Self-absorbed employees may have talents critical to an organization. Modifying their behavior starts with understanding their personality – and lots of patience.
No workplace is immune to the self-absorbed and self-important employee. Preoccupied with status, appearance, and power, narcissists exude a palpable sense of entitlement, often overestimate skills and abilities (while devaluing others), and can be quite comfortable manipulating others for personal gain.
They can be hard to spot at first; a sophisticated narcissist can create a terrific first impression. What will eventually be recognized as haughty arrogance and grandiose self-importance might at first be misinterpreted as bold self-confidence.
Psychologists define narcissism as a toxic personality syndrome defined by grandiosity, need for affirmation and poor empathy for others. But developmentally, not all narcissists are created equal.
Psychologists define narcissism as a toxic personality syndrome defined by grandiosity, need for affirmation and poor empathy for others. But developmentally, not all narcissists are created equal. Primary narcissists are what we often call spoiled — it’s likely that they had parents who worshipped the ground they walked on, lavished them with exaggerated and inflated praise, and failed to offer honest and balanced assessments of their child’s attributes and performance.
On the other hand, compensatory narcissists were children who may have suffered significant emotional abuse or neglect at the hands of parents. To counteract real despair and self-loathing, these children found solace in grandiose fantasy. Although this narcissistic compensation offers an effective escape from emotional pain in childhood, by adolescence and young adulthood the narcissistic behavior has become calcified and dysfunctional.
Odds are that, at some point in your managerial career, you will have to mentor a narcissist (or at least a fairly self-absorbed person).
But is it even possible to mentor a narcissist? The best mentorships are a two-way street, and effective mentees do things to facilitate and support the mentor’s efforts to guide and grow them. For instance, great mentees admit imperfection, accept correction, challenge nondefensively, transparently share areas of relative weakness and necessary development, demonstrate gratitude for a mentor’s time and commitment, and show empathy and awareness of demands on the mentor, often offering to collaborate on projects to lighten the mentor’s load.
Of course, each of these ideal mentee behaviors hinges on personal attributes and aspects of emotional intelligence often lacking in a narcissistic person.
There are other reasons that mentors may struggle in relationships with narcissistic mentees.
First, narcissists often suffer real deficits in insight about how and why they annoy others while sabotaging their own success. Psychologists describe their behavior as ego-syntonic, meaning they see their behavior as entirely legitimate. (It’s all the fools around me who don’t appreciate my special talents; they’re the ones who need to change.) These self-enhancing perceptual distortions lead them to take credit for any success and blame others for every failure.
Second, as a consequence of poor insight, narcissistic mentees are less likely to initiate mentoring relationships in the first place. (Who, me? I certainly don’t need any help.) If assigned to a mentor, they will often engage only for the purpose of criticizing others and seeking the mentor’s affirmation for their inflated self-assessments.
Third, mentoring a narcissist may pose some political risk for a mentor. Although one element of excellent mentorship is advocacy and public support, narcissistic mentees may frequently create conflict with others, perhaps reacting with unreasonable anger when questioned or criticized by colleagues or supervisors. As a consequence, the mentor may often be doing damage control and conflict mediation for this mentee.
Finally, the narcissist may not be much fun to mentor.
Although prickly, unappreciative and self-absorbed, a narcissistic employee might just possess subject matter expertise, technical skill or strategic vision critical to an organization’s success. And remember, not all narcissists are created equal. Only a few are truly maniacal egotists.
When you find yourself mentoring a narcissist, here are a few strategies for helping the mentee better understand and modify such self-sabotaging behavior at work:
Work on your empathy . Remember, chances are your narcissistic mentee is a wounded child at heart. All the bravado and arrogance amount to little more than a front for poor self-esteem and a real fear that they are worthless at the core. Try catching a glimpse of the fragile house of cards that is the narcissist’s ego. This might just stir your empathy for an interpersonally unpleasant mentee.
Listen and discern. In building empathy, excellent mentors listen for the narcissist’s vision of who they should be. It is important to understanding how and why the narcissist feels unworthy at their core. Unlocking this hidden shame may allow the mentor to build the mentee’s self-awareness while helping them to realize their vision.
Begin with mirroring . Here is a paradox: Narcissistic behavior often provokes others to respond with criticism and put-downs designed to put the narcissist in their place. In effect, the narcissist generates the very behavior they fear in others. Rather than fall into this pattern with your mentee, work hard at starting with affirmation, understanding, and acceptance. Referred to as mirroring, wise mentors are careful to reflect a positive appraisal of mentees and their basic worth early on. For instance, you might initially frame arrogance and entitlement as unusual self-confidence. By mirroring back unconditional respect and acceptance of the narcissist, you might just lower defenses, thereby opening the door to some self-awareness.
Use Socratic questions to build insight. Rather than directly confronting narcissistic behavior, try dispassionate Socratic questioning. If the mentee complains that other people don’t respect them, you can ask something like, “I wonder why so many people have that reaction to you?” You can also be more specific. You might say, “I’ve observed that some people seem to think you are arrogant. Can you think of any reasons why people might see you that way?” or “Help me understand what was going through your mind when so-and-so questioned your expertise.” Such gentle but persistent queries are often a best bet when it comes to lowering defensiveness and setting the stage for personal insight and change.
In conflict, lead with how you feel. Psychologist Bernardo Tirado reflects that when difficult conversations and confrontations are necessary with a narcissist, always lead off with how your mentee made you feel. Because the narcissist lacks empathy, such feeling-oriented disclosures can get the conversation away from who is to blame and refocused on the real problem: the mentee’s impact on other people.
Take care of yourself. Mentoring a narcissist won’t be easy. Caring and empathic by nature, even the best mentors may feel appalled by the vivid anger and intense dislike a narcissistic mentee can engender.
Brad Johnson, PhD., is a professor of psychology at the United States Naval Academy. David G. Smith, PhD., is an active duty U.S. Navy captain and associate professor of sociology at the U.S. Naval War College.
Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.