2 Comments

  • With the number of billionaires increasing rapidly, we need to remind them they face a responsibility, and remind them of the suffering and lack of justice in the world, ask them to feel what it is like to be born into a country with few opportunities, where you have to work harder than even they did just to eat and get basic shelter. I wish the execs at rich companies like Apple would put themselves in the minds of such people, see how they feel as if it were them. If they actually did this it could make a difference.

  • Great piece, just ask for what we want, ask for understanding. Don't be a victim, try something.

    We need to say this to many super rich who believe their deserve it , and spend too much of it on fleets of fast cars etc. When every small donation to the right charity makes a big difference. It may help if we remind them of studies in psychology showing that expensive things - only produce a buzz for a short while - then we gets used to their differences.