We’ve all worked with a toxic coworker before, though they take many forms: there are those who never seem to do their share of work, or those who always are throwing someone under the bus. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, there are even some who are psychopaths.
But what about working with a narcissist? You’ve probably heard a lot about them—pop culture and politics are rife with examples—and of course much of what you’ve heard is not good.
So, if you think your colleague who is always going on about their achievements, or taking credit for your work may be a narcissist, you may be wondering whether there’s anything you can do to protect yourself.
But as it turns out, not all narcissists are bad. The first move is to identify what sort you’re working with. What all narcissists have in common is a belief that they’re special and have more to offer the world than the world has to offer them. As a result, narcissists often angle for positions of leadership that enable them to influence the thoughts and actions of others.
A field guide to narcissists
Because of their belief that they are special, grandiose narcissists may not listen as effectively as they could. As a result, they miss out on learning opportunities. They also tend to like to see their own ideas succeed, and so making these narcissists feel like an idea is theirs is helpful.
But, many people in leadership positions from politicians to business professionals to actors have this kind of narcissism. And some of them do a lot of good in the world.
If you find yourself working with a grandiose narcissist, you do need to recognize that you will have some difficulty getting credit for your contributions, because narcissists tend to co-opt the credit for things happening within their sphere of influence.
That said, narcissists who are good at their jobs will also find ways to be recognized for their achievements. If you’re a good colleague to your fellow narcissist, you may get pulled into that person’s inner circle and may have a chance to rise upward in the organization with them.
Unfortunately, not every narcissist is benign. In particular, vulnerable narcissists are people who have the characteristics of grandiose narcissists, but they also prop up their self-confidence and self-esteem through the energy and accolades of others. Vulnerable narcissists feed off your energy. As a result, they need constant reinforcement of their significance and importance.
When you are in the narcissist’s good graces, you can feel special, because these narcissists create a sense of an exclusive community. However, if you criticize a vulnerable narcissist or even fail to support their ideas, they may fly into a narcissistic rage. They will also talk badly about you to others.
Even when you feel like you’re in the good graces of the vulnerable narcissist, it is unlikely to help your career. For the vulnerable narcissist, credit is a zero-sum game. They will take the credit for everyone else’s successes, but they will also spread the blame for failures out among others without taking any share of it for themselves. As a result, you will have a hard time getting noticed for your achievements by anyone above you in the organization.
What to do
Frankly, your best strategy when dealing with a vulnerable narcissist is to stay as far away as possible. Eventually, everyone who spends time around a vulnerable narcissist will come to feel that person’s wrath.
Finally, if that vulnerable narcissist is not just a coworker but your supervisor, you need to find a way out from working under that person. If you can find an ally elsewhere in the organization, use your connections to see if you can get transferred to another unit. If not, keep your résumé updated, and do your best to find another job. Otherwise, your work life will feel like a constant struggle to avoid being the target of the next outburst.